Soul food is an adaptation of southern plantation vittles with a blend of African flavors. In commemoration of Black History Month, which celebrates the culture and accomplishments of struggling people during the period of the African Diaspora, I'd like to trace the roots of this eclectic cuisine known as soul food.
Soul food developed out of necessity and the creative culinary skills of the African slave and sharecropper families. From the Spartan scrap foods that the plantation owners tossed their way, the enslaved African Americans spawned hearty and delicious meals, even delicacies from undesirable animal parts like pigs' feet, beef tongue or tail, ham hocks and tripe spiced with onion, garlic, bay leaves and thyme.
Many slaves hunted wild game, making dishes with raccoon, squirrel, opossum, turtle and rabbit popular fare on their dining tables. The staple greens and root vegetables from their African diet were replaced with turnip and beet tops, dandelions and other greens like collard, kale, mustard and pokeweed.
African American cooks were pioneer recyclers and conservationists, reusing the lard for frying and utilizing every part of a plant and animal, even the skin, bones, jowls and ears of pigs, adding egg and seasoned cornmeal to leftover fish to make croquettes, whipping up bread pudding from stale bread and using the liquid from cooked greens called potlikker as a drink or gravy.
Since many states passed laws making it illegal for African American slaves to read or write, the soul food recipes and culinary techniques were passed on by word of mouth. Finally, in 1881 the first soul food cookbook titled "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking" was published.
Soul food minus the deep-frying and lard is a pretty healthy diet. Staples like collard greens are packed with vitamins A, B and C and minerals including iron and calcium and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Peas and legumes are loaded with protein and fiber while sweet potatoes are a source of beta-carotene and other minerals, which are pancreas-friendly for diabetics.
Present day soul food is a distinctive blend of original ingredients and shared ones from different cuisines. Popular meat and fish dishes include batter-fried chicken gizzards, pig intestines (aka chitterlings) with hot and sour vinegar sauce, country fried steak drizzled with white gravy, fried catfish, oxtail soup and short ribs.
Favorite legume and vegetable dishes are black-eyed peas, mustard and turnip greens with ham hocks, chow-chow pickle relish with okra, corn, hot peppers and green tomatoes and succotash, a blend of corn, tomatoes and immature limas or butter beans.
Breads and grains include shortbread biscuits served with jelly or gravy, hoecakes and hominy grits made from dried corn kernels served as breakfast porridge or a side dish with meat or fish. And for dessert: rice pudding and red velvet cake, the crimson-colored batter symbolic of the African-American hardships during their enslavement and the century following.
Although soul food has southern origins, fried chicken and fish shacks are sprinkled from coast to coast along with upscale establishments, raising this cuisine to epicurean heights. Biscuits are now infused with fresh chopped chives, basil and other savory herbs. Collard greens are blended with sophisticated capers, Manila clams, Dijon mustard and wine. Finally, grits have been glamorized with jumbo shrimp, yellow peppers, spicy cream and smoked andouille sausage.