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Chicken and waffles

Soul food is the ethnic cuisine of African-Americans.[1][2] It originated in the American South from the cuisines of enslaved Africans trafficked to the North American colonies through the Atlantic slave trade during the Antebellum period and is closely associated (but not to be confused with) with the cuisine of the American South.[3] The expression "soul food" originated in the mid-1960s, when "soul" was a common word used to describe African-American culture.[4] Soul food uses cooking techniques and ingredients from West African, Central African, Western European, and Indigenous cuisine of the Americas.[5] Soul food came from the blending of what African Americans ate in their native countries in Africa and what was available to them as slaves. The cuisine had its share of negativity initially. Soul food was initially seen as low class food, and Northern African Americans looked down on their Black Southern counterparts who preferred soul food. The term evolved from being the diet of a slave in the South to being a primary pride in the African American community in the North such as New York City.[6]


Soul food originated in the home cooking of the rural Southern United States and has its origins in slavery, using locally gathered or raised foods and other inexpensive ingredients. Rabbits, squirrels, and deer were often hunted for meat. Fish, frogs, crawfish, turtles, shellfish, and crab were often collected from fresh waters, salt waters, and marshes.[7] Soul food originated during the time of slavery, when Black American/ African American enslaved people were given only leftovers and the undesirable parts of animals, such as ham hocks, hog jowls, and pigs' feet, ears, skin and intestines, which white plantation slave owners did not eat.[8] Pork and corn were two staple items in the Southern United States for both slave owners and slaves. The slave owners would have smoked ham and corn pudding while the enslaved were left with the offal.[9]


The term soul food became popular in the 1960s and 1970s in the midst of the Black Power movement.[10] One of the earliest written uses of the term is found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was published in 1965.[11] LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) published an article entitled "Soul Food" and was one of the key proponents for establishing the food as a part of the Black American identity.[12] Those who had participated in the Great Migration found within soul food a reminder of the home and family they had left behind after moving to unfamiliar northern cities. Soul food restaurants were Black-owned businesses that served as neighborhood meeting places where people socialized and ate together.[13]

Soul food recipes have pre-slavery influences, as West African and European foodways were adapted to the environment of the region.[3] Many of the foods integral to the cuisine originated in the limited food stuffs that poor southern subsistence farmers had at hand. This in turn was reflected in the rations given to enslaved people by their masters. Enslaved people were typically given a peck of cornmeal and 3–4 pounds of pork per week, and those rations formed the basis of African American soul food.[14]

Most enslaved people needed to consume a high-calorie diet to replenish the calories spent working long days in the fields or performing other physically arduous tasks.[15] Eventually, given the proximity of the wealthy slave owners to their chattel slaves, this style of cooking was adopted into the larger Southern culture, as slaves were the primary cooks in plantation households, which, despite their wealth, often used what was available on a daily basis from either their agricultural holdings or from the share croppers who rented plantation land.[citation needed]

Impoverished white and Black people in the South cooked many of the same dishes stemming from this tradition, but styles of preparation sometimes varied. Certain techniques popular in soul and other Southern cuisines (i.e., frying meat and using all parts of the animal for consumption) are shared with ancient cultures all over the world, including those of China, Egypt, and Rome.[16]

Introduction of soul food to cities such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore came during the Great Migration as African Americans moved to the North for work.

African influence

Ham hock and black-eyed peas

Scholars have noted the substantial African influence found in soul food recipes, especially from the West and Central regions of Africa. This influence can be seen through the heat level of many soul food dishes, as well as many ingredients found within them.[17] Peppers used to add spice to food included malagueta pepper, as well as peppers native to the western hemisphere such as red (cayenne) peppers.[15] Several foods that are essential in southern cuisine and soul food were domesticated or consumed in the African savanna and the tropical regions of West and Central Africa. These include pigeon peas, black-eyed peas, okra, and sorghum.[17]

It has also been noted that a species of rice was domesticated in Africa, thus many Africans who were brought to the Americas kept their knowledge for rice cooking.[18] Rice is a staple side dish in the Lowcountry region and in Southern Louisiana. Rice is the center of dishes such as jambalaya and red beans and rice which are popular in Southern Louisiana.

