Have you ever wondered what the difference is between soul food and southern cooking? Many people have. There are many theories as to why this rift has occurred. From the outside, at first, it can seem like there is no difference. Anyone who has had both can tell you they are worlds apart. My theory is that it comes from our favorite topic! Slavery.
When slaves were brought to this country, they were treated as less than human and therefore given the scraps of food. These foods were inexpensive or byproducts of animals or plants that went to the master. The turnip would go to the master, the greens to the slaves, the masters would get ham, the slaves hog maws, etc. In the beginning, many of the masters had different ideas around food, probably from whatever part of Europe they hailed from. They then took some of the slaves, let them work in the house, and had them cook these dishes. They would simply trade out some ingredients for local ones. Being from countries that took spices in trade and never used them, this carried over in the food.
Meanwhile, the slaves were given the byproducts, the leftovers, and the spoils of the harvest and animals. Out of necessity, they began cooking them differently. There is also probably some African influence. So they took these unwanted parts, cleaned them, and added spices. Easy ways to cook this food were to cook it over time by boiling or frying. Because some of these foods are particularly time consuming, and items can be harder to come by, the best foods were saved for Sunday: the day of rest and church. The time took on more meaning as a way to bond and relax. Many of the modern recipes that come up in soul food are indicative of this poverty.
In many of the “suffering porn” movies and movies of the time, there is often a Black woman who turns the main family onto a soul recipe. It’s never anything too Black, and suddenly they are awakened. They order her to make more. As time goes on, I can only imagine that this continued to happen, but with the slave altering the dishes to fit the palate and mind of the people she was cooking for. An easy way to see this difference is with Mac and Cheese. The question of its origins can be boiled down to saucy or baked.
In culinary school, we learned about roux, and I learned there were people who created a cheese sauce and then added the noodles. Sometimes, for crunch, they would add crackers or bread crumbs. I was appalled and confused. In my family, the dish was baked. It was well seasoned and flavorful. These cheesy noodles were not the Mac and Cheese I knew. Same dish, treated really differently. Another easy place is what does the word “greens” mean to you? Are you thinking of spinach? A salad? Maybe green beans? Mostly Black people mean a dish of veggie leaves pulled and cleaned from root veggies, cooked until they are wilted and flavorful.
Although the Black slaves knew how to make both and were using many of the same ingredients, the styles of food came out differently.
Soul food generally has meat in every dish. It is heavily seasoned and spicy. There is a long, extensive process to making the dish, and it’s considered a comfort food. There is always hot sauce easily available. There is often vinegar in dishes, and some things are pickled. Some of the older, more traditional foods use parts of animals that didn’t used to be used by white members of society, such as, but not limited to: tongue, hog maws, chitterlings (pig intestines), pigs’ feet, and so much more. When cooked with care, these dishes become something special.
Today, many of these things are still considered to be lesser and, therefore, cheaper than products white people buy. As a cook, I know I can make greens with ham hocks, bacon, pancetta, or really any piece of pork. I can still go to the store and buy ham hocks, the traditional inclusion, and save lots of money. On the other hand, as appropriation becomes more of an issue, things like chicken gizzards, greens, and chicken wings have become expensive, when in the past, Black people ate them because they were inexpensive and discarded.
Just because two things have overlapping features doesn’t mean they are the same thing. Succotash is southern, but I’ve never seen it at a Black family gathering. Soul food is an amazing tradition that is separate from its region. Although there are regional variations across the country, there are some foods that, when you walk into the restaurant, you KNOW they will be there.
If you haven’t been to your local soul food restaurant you should.
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