Getting to Know Soul Food

Soul Food

Photo Credit: Steven Depolo

Origin of Soul food can be traced back to the time when slavery existed in the United States. It is a cuisine with a long political history; it is also a testament to African-American creativity. People have discovered what an indescribable delight soul food can be, and it is amazing that it all started with scraps, leftovers, and the less desirable vegetables and cuts of meat.

Soul Food Over Two Centuries Ago

In “Soul Food”, a Brief History”, the African American Registry reviews the beginnings of soul food back: “Soul Food is a term used for an ethnic cuisine, food traditionally prepared and eaten by African Americans of the Southern United States. Many of the various dishes and ingredients included in “soul food” are also regional meals and comprise a part of other Southern US cooking, as well. The style of cooking originated during American slavery. African slaves were given only the “leftover” and “undesirable” cuts of meat from their masters (while the white slave owners got the meatiest cuts of ham, roasts, etc.).”

Apart from the leftovers from the slave owners’ tables, the slaves also expanded their food choices by growing their own vegetables. The African American Registry adds, “We also had only vegetables grown for ourselves. After slavery, many, being poor, could afford only off-cuts of meat, along with offal. Farming, hunting and fishing provided fresh vegetables, fish and wild game, such as possum, rabbit, squirrel and sometimes waterfowl. Africans living in America at the time (and since) more than made do with the food choices we had to work with…”

The Most Popular Soul Food

Today there is a long list of popular dishes categorized as soul food. Although the contemporary versions of these dishes may have been revised and enhanced, there is no denying their origin or their rich flavor.

  • Ham hocks. A ham hock is the joint between the foot and the ham. It is composed mainly of skin, bone, and tendons. However, because ham hocks cured and seasoned along with the ham, these are usually full of flavor. In soul food, they are traditionally used with greens, other vegetables, and legumes. Ham hocks require a lot of cooking time before they are tender enough to be palatable.
  • Ox tail. The bony, gelatin-rich tail of cattle is usually braised and slow-cooked to make a rich stew. While today ox tail is a pricey meat cut in both Oriental and Latino store, it was often discarded as an undesirable piece during the days of slavery.
  • Fatback. The fatty part of a butchered pig, usually the belly portion, was salted and cured to make fatback. Like ham hocks, fatback was popular as a means to add flavor to vegetables, greens, and legumes.
  • Collard greens. Collard greens are a popular vegetable in the cuisine of the South in the United States. Collard greens are usually prepared with ham hocks, pork neck bones, fatback, or ham bone. ‘
  • Fried catfish. This was usually flavored with salt, pepper, and paprika, then dredged in cornmeal and flour, then fried.
  • Black-eyed peas. The peas are usually soaked in water overnight, rinsed, and boiled in water. When soft, the beans are seasoned with salt and pepper. Onions, garlic, and bacon are added to provide flavor. Black-eyed peas are traditionally served with rice and are believed to bring good luck when eaten on New Year’s Day.
  • Chitterlings. Chitterlings are hog intestines and they are frequently cooked with hog maws (jowls). The challenge in creating a dish of chitterlings lies in making sure everything is clean. The intestines and the hog maw are boiled till fork tender, seasoned with salt, pepper, chopped onions and vinegar. The meats are sliced fine and served with rice

From Slave Food to Gourmet Delight

Today, no one thinks of soul food as “make-do” food. In Soul Food, an article on this tradition-rich cuisine, the Gutsy Gourmet says, “This term originated from the cuisine developed by the African slaves mainly from the American South. A dark and despicable period in the history of the United States resulted in a cuisine fashioned from the meager ingredients available to the slave and sharecropper black families. The meat used was the least desirable cuts and the vegetables, some bordering on weeds, were all that was available for the black slaves to prepare nutritious meals for their families. From these meager ingredients evolved a cuisine that is simple yet hearty and delicious…”

Indeed, instead of being food from scraps, soul food is now the very essence of rich flavors and indulgence.

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