There are many documented parallels between the foodways of West Africans and soul food recipes.[19] The consumption of sweet potatoes in the US is reminiscent of the consumption of yams in West Africa. The frequent consumption of cornbread by African-Americans is analogous to West Africans' use of fufu to soak up stews.[19]

West Africans also cooked meat over open pits, and thus it is possible that enslaved Africans came to the Americas with knowledge of this cooking technique (it is also possible they learned it from Native Americans, since Native Americans barbecued as a cooking technique).[15][20]

Researchers state that many tribes in Africa utilized a vegetarian/plant based diet because of its simplicity. This included the way food was prepared as well as served. It was not uncommon to see food served out of an empty gourd. Many techniques to change the overall flavor of staple food items such as nuts, seeds, and rice contributed to added dimensions of evolving flavors. These techniques included roasting, frying with palm oil, baking in ashes, and steaming in leaves such as banana leaf.[21]

Native American influence

Southeastern Native American culture is an important element of Southern cuisine. From their cultures came one of the main staples of the Southern diet: corn (maize), either ground into meal or limed with an alkaline salt to make hominy, in a Native American process known as nixtamalization.[22] Corn was used to make all kinds of dishes, from the familiar cornbread and grits, to liquors such as moonshine and whiskey (which are still important to the Southern economy[23]).

Many fruits are available in this region: blackberries, muscadines, raspberries, and many other wild berries were part of Southern Native Americans' diets, as well.

To a far greater degree than anyone realizes, several of the most important food dishes that the Native Americans of the southeastern U.S.A live on today is the "soul food" eaten by both Black and White Southerners. Hominy, for example, is still eaten: Sofkee lives on as grits; cornbread [is] used by Southern cooks; Indian fritters -- variously known as "hoe cake" or "Johnny cake"; Indian boiled cornbread is present in Southern cuisine as "corn meal dumplings" and "hush puppies"; Southerners cook their beans and field peas by boiling them, as did the Native tribes; and, like the Native Americans, Southerners cured their meats and smoked it over hickory coals...

— Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians[24]

African, European, and Native Americans of the American South supplemented their diets with meats derived from the hunting of native game.[25] What meats people ate depended on seasonal availability and geographical region. Common game included opossums, rabbits, and squirrels. The practice of raising livestock such as cattle and hogs was adopted from white people of European descent.

When game or livestock was killed, the entire animal was used. Aside from the meat, it was common for them to eat organ meats such as brains, livers, and intestines. This tradition remains today in hallmark dishes like chitterlings (commonly called chit'lins), which are small intestines of hogs; livermush (a common dish in the Carolinas made from hog liver); and pork brains and eggs. The fat of the animals, particularly hogs, was rendered and used for cooking and frying. Many of the early European settlers in the South learned Native American cooking methods, and so cultural diffusion was set in motion for the Southern dish.


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Because it was illegal in many states for slaves to learn to read or write, soul food recipes and cooking techniques tended to be passed along orally, until after emancipation.[26]

The first soul food cookbook is attributed to Abby Fisher, entitled What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking and published in 1881. Good Things to Eat was published in 1911; the author, Rufus Estes, was a former slave who worked for the Pullman railway car service. Many other cookbooks were written by black Americans during that time, but as they were not widely distributed, most are now lost.[citation needed]

Since the mid-20th century, many cookbooks highlighting soul food and African-American foodways have been compiled and published. One notable soul food chef is celebrated traditional Southern chef and author Edna Lewis,[27] who released a series of books between 1972 and 2003, including A Taste of Country Cooking in which she weaves stories of her childhood in Freetown, Virginia into her recipes for "real Southern food".[28]

