What Soul Food Means to Us | A Survey of Three Generations of Family and Friends by Abbie Nock

Laughter echoing through the house, delicious aromas circulating the air, male sports comments shouted at the tv, the pitter-patter of children’s feet running to sneak into the kitchen, clanging of pots and pans, and the ding of an oven are all included in the first few minutes of the movie Soul Food. All of this is to show the importance of soul food to this family. It brought everyone together even if they are depicted as being physically distanced, the positive atmosphere brought on by my soul food connects them all. While this may seem chaotic, this is every Sunday of this family where they share food and connect with family.

Throughout many decades there has been one consistent factor that has always brought people together: food. Whether it was Sunday dinner, snack time, or lunch, people continued to congregate together to partake in eating. The power that food holds defies most adversities; however, some of its influence can be born because of adversities. Soul food is an example of a food that was developed and nurtured because of the troubling time people were born into. Soul food is one of the trademarks of African American pride because it is a symbol of creating a community during dismal times. To fully understand the significance it has in my family one must know its different definitions and have knowledge of its history. I surveyed my immediate family as well as our extended ‘family’ of friends. I analyzed how their definitions and experiences of soul food fit into the larger history of soul food as well as changed from generation to generation.

History and Theory of Soul Food

When studying the meaning and history of soul food, an individual must first review the foodways of its ancestors from Africa to understand the reasoning for some recipe choices. Federick Douglas Opie in Hog & Harmony: Soul Food from Africa to America dissects the food of people of African descent to interpret black culinary traditions. Since all of the enslaved people came from different African regions, they had varying staple foods, agricultural methods, and cooking techniques, and beliefs that affected the recipes for each dish. The main reason for this is due to “creolization,” which he explains is how the environment, available resources, and religion influenced the culture of each tribe (Opie 10). An example would be the way people from both western and central Africa considered pork and chicken to be important in dishes, while some regions of Islamic Africa were against the consumption of pork due to religion. 

Since most of the enslaved people came from west and central Africa, many modern soul food dishes reflected those cultural views. Some tribes even introduced a variety of spices that were obtained through the Arabian spice trade. The Moors introduced seasonings like pepper, salt, cumin, paprika, mint, turmeric, and cinnamon to soul food dishes, which enhanced their flavors. Opie states that, like modern dishes, they used seasoning techniques that “enhance, not dominated” the flavors of the meat and vegetables, which is a significant component for soul food cooking. Though their African descent did heavily influence the flavors of soul food dishes, the conditions that they were brought to because of the slave trade also changed their dishes.

A study by Dr. Herbert Covey and Dr. Dwight Eisnach (2009) analyzed over three hundred recovered slave narratives, literary sources, periodical articles, and other media sources to understand how enslaved people used their eating habits and culinary practices to create their own culture during times of oppression. According to the study, food rations were one of the ways enslaved people were controlled, punished/rewarded, and affected the dishes they created within their culture. The majority of their data was analyzed from The Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s, where they sent out unemployed writers, across 17 southern states to interview former enslaved people. The WPA wanted to capture what slave life consisted of including their diet, workload, cooking techniques, recipes, and lifestyles. Dr. Covey and Dr. Eisnach focused on the diets, nutrition, and rations that may have had an effect on modern soul food recipes. According to many of the narratives, most of their diets included ingredients that were considered “dirty” or “disgusting,” the cheap parts of the animals that were leftover from their masters’ meals. However, because they spent most of their days in the kitchen, their newly sharpened skills helped to make their dishes unique. Meaning each of the recipes that they created would have been seen as trash by their white counterparts but they were considered as masterpieces that kept their families alive and hopeful. 

These two doctors found that a common way that plantation owners controlled their enslaved people was by decreasing their rations or even taking their rations away from them, to make them decide between starvation or working harder. The degree of this punishment varied widely according to the different plantations and states, which they believed is why many soul food dishes have alternative ingredients according to the state it’s from. An example they found was that bread was commonly taken away due to it being a luxury so the blacks learned to make a bread substitute with vegetables like yams and corn which mimicked a bread-like texture. They found that the variation of their diets and nutrition could explain why soul food dishes can have different twists to them according to the state a person goes to.  

