Soul Food – History One Bite at a Time

by Bryon L. Garner
DLA Energy,
Member of DLA HQ EEO Special Emphasis Program Committee

    So, some have asked:  What is soul food?  Think about the first time you tasted the first bite of your favorite meal.  How old were you?  Who prepared it for you?  Where were you?  Who was with you?  Food, like music, can be an experience:  a snapshot of memories, of feelings, or of a place and time filled with family.  This is the essence of soul food.  More than just artful expressions of food – fundamental to every human need; soul food nourishes the spirit in ways that have enriched life experiences.  In 2014, Adrian E. Miller’s book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won a James Beard Award for reference and scholarship.  He adds, “The idea of "soul" really comes in the 1940s. You’ve got these African-American jazz artists who were pretty disgruntled because white jazz artists were the ones getting the best gigs, and getting paid more, almost as if they had created this musical genre. So these jazz artists say, we’re taking this music to a place where we don’t think white musicians can mimic the sound. And that’s the sound of the black church in the rural south. That gospel sound they started fusing into jazz, they described as "soul" and "funky" in the late '40s. And soul started becoming a label for almost all aspects of black culture: soul music, soul brothers, soul sisters, soul food.”  A concept born out of painful experiences brings to life and embodies many of the basic elements which define life: perseverance; shared experiences; family; fond memories; as well as, history and tradition.

     The soul food 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.).  The intersectionality of African food preparations with life in America endured challenges brought on by racial, class, and gender hierarchies which prevented equal access and a multitude of social and economic injustices.  But, in the kitchen, innovative culinary expressions motivated by necessity and by the will to survive prevailed. African-Americans living in America – from slavery to present day - more than made do with the food choices that were available to create nurturing spaces filled with family, traditions, and enduring memories.  In this can be seen the one thing that connects all of humanity: We each need food to sustain us in life and we each possess the desire to connect in shared experiences that nurture us in life.

     Oh...the food!  The flavors!  The smells! (Well, except for chitlins).  Soul food has a rich and important history that ties African American culture to its African roots, and that history is deeply reflected in the staple recipes and techniques.  According to the article, “Soul Food” A Brief History, found at the African American Registry website (, the soul food list is long and distinguished:

- Biscuits (a shortbread similar to scones, commonly served with butter, jam, jelly, sorghum or cane syrup, or gravy; used to wipe up, or "sop," liquids from a dish).
- Black-eyed peas (cooked separately or with rice, as hoppin' john).
- Butter beans (immature lima beans, usually cooked in butter).
- Catfish (dredged in seasoned cornbread and fried).
- Chicken (often fried with cornmeal breading or seasoned flour).
- Chicken livers.
- Chitterlings or chitlins: (the cleaned and prepared intestines of hogs, slow-cooked and often eaten with vinegar and hot sauce; sometimes parboiled, then battered and fried).
- Chow-chow (a spicy, homemade pickle relish sometimes made with okra, corn, cabbage, green tomatoes and other vegetables; commonly used to top black-eyed peas and otherwise as a condiment and side dish).
- Collard greens (usually cooked with ham hocks, often combined with other greens).
- Cornbread (short bread often baked in an iron skillet, sometimes seasoned with bacon fat).
- Chicken fried steak (beef deep fried in flour or batter, usually served with gravy).
- Cracklins: (commonly known as pork rinds and sometimes added to cornbread batter).
- Fatback (fatty, cured, salted pork used to season meats and vegetables).
- Fried fish: (any of several varieties of fish whiting, catfish, porgies, bluegills dredged in seasoned cornmeal and deep fried).
- Fried ice cream: (Ice cream deep frozen and coated with cookies and fried).
- Grits, often served with fish.
- Ham hocks (smoked, used to flavor vegetables and legumes).
- Hog maws (or hog jowls, sliced and usually cooked with chitterlings).
- Hoghead cheese.
- Hot sauce (a condiment of cayenne peppers, vinegar, salt, garlic and other spices often used on chitterlings, fried chicken and fish not the same as "Tabasco sauce", which has heat, but little flavor).
- Lima beans (see butter beans).
- Macaroni and cheese.
- Mashed potatoes (usually with butter and condensed milk).
- Meatloaf (typically with brown gravy).
- Milk and bread (a "po' folks' dessert-in-a-glass" of slightly crumbled cornbread, buttermilk and sugar).
- Mustard greens (usually cooked with ham hocks, often combined with other greens).
Neckbones (beef neck bones seasoned and slow cooked).
- Okra: (African vegetable eaten fried in cornmeal or stewed, often with tomatoes, corn, onions and hot peppers).
- Pigs' feet: (slow-cooked like chitterlings, sometimes pickled and, like chitterlings, often eaten with vinegar and hot sauce).
- Red beans.
- Ribs (usually pork, but can also be beef ribs).
- Rice (usually served with red beans).
- Sorghum syrup (from sorghum, or "Guinea corn," a sweet grain indigenous to Africa introduced into the U.S. by
- African slaves in the early 17th century; see biscuits).
- Succotash (originally, a Native American dish of yellow corn and butter beans, usually cooked in butter).
- Sweet potatoes (often parboiled, sliced and then baked, using sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and butter or margarine, commonly called "candied yams"; also boiled, then pureed and baked into pies).
- Turnip greens (usually cooked with ham hocks, often combined with other greens).
- Yams: (not actually yams, but sweet potatoes).

I remember the first time I asked my mother what hoghead cheese was.  I was about eight or nine years old standing next to her as she was cooking in the kitchen.  Like many kids, I always wanted some of what mom was eating or snacking.  After letting me taste what she was eating, she looked at me and laughed telling me a story about how her grandfather used to slaughter hogs, cut off and boil the heads to make it.  You know, hoghead cheese, right?  She laughed even more watching her young son contort his face in disgust.  I truly thought twice from then on about asking my mom to share a snack.  Nevertheless, my early memories of soul food included my mother’s collard greens, my aunt’s candied yams, and that macaroni and cheese that only my grandmother could make transcend time and space, taking me back to a childhood filled with family gatherings, people laughing, and feeling loved.  The food is what brought us together and the meal is where we bonded.  But it was the experience of being together that nourished the soul. This is the essence of soul food – family, memories, and history.  Oh, in case you are wondering if the picture at the beginning of the article has any significance, it does.  The picture is a Sankofa; an Andinkra symbol which means “go back and fetch it”.  It is often used in the context of remembering the past in order to move forward.  

This is what we celebrate.

Visit the McNamara Complex cafeteria each Wednesday for offerings of various soul food items.

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