Another early and influential soul food cookbook is Vertamae Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, originally published in 1970, focused on South Carolina Lowcountry/Geechee/Gullah cooking. Its focus on spontaneity in the kitchen—cooking by "vibration" rather than precisely measuring ingredients, as well as "making do" with ingredients on hand—captured the essence of traditional African-American cooking techniques. The simple, healthful, basic ingredients of lowcountry cuisine, like shrimp, oysters, crab, fresh produce, rice and sweet potatoes, made it a bestseller.[citation needed]

Usher boards and Women's Day committees of various religious congregations large and small, and even public service and social welfare organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) have produced cookbooks to fund their operations and charitable enterprises.[29] The NCNW produced its first cookbook, The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, in 1958, and revived the practice in 1993, producing a popular series of cookbooks featuring recipes by famous black Americans, among them: The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1991), Celebrating Our Mothers' Kitchens: Treasured Memories and Tested Recipes (1994), and Mother Africa's Table: A Chronicle of Celebration (1998). The NCNW also recently reissued The Historical Cookbook.

Cultural relevance

Soul food restaurant in Texas

Soul food originated in the southern region of the US and is consumed by African-Americans across the nation. Traditional soul food cooking is seen as one of the ways enslaved Africans passed their traditions to their descendants once they were brought to the US, and is a cultural creation stemming from slavery and Native American and European influences.[19][15]

Soul food recipes are popular in the South due to the accessibility and affordability of the ingredients.[19][14]

Scholars have noted that while white Americans provided the material supplies for soul food dishes, the cooking techniques found in many of the dishes have been visibly influenced by the enslaved Africans themselves.[15] Dishes derived by slaves consisted of many vegetables and grains because slave owners felt more meat would cause the slave to become lethargic with less energy to tend to the crops.

The bountiful vegetables that were found in Africa, were substituted in dishes down south with new leafy greens consisting of dandelion, turnip, and beet greens. Pork, more specifically hog, was introduced into several dishes in the form of cracklins from the skin, pig's feet, chitterlings, and lard used to increase the fat intake into vegetarian dishes. Spices such as thyme, and bay leaf blended with onion and garlic gave dishes their own characteristics.[21]

Figures such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Elijah Muhammad, and Dick Gregory played notable roles in shaping the conversation around soul food.[30][19] Muhammad and Gregory opposed soul food because they felt it was unhealthy food and was slowly killing African-Americans.[11] They saw soul food as a remnant of oppression and felt it should be left behind. Many African-Americans were offended by the Nation of Islam's rejection of pork as it is a staple ingredient used to flavor many dishes.[19]

Stokely Carmichael also spoke out against soul food, claiming that it was not true African food due to its colonial and European influence.[19] Despite this, many voices in the Black Power Movement saw soul food as something African-Americans should take pride in, and used it to distinguish African-Americans from white Americans.[12] Proponents of soul food embraced the concept of it, and used it as a counterclaim to the argument that African-Americans had no culture or cuisine.[15][19]

The magazine Ebony Jr! was important in transmitting the cultural relevance of soul food dishes to middle-class African-American children who typically ate a more standard American diet.[31]

Soul food is frequently found at religious rituals and social events such as funerals, fellowship, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in the black community.[19][27][17]

Soul food spread throughout the United States when African Americans from the South moved to major cities across the country such as Chicago and New York City. They brought with them the foods and traditions of the Southern United States, where they were enslaved.[32]

Soul food is culturally similar to Romani cuisine in Europe.[33]

Health concerns

Further information: Soul food health trends

Soul food prepared traditionally and consumed in large amounts can be detrimental to one's health. Opponents to soul food have been vocal about health concerns surrounding the culinary traditions since the name was coined in the mid-20th century.[34]