In a similar study on more recent years, Kelsey Scouten Bates, a journalist who dedicated her life to investigating the history of Alabama, analyzes interviews conducted between 1979 and 1981 of residents of Gee Bend, Alabama, about their food traditions. These residents have an inspirational story that revolves around the importance of soul food to keep a community together during desperate times. According to multiple interviews, a devastating event between 1910 and 1981 started when the family of a deceased white merchant forcefully collected all of the communal agricultural lands and left the Gee Bend resident’s there with nothing. Lacking any way to support themselves, they learned to make cheap traditional dishes that they recalled eating as children, like chitlins, greens, and fried chicken/fish. They then would have a community-wide “buffet” where they passed around dishes to share. After a short time, the sight of these foods brought them comfort and provided them with hope for the future. Many years later, they used these ingrained memories to find a commonplace that can be used to connect them to others. Their community created a motto that “food should be provided to people not just for their physical survival, but for their mental survival: for comfort.” Which they believed was the only reason that kept them alive during these times.

The Nock Family and Friends Soul Food Survey

I sent a survey to my family and friends to research the meaning soul food has in their lives according to their age, gender, and race. The first section of my survey collected identifying information like gender, age, ethnicity/race, while the second section was about the main focus of my research: soul food. A series of agree/disagree questions gave various scenarios that are commonly connected to soul food, allowing my participants to answer according to morals, ethics, or beliefs. This would have me analyze what different genders, races, or ages can agree upon when it comes to understandings and even stereotypes about this topic. The last set of my questions were short answers that asked them to share their personal beliefs of what soul food is and any memories that they have associated with it. This helped to analyze the importance of food to the different backgrounds of these people and analyze it. In the end, I received 40 completed surveys from a high majority of women (80%) and African Americans (52%). Though soul food is associated with black culture I included different races to see if soul food definitions varied or were changed due to one’s race. Aware of how the significance of soul food has changed throughout history, I categorized their answers according to age, to see how this factor tracked with  definitions, memories, and connections to soul food. 

My first group focused on the older generation of my family, ages 85 to 55, 11 out of 40 of my participants (about 27.5%). According to my data, 73% know what soul food is and 55% enjoy eating it, yet only 18% eat or cook it regularly. Though many of them stated that they may not eat it regularly now, when they were younger they happened to eat soul food for every meal. My grandmother recalled that most of her memories consisted of her mother leaning over the stove cooking various dishes like oxtails, okra, gizzards, and pigs feet, to feed her 17 children always with a smile on her face. Her favorite time was when her mother would take time to teach her and all of her sisters how to make certain dishes because she considered the atmosphere to always be joyful, even if there were arguments or fights before the lesson it somehow managed to calm each of them down. Due to many of my participants having similar memories as her, 45.5% of the older generation associate it with family, and 81.8% associate it with community and comfort. Most agreed that if asked what childhood memory brought them the most comfort at least one of the memories they would remember would have soul food appear in it. They then passed down their feelings by teaching their children about slavery and the importance of soul food for their culture to live on, which is likely why 46% of this older generation connect it to slavery and 64% connect it to Black pride. Collectively they agree that soul food is identified from cheap scrap foods that are made with motherly love, their father’s sweat from working too hard for the money needed to purchase it, and smiles that the food brings. When asked what foods should be considered soul food many listed: chitlins (intestines), oxtails, gizzards, liver, fried chicken, and various animal feet.

The middle generations, ages 30 to 55, were the second category of my research, also 11 out of 40 of my participants (27.5%). 100% of these participants responded that they know what soul food is and enjoy eating it, although only 30% eat or cook it regularly. This could be due to parents starting to mostly cook these recipes for special occasions, lunches, and Sunday dinners, and due to soul food receiving wider recognition/acceptance by other ethnicities as part of African American culture. Indeed, soul food’s recognition may have led many of this generation to continue to connect it to Black pride, which is reflected in my research. Since most of the time they ate soul food was during special occasions, it makes sense that 81.6% of this generation associate it with family and 100% associate it with comfort/community. My sister, age 33, stated that she remembered our mother would only make soul food sides, like mac n cheese and greens for her lunches but when holidays came around would pull out all the stops and make all kinds of soul food that grandmommie taught her. This generation’s collective definition of soul food seems to be southern homestyle cooking that may be unhealthy for their bodies but is healthy for their soul.

