THE STATE OF SOUL FOOD IN AMERICA
Fifty years ago, “soul food,” as a coined culinary term, burst into the American mainstream after floating around in black culture for years beforehand. From the beginning, soul food was magical, malleable, and maligned. Soul food brought African Americans across our nation to a shared table based on a common racial identity and narrative despite class and geographic differences. In short, soul food was more about blackness than it was about a specific list of ingredients. While there was considerable consensus about the cuisine’s core dishes, soul-food cooks and diners gave wide latitude to what could be included on the plate, and to how it was prepared and seasoned. Though that flexibility powered soul food’s popularity for decades, it may now be the source of the cuisine’s problems.
There are two long-running critiques of soul food: that it needs a warning label because it is inherently unhealthy, and that it is nothing more than slave food, and thus unworthy of celebration (a persistent yet erroneous belief). The unhealthy label is widely shared, but the “slave-food” critique is more pervasive amongst African Americans. The result of the drumbeat of criticism is that soul food has splintered into several sub-cuisines.
The traditional soul-food cuisine typified by seasonal vegetables flavored with pork, fish, cornbread, and special-occasion food like fried chicken and peach cobbler has lost more culinary steam than the buffet table. In African-American restaurants and homes, the creative energy now lies in experimenting with soul food’s culinary alternatives. Chief among them is a health-conscious response called “Down Home Healthy” where pork is replaced with smoked turkey, vegetable oil swapped out for lard, and margarine for butter. The “vegan soul” movement is the cuisine’s hottest trend, with a surprising number of soul-food restaurants now featuring vegan side dishes. A smaller trend is “upscale” soul food, where cooks use goat’s cheese with macaroni dishes, fry with duck fat, or add saffron and truffle oil. Molecular gastronomy has not really been applied to soul food, but I eagerly wait for some chef to make a meal of sweet-potato spheres and collard-green dust with a chitlin foam.
“THOUGH THAT FLEXIBILITY POWERED SOUL FOOD’S POPULARITY FOR DECADES, IT MAY NOW BE THE SOURCE OF THE CUISINE’S PROBLEMS.”
The flourishing of soul food’s sub-genres has been fun to watch (and eat), but it has also meant that fewer African-American chefs are embracing traditional soul food. Some side-step the cuisine in order to avoid being pigeon-holed as a “soul-food cooks,” while others follow their passions for other flavors. I’m not mad at them for doing their own thing, but unfortunately, soul-food restaurants have suffered from the inability to recruit chefs who will keep the cuisine moving forward and entice diners for years to come.
In 2011, as part of the research or my book on the history of soul food, I ate my way through the country. I went to 150 soul-food restaurants in 35 cities and 15 states. Had I done my national eating tour just five years earlier, I might have written a very different book. A lot of legendary soul-food places that opened in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s had recently closed. We’re in a generational moment where the early soul-food entrepreneurs are retiring or dying, without anyone ready and willing to continue their culinary legacy. Thanks to successful civil-rights legislation and policy, African Americans can choose to live and eat outside of traditional black neighborhoods. But few soul-food restaurants have been able to survive the transition from being a neighborhood joint to becoming a destination spot. Even fewer have been able to survive in the suburbs.
Is this a turning point for soul food? To get some answers, we asked a group of knowledgeable bloggers, chefs, writers, and restaurateurs about the current state of soul food, and where the cuisine is possibly headed. Our panelists include:
Erika Council, writer and photographer behind the website, Southern Soufflé, which explores how food affects community and gives a twist on southern recipes. (@southernsouffle)
Donna Battle Pierce, a 2015 recipient of a Harvard Nieman Foundation visiting fellowship, is a former assistant food editor and test kitchen director for the Chicago Tribune, and contributing editor for Upscale Magazine. Pierce is currently researching a cookbook about historic black recipes and cooks. (@blackamercooks)
Therese Nelson, NYC-based private chef and founder of the social network Black Culinary History. (@blackculinary)
Michael W. Twitty, noted culinary and cultural historian and the creator ofAfroculinaria, the first blog devoted to African American historic foodways and their legacy. (@koshersoul)
Psyche Williams-Forson, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. She is the author of Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World and the award-winning Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power.
V. Shree Williams, writes about her delicious relationship with food and wine as the publisher of Cuisine Noir, the country’s first black online and print food, wine, and travel magazine. (@cuisinenoirmag)
Imar Hutchins, owner of the world’s oldest soul-food restaurant, the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, D.C. He is vegan. (@imarhutchins)
Interviews have been condensed and edited.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE “SOUL FOOD”?
