By Nicole D. Batey
Special to the AFRO
Much of American cuisine is influenced by African-American food and traditions. The expression “soul food” originated in the mid-1960s, when “soul” was a word commonly used to describe urban, or Black, culture.
Soul food is the foundation for African-American that, at its core, involves down-home cooking that originated in the rural south. “High on The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” is a documentary on Netflix based on Jessica B. Harris’ book of the same name. It helps to explain and explore the culinary connection between Africa, America and the history of soul food.
In an interview with Netflix, Ms. Harris said of her visit to Benin, West Africa “I’ll never forget the first time the matriarch made something called sauce feuille, which just means leaf sauce, but it so reminded me of collard greens, the taste of things that my grandmother had cooked.”
Crops like okra, Carolina gold rice, black-eyed peas and yams originated in Africa and were brought to the Americas, along with African people who were captured and enslaved. Since the enslaved Africans were the ones who took care of the crops in the field, as well as, cooked and prepared the meals in the “big house,” they influenced the palate of their owners.
According to “High on The Hog,” President Thomas Jefferson loved mac and cheese, a dish created by his enslaved head chef, James Hemings, also the brother of Sally Hemings. Mac and cheese is a beloved dish today by Americans, especially in the Black community.
Following the emancipation from slavery in the 1860s, free Blacks were often employed as cooks in White households and in restaurants, incorporating their culinary influence into their meals. These food preparations were also carried north during the Great Migration and were solidified into Black culture.
Although there were regional variants, such as the Creole influence from Louisiana, many of the same foods were eaten throughout the south. Corn was raised as a staple, to be ground into cornmeal for cornbread, hoecakes in a griddle and hush puppies, usually fried with fish. Corn also provided hominy grits, to be eaten as a breakfast food or a side dish, according to Brittanica.
In a previous interview with Epicurious, Adrian Miller, winner of the James Beard Award for his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time”, said “The soul-food greens are cabbage, collards, mustard, turnip and kale. For all you people who’ve discovered kale in the last five to 10 years, welcome to the party. We’ve been eating it for about 300.”
Soul food represents a history of survival and pride that has been passed down from generation to generation through the years, invoking memories of the past. It has become especially popular over the last 20 years, and now with healthier and more creative versions of these dishes being more available, soul food shares the African-American experience all over the country and the world.
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