My last group consisted of the youngest generation, ages 29 and younger 45%, 18 out of 40 of my participants. 83.3% of this group know what soul food is and enjoys eating it, while only 16% eat it regularly and 6% cook it regularly. Their young age, mostly 18 and 19, could be why the percentage that cooks it regularly is low since they don’t really cook many of their meals. Another reason that one of the participants explained was because their parents never passed down their recipes to them so they don’t know how to cook them without guidance from their parents. That could mean that over the generations parents stopped making soul food for meals and only made it for special occasions, which could explain why for this group 88.9% associates it with comfort/community. This could also be used to understand why a relatively higher percentage (39%), compared to the other groups, associated this food with grief, since one of the special occasions could wake, which is after funerals. Many African American families plan for a wake after a family member’s passing because they like to end that day by remembering their lives and not just mourning their deaths. The next thing that 77.8% agreed with was that soul food should be associated with African American pride and 50% believe it’s connected to slavery. The recent events that have caused my generation to protest and raise awareness about Black history could explain this increase in percentage from the last generation. When asked to define soul food, this generation associates it with black culture that brings them comfort and allows them to proudly identify themselves as African American.

Many generations’ definitions are modified according to how much of an impact soul food had on their life. For the older generations, they were always in the kitchen cooking these recipes with their parents and ate them for most of their meals. Those traditions started to die out until those recipes weren’t pulled out daily however only for special occasions, meaning that the younger generations would have a broader definition of soul food, that was created according to a handful of memories while the older generations would have most of their memories have soul food somewhere in it. However, all generations can agree on specific things like it being associated with family, pride, and comfort/community.

Conclusion: What Soul Food Means to Us

Soul food means so much to the African American community because it reflects the struggle we had to overcome to be recognized by America. The African American History Museum in Washington, DC documents the life, history, and culture of African Americans. The exhibits are laid out in a way that people have to walk through every decade to glimpse the changing history. After finishing all of the exhibits people are welcome to relax and eat at their cafe named Sweet Home Cafe. Singh Lakshmi hosts a podcast titled, “Sweet Home Cafe Lets Visitors Taste the Rich History Of African-American Food,” which explains how the cafe chose their menu. Lakshmi found that they chose each of their dishes from a variety of different southern regions, like North Carolina, New Orleans, and Virginia, to reflect the differences in each soul food dish according to the region. 

Ruth Turk in her book I Am African American follows a young African American boy who explains the importance of different traditions, like music, food, drawings, and movies, that help him understand and be proud to identify as a black American. Though it is a very short chapter, of only 2 pages, he includes a chapter on soul food and explains how helping to cook in the kitchen at a young age with his family helped him to connect their traditions to laughter and smiles. He recalls every Sunday dinner being joyful and warm and will always remember them. Because of his early exposure, he will have tons of memories that he can use as a type of shield against discrimination as he grows up.

Soul food is important to my family not only because it is a symbol of our black heritage. It also allows our family to have traditions that are continuously passed down to different generations. By continuing Sunday dinners, soul food at weddings/funerals, every generation can interact with each other and develop lovely memories that will last forever. My mom said that “soul food may not be the healthiest of foods however it is extremely important to keep our family happy.” She went on to explain that her mom used these recipes to start up discussions about life, relationships, and would even use them as a way to resolve her children’s disputes. My grandmother always said, “That a smile will always be plastered on one’s face when eating soul food. No matter what negative emotions they are harboring because it has the power to transfer love to its consumer.” Each and every one of my family members took those words to heart and continues to make these recipes to make sure the chain of happiness does not end with their generation.

Works Cited

Bates, Kelsey Scouten. “Comfort in a Decidedly Uncomfortable Time: Hunger, Collective Memory, and the Meaning of Soul Food in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.” Food and Foodways, vol. 20, no. 1, 2012, pp. 53–75., doi:10.1080/07409710.2012.652026.

Covey, Herbert C., and Dwight Eisnach. What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives. Greenwood Press, 2009.

 Lakshmi Singh, host. “Sweet Home Cafe Lets Visitors Taste The Rich History Of African-American Food.” NPR, 15 October. 2016. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2016/10/15/498091447/sweet-home-cafe-lets-visitors-taste-the-rich-history-of-african-american-food

Turk, Ruth. I Am African American. Rosen, 2003.

Image: Soul Food at Powell’s Place by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo (CC 2007)


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