Therese Nelson says: The short answer is that soul food is the accessible and visceral cultural cuisine of a people. That’s as close as I’ve come to a sensible general answer. Black soul food is born out of trying to find identity in a place that historically marginalized and maligned our existence. Our soul food also has an element of resistance and irony.
Michael Twitty says: There’s soul food with a big S and a little s, and typically it’s used as shorthand to describe all of African-American food culture. For me, it’s the memory cuisine of the great-great-grandchildren of enslaved people. It’s part tradition, part nostalgia, part celebration, and part negotiation—kind of like being black in America. It’s us.
Donna Battle Pierce: For [my siblings and I], living life as a “first” or “only” black in classrooms and neighborhoods, the term soul food provided a welcome sense of belonging when it was introduced during the early 1960s. Soul food represented a very personal expression of black unity, black power, and the appreciation of our ancestors’ struggles.
Psyche Williams-Forson says: It is, as Vertamae Grosvenor says, black people’s “get down food.” For some, soul food is everything black people eat because of how it is prepared—our cooking techniques, our seasoning. Because too many Southerners cook and season the same way, it is also considered a shared cuisine, and yet it seems to be African Americans who bear the burden of “the consequences” of eating soul food on a regular basis.
DO YOU THINK SOUL FOOD IS UNFAIRLY MALIGNED?
Erika Council: I do, when speaking in reference to African-American culinary traditions. So often it’s directly associated with unhealthy fare loaded with sugar, or laden with pork and other fat/butter heavy foods—over-processed foods that are nothing from which our soul food truly originates.
V. Shree Williams says: You have some [people] who turn up their nose. Yet we are seeing that now everyone has a famous fried chicken-recipe, or is doing their version of collard greens. It just makes me shake my head.
Hutchins says: There is an oft-repeated notion that “soul food is killing black people.” I think the truth is that junk food is killing black people. If you ask the average black kid when is the last time he or she had soul food, the answer will probably be a year ago at a family reunion, cookout, or funeral. If you look at it historically, most of the soul-food diet was vegetarian—its base is vegetables, legumes, grains, et cetera. The meats that we would find at a soul-food restaurant today are really more of the “celebration food” of the African-American tradition, and not so much the daily fare that our ancestors would have eaten.
Donna Battle Pierce says: When I observe different types of people trying to describe or define soul food, I’m often amused by the different agendas represented. Some white culinary professionals seem intent on remaining experts in the field by considering soul recipes and Southern recipes an equal match. As recently as a decade ago, white food writers seemed unaware of the disrespect shown in print when they wrote about their surprise over black-owned “white-tablecloth” restaurants.
Michael Twitty says: Yes, I think soul food is identified with what you have called the “celebration foods” rather than the day-to-day staples that were basically healthy, minus some of the sodium. But even that is problematic because we need to be careful not to mistake the diet of working rural people with what we should be eating in our much more sedentary lives. I think soul food has also unfairly been identified with “slave food,” which it is not.
WHAT ARE THE GOOD AND BAD TRENDS IN SOUL FOOD RIGHT NOW?
Imar Hutchins says: The good trends are around the healthier evolution I just mentioned and a lot of experimentation with vegan versions of soul food classics. The most unfortunate trend is not so much a trend in the cuisine itself but a related one in the larger economy: the continued demise of historical soul food restaurants. When I took over Florida Avenue Grill ten years ago, there was a plethora of soul-food restaurants older than us. Today there are none.
Erika Council says: By far the worst trend is issues we face in the culinary world is how often the food we prepare is [called] “Soul Food” because it’s been prepared by a black chef. There are quite a few white chefs cooking the same food but they’re deemed experts in Southern cuisine. Why is that?
Therese Nelson says: I love the vegan soul-food movement. I think it allows for so many amazing culturally appropriate conversations about the true origins of our foodways and does a lot to break past the gross and flagrant oversimplification of a complex and beautiful cuisine. I hate that there are so many chicken shacks now. It’s as though this trendy moment in black foodways is boiling down to fried chicken. I mean don’t get me wrong fried chicken is obviously delicious, but do we really need another hipster chicken joint?
Donna Battle Pierce says: Bad trends: white chefs, institutions and media “discovering” soul food ingredients and traditions without giving proper credit. I still take deep breaths when I recall the day I walked into Whole Foods to see the big sign, “Collards: the New Kale.”