Soul food has been criticized for its high starch, fat, sodium, cholesterol, and caloric content, as well as the inexpensive and often low-quality nature of the ingredients such as salted pork and cornmeal. In light of this, soul food has been implicated by some in the disproportionately high rates of high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), stroke, and heart attack suffered by African-Americans.[35][36] Figures who led discussions surrounding the negative impacts of soul food include Dr. Alvenia Fulton, Dick Gregory, and Elijah Muhammad.[30][19]

On the other hand, critics and traditionalists have argued that attempts to make soul food healthier also make it less tasty, as well as less culturally/ethnically authentic.[37]

There is also often a foundational difference in how health is perceived; soul food may differ from normal understandings in American culture. [38]

Fueled by federal subsidies, the agricultural system in the United States became industrialized as the nutritional value of most processed foods, and not just those implicated in a traditional perception of soul food, have degraded.[39] This urges a consideration of how concepts of racial authenticity evolve alongside changes in the structures that make some foods more available and accessible than others.[40][41]

An important aspect of the preparation of soul food was the reuse of cooking lard. Because many cooks could not afford to buy new shortening to replace what they used, they would pour the liquefied cooking grease into a container. After cooling completely, the grease re-solidified and could be used again the next time the cook required lard.[42]

With changing fashions and perceptions of "healthy" eating, some cooks may use preparation methods that differ from those of cooks who came before them: using liquid oil like vegetable oil or canola oil for frying and cooking, and using smoked turkey instead of pork, for example. Changes in hog farming techniques have also resulted in drastically leaner pork, in the 21st and late 20th centuries. Some cooks have even adapted recipes to include vegetarian alternatives to traditional ingredients, including tofu and soy-based analogues.[43]

Several of the ingredients included in soul food recipes have pronounced health benefits. Collard and other greens are rich sources of several vitamins (including vitamin A, B6, folic acid or vitamin B9, vitamin K, and C), minerals (manganese, iron, and calcium), fiber, and small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain a number of phytonutrients, which are thought to play a role in the prevention of ovarian and breast cancers.[44][dubious ]

The traditional preparation of soul food vegetables often consists of high temperatures or slow cooking methods, which can lead the water-soluble vitamins (e.g., Vitamin C and the B complex vitamins) to be destroyed or leached out into the water in which the greens cooked. This water is often consumed and is known as pot liquor.[27] Because it contains micronutrients from the greens cooked in it, pot liquor contributes to the nutritional value of a meal when consumed.[45]

Peas and legumes are inexpensive sources of protein, and they also contain important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.[46]

