By Bishop-elect Paula Clark

There is a spirituality of food, it’s been captured in popular culture, such as in the movie and television series “Soul Food.” That notion of soul food is intimately tied to the consumer of the food. Soul food is cooked, not just according to recipes, but in compliance with the wishes and preferences of the partaker.  

I take my point of preference from my experience as a Black woman. While I have enjoyed soul food, from the White community, most experiences land with soul food prepared in the Black community. For special dinners or outings associated with popular culture in White settings, the spirituality of soul food from the Black community shines through from Sunday dinners to religious holidays.

Let’s talk a little bit about Sunday dinner. My mother would always talk about how the itinerant Black preacher would have Sunday dinners with her family. Parts of the chicken were set aside specifically for the preacher, the head of household, the preparer of the chicken and the children, so each consumer of the chicken knew which part he or she would get and how it would be prepared. The itinerant preacher’s preference took precedence. He liked fried chicken, so that’s what was prepared. Another itinerant preacher, say myself, Bishop-elect Paula Clark, would have preferred baked chicken, so that’s what would have been prepared for the family. 

The presence of God is found in the detailed care of preparing soul food. Further God emerges in such ways like the crispness of the chicken and the saltiness found in its preparation.  Whether baked or fried, the salt is a big part. Go to the book of Luke. Luke talks about salt. Luke 14:34 says, “Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” The preparer of the meat, or any dish for that matter, has to be cognizant of how much salt to use or it’s ruined. The amount of seasoning must be just right in order to meet the needs of everyone, just like the works of our Creator.  

Prior to Thanksgiving, many television programs asked, “Do you prefer the turkey or do you prefer the side dishes?” Overwhelmingly, people cite the side dishes as their preference. When fixing soul food, the preparer keeps in mind the preferences of his or her consumer.  For instance, when I make mashed sweet potatoes, I make them specifically for my daughter, she can’t eat nuts and does not like cinnamon, so none will be found in this dish. What takes over is whipped milk, brown sugar, marshmallows and butter. Were it not soul food for my daughter, Micha, it would be prepared with cinnamon and nutmeg, but because it is soul food, her needs, preferences and wishes take precedence. Likewise, stuffing has no red meat, according to my preferences, but celery, onion, cornbread and oysters for a filling side dish that feeds mine and my families’ souls. Soul food takes in account the person’s preferences in their entry towards God.  You get the entry towards God because it’s so good, and as a family we say that we’re grateful for all God’s bounty and goodness, before, during and after we consume the gifts presented before us, which fill the stomach and satisfy the soul.

I am just returning home after four weeks in a hospital and rehabilitation setting, post a serious brain emergency. While pieces of my cerebellum may have been removed, my taste buds remain intact. I contend there is no spirituality of food in a hospital setting, because a hospital must meet the dietary needs of various people and they can’t accommodate the specific spiritual needs of each person. So it is generic and, in some ways, fails on all fronts. Because of that, I asked for outside food, like that fixed by my daughter and cousin, those who took into account my specific needs for spiritual nutrition and overall healing. Without soul food, not in the traditional description of collards, chicken and macaroni cheese, but that which fills my spirit and appeals to my taste buds, my body did not fully heal. Further, I feel a great deal of healing happening since returning home and preparing and receiving in soul food, the food that reminds me of God’s bounty.

Paula Clark is Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.