Michael Twitty says: It’s fantastic to see people thinking of collards and sweet potatoes and whole grains and fish etc. as healers rather than hinderers and making them in ways that speak to both traditional and holistic health. I also am proud to be a part of a movement of black culinarians who are specifically connecting foods, ingredients, and dishes to our family stories and genealogical and genetic stories.
WHAT HAPPENS TO SOUL FOOD WHEN IT IS PRESENTED IN A MAINSTREAM RESTAURANT SETTING? HOW IS IT REPRESENTED, OR WHAT TENDS TO GET LOST?
Therese Nelson says: I feel like soul food in the mainstream isn’t for us. I live in Harlem and black culture here is a commodity. On Sundays you have white tourists hopping on and off the city tour buses in search of ‘the gospel’ at Abyssinian baptist church, or knickknacks at the African market. But more than anything they want soul food, and we have a lot of it to offer. I love that soul food gives a space for entrepreneurship and for preserving this cuisine, but I do feel a bit like some of the soulfulness and the authenticity gets lost in the boiling down and shorthanded version on offer to the mainstream.
V. Shree Williams says: The problem that I see [in a mainstream restaurant] is credit is removed from who created dishes and what culture the food comes from. Again, I take fried chicken. When blacks talk about it, it is soul food, unhealthy, etc. But when Tyler Florence or Thomas Keller does it, the chicken is gourmet and now more people from other cultures want to eat it. The media spin becomes different and that is something I have not liked over the years.
Donna Battle Pierce says: I question the term “mainstream.” My experience is soul food presentation in a “mainstream” media setting. When I as Assistant Food Editor and Test Kitchen Director at the Chicago Tribune, I complained about the cartoonish ways soul food and Black chefs seemed to be presented. I use my Juneteenth cover as an example of the result of having Black editors and writers around the table. That year, following respectful interviews, detailed meetings with the stylist, designer and photographer, we produced an inspirational, informative, respectful cover story about Juneteenth. Of course, the following year, I was told that we had covered Juneteenth the previous year, when I requested the assignment. No minds were changed when I pointed out that we had covered July 4 the previous year, as well.
IS SOUL FOOD IN DANGER OF BECOMING IRRELEVANT?
Erika Council says: Not so much irrelevant as highly ill-represented. It’s constantly shown as fried chicken and pork seasoned collard greens, lacking the nutrient rich and fresh produce aspects of our cuisine.
Therese Nelson says: Irrelevant to whom? To black folks soul food is our birthright and our culinary soundtrack. It’s like asking if jazz or hip hop will ever be irrelevant. Do I think soul food will become less fetishized? Absolutely. I’m actually praying that moment gets here soon. Our foodways are having a moment of mainstream interest and the wave will come and go and come again, but what I’m excited about is that the ‘relevance’ or the moment of interest allows for serious work to be born.
Donna Battle Pierce says: Verta Mae Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking begins with one of my favorite descriptions about the true respect and relevance given to soul food “by anyone other than Black people” in this country. “In reading lots and lots of cookbooks written by white folks it occurred to me that people casually say Spanish rice, French fries, Italian spaghetti, Chinese cabbage….English muffins and Swiss cheese….there is no reference to black people’s contribution to the culinary arts. White folks act like they invented food and like there is some weird mystique surrounded it.”
Michael Twitty says: No, because we are stiff-necked eaters and a certain aggregate of middlemen will always need something to steal from, thus, life-support. ‘Nuff said.
Imar Hutchins says: I don’t think it will become irrelevant but it does have to return to its roots. I know most people wouldn’t say that but I view soul food evolving into a healthier version of itself as not something new but rather something old—a return to the mostly vegetarian, organic, home cooked food that our ancestors ate. That evolution will need to happen. But having said that, the stigma around the words “soul food” is so great that I’m not sure it can ever be overcome.
WHAT CITY DESERVES TO BE CALLED THE “SOUL-FOOD CAPITAL OF THE U.S.A.”?
Therese Nelson says: I refuse to answer this question lest I get stabbed for culinary treason, although I will say that it would seem that it would be someplace outside of the South, because a large part of the soul-food story is translating Southern regional cuisine outside of the South—but I may have said too much!
Donna Battle Pierce says: That title seems like one a white publication would select in an editorial meeting to highlight a lively photo-driven collection. Online, Thrillist did just that in 2014 with white senior editor, Andy Kryza—described as “a longtime writer and graduate of Michigan State’s School of Journalism….currently living in Portland, OR”—compiling a list of “21 of the Best Soul Food Kitchens in the Country.” Turns out New Orleans would have won the title of “Soul Food Capital of the U.S.” in this flawed listing with two restaurants: Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Dooky Chase’s, the “Soul Creole” restaurant owned by my grandmother’s friend, Leah Chase.