Dishes and ingredients

Main article: List of soul foods and dishes

See also


  1. ^ ""Soul Food" a brief history". African American Registry. Retrieved 2020-02-12.
  2. ^ Moskin, Julia (2018-08-07). "Is It Southern Food, or Soul Food?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-06-08.
  3. ^ a b "An Illustrated History of Soul Food". First We Feast. Retrieved 14 March 2023.
  4. ^ Ferguson, Sheila (1993). Soul Food Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Grove Press. pp. 57–60. ISBN 9781493013418.
  5. ^ McKendrick, P.J. (15 December 2017). "The Diversity of Soul Food - Global Foodways". Archived from the original on 6 December 2019. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  6. ^ "Soul Food". Retrieved November 6, 2023.
  7. ^ "Soul food | Description, History, & Ingredients | Britannica". Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  8. ^ Soul Food - Oxtails,, PDF
  9. ^ Demas, Antonia (2022-02-01). "Celebrating Black History Month". The Food Studies Institute. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  10. ^ Witt, Doris (1999). Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity. Oxford University Press. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-0-19-535498-0.
  11. ^ a b Rouse, Carolyn Moxley (2004). Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, London, England: University of California Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-520-23794-0.
  12. ^ a b Witt, Doris (1999). Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity. Oxford University Press. pp. 80–81. ISBN 978-0-19-535498-0.
  13. ^ Poe, Tracy N. (1999). "The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915-1947". American Studies International. XXXVII No. 1 (February): 4–17.
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  15. ^ a b c d e f Whit, William C.; Hall, Robert L. (2007). Bower, Anne L. (ed.). African American foodways : explorations of history and culture. University of Illinois Press. pp. 34, 48. ISBN 9780252031854. OCLC 76961285.
  16. ^ "Fried Dough History". Archived from the original on October 12, 2008.
  17. ^ a b c Hall, Robert L. (2012). Chambers, Douglas B.; Watson, Kenneth (eds.). The Past Is Not Dead. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 292, 294, 297, 305. ISBN 9781617033056.
  18. ^ Ann, Carney, Judith (2009-06-30). Black rice : the African origins of rice cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, Massachusetts. ISBN 9780674029217. OCLC 657619002.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  22. ^ Dragonwagon, Crescent (2007). The Cornbread Gospels. Workman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7611-1916-6.
  23. ^ X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove Press, 1966
  24. ^ Hudson, Charles (1976). "A Conquered People". The Southeastern Indians. The University of Tennessee Press. pp. 498–99. ISBN 978-0-87049-248-8.
  25. ^ Glitner, Scott (2006). Glave, Dianne D.; Stoll, Mark (eds.). "To love the wind and the rain" : African Americans and environmental history. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 21–36. ISBN 9780822972907. OCLC 878132911.
  26. ^ Opie, F.D. (2008). Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. Columbia University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9780231146395.
  27. ^ a b c Twitty, Michael (2017). The cooking gene : a journey through African American culinary history in the Old South (First ed.). New York, NY. ISBN 9780062379290. OCLC 971130586.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  28. ^ "Biography: Edna Lewis". Biography: Edna Lewis. Retrieved 2022-07-12.
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  31. ^ Henderson, Laretta (Winter 2007). ""Ebony Jr!" and "Soul Food": The Construction of Middle-Class African American Identity through the Use of Traditional Southern Foodways". Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS). 32 (4): 81–97. JSTOR 30029833.
  32. ^ ReadWorks. "The Roots of Southern Food" (PDF) – via
  33. ^ "African Americans and the Gypsies: A cultural relationship formed through hardships". 27 September 2013.
  34. ^ "Soul food | Description, History, & Ingredients | Britannica".
  35. ^ Singh, Maanvi S. (2 October 2018). "Southern Diet Blamed For High Rates Of Hypertension Among Black Americans". NPR. Retrieved 7 August 2022.
  36. ^ Belle, Genesis (Spring 2009). "Can the African-American Diet be Made Healthier Without Giving up Culture — York College / CUNY". 5 (2). Retrieved 7 August 2022.
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  38. ^ Joshanloo, Mohsen; Van De Vliert, Evert; Jose, Paul E. (2021). "Four Fundamental Distinctions in Conceptions of Wellbeing Across Cultures". The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education. pp. 675–703. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-64537-3_26. ISBN 978-3-030-64536-6. S2CID 237932558.
  39. ^ Belasco, Warren (2008). Food: The Key Concepts. Berg. ISBN 978-1845206734.
  40. ^ Julier, Alice (2008). The Political Economy of Obesity: The Fat Pay All. Food and Culture: A Reader: Routledge. pp. 482–499. ISBN 978-0415977777.
  41. ^ Guthman, Julie (2011). Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. University California Press. ISBN 978-0520266254.
  42. ^ Healthy soul food ideas and recipes US News January 26, 2017
  43. ^ Shelf, Angela. "African Vegetarian Recipes : The Ethnic Vegetarian". Retrieved 2009-06-20.
  44. ^ "Collard greens". WHFoods. 2006-05-04. Retrieved 2009-06-20.
  45. ^ Aubrey, Allison (7 August 2013). "Pot Liquor: A Southern Tip To Save Nutritious Broth From Greens". NPR. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  46. ^ "Beans and pulses in your diet". 27 April 2018.

Further reading