V. Shree Williams says: Cities in the running for me include Houston, Chicago, Harlem, D.C., Atlanta, Philly and Charlotte.
Michael Twitty says: Southern black food is a home-based rural cuisine, not an urban one whose creators are looking back and yet moving forward. I don’t even identify [soul food] with randomly dispersed eateries but more with places that have the collective idea of a soul-food scene.
Psyche Williams-Forson says: Given that African Americans are heavily populated in many cities, I find this one hard to answer. Chicago? Selma? Atlanta?
WHO IS CARRYING THE SOUL FOOD TORCH RIGHT NOW?
Erika Council says: Michael Twitty is educating the world about our foods’ heritage. Without that understanding, our food will continue to be erroneously labeled. His torch is more of a fire.
Therese Nelson says: So I love that the children and grandchildren of iconic soul food giants are carrying the traditions forward. I think they see the value of these traditions and want to keep the legacy and history alive. Sylvia Woods, Leah Chase, Mildred Council, Ben and Virginia Ali, Harry Sutton all built brands that remain iconic and their children and grandchildren are keeping the legacies alive.
Donna Battle Pierce says: The true soul food torch is being carried by family cooks who pass down family recipes for once-a-year feasts and tell family stories about dishes important to families
Michael Twitty says: It’s a blend of both people doing the tradition and expanding it out towards its elastic boundaries—and to me both are parts of true soul. We have Todd Richards, Meshama Bailey, BJ Dennis, Tanya Holland, Stephanie Tyson, Joseph “JJ” Johnson, [and] Duane Nutter.
Psyche Williams-Forson says: This puts a lot of emphasis on soul food as somehow “trendy.” I’m not certain that soul food needs a lot of spotlight or a torch unless UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) is going to place it on its list of representative of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is defined as being “the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.”
V. Shree Williams says: You have a few only because they receive media attention such as Marcus Samuelsson and Carla Hall. I love Carla Hall because she is going back to foods she grew up on. As for Marcus, he is making the right food at the right time. Tanya Holland in Oakland is also doing a great job with carrying the touch. But we can’t forget about businesses in their hometowns who are not in the spotlight but are carrying the torch and the people know it.
ARE AFRICAN AMERICANS THE ONLY ONES WHO CAN COOK AUTHENTIC SOUL FOOD?
Erika Council says: Who determines what “authentic” soul food is? When I look at articles written about my grandmothers’ restaurant, there is always that term there, soul food. Yet when I go to a white-owned, meat-and-three-style restaurant serving the same food, they are crowned as authentic “Southern” cuisine. Which to me is a big issue.
Therese Nelson says: I don’t think we’re the only ones that can cook it, I just think its preciousness and its cultural significance could very easily get lost in translation in the wrong hands. The same way soup dumplings or croissants or gnocchi can be disastrous in sloppy, culturally lazy hands, soul food takes care and thoughtfulness and respect. But unfortunately this is rarely the case, and the result is not delicious.
Imar Hutchins says: Just like all of the other cultural contributions of African Americans—such as jazz, language, hip hop, black fashion, dance, et cetera—we create and then we give it freely to the world to imitate, replicate, and maybe even improve on. So anyone today can make “authentic” soul food. However, I think that acknowledging the source of the tradition and giving reverence to the ancestors who brought it to us are essential parts of correct practice of the art making soul food. That is the difference between appropriation and homage.
Michael Twitty says: No, but if we want to avoid cultural appropriation we have to speak in terms of respecting the people, and respecting the tenets and vibe of their culture. A lot of people miss that part. It’s more than just ingredients—its identity, history, social politics. It’s never “just about the food.” It’s more than just nodding to “this is make do food…” or “the slaves…”. If you use those two phrases as shorthand for our cooking, I’m going to send you back to 101, no matter who you are.
HOW DOES THE NAME “SOUL FOOD” AFFECT ITS PERCEPTION IN MAINSTREAM AMERICA?
Therese Nelson says: I honestly have no idea. To me this question is like asking if blackness will ever be respected and valued by the mainstream. I think our food has a better chance of acceptance and reverence than our actual humanity does, but that’s the case with all of black art. The mainstream wants to consume the art while marginalizing the artist. I charge the black culinary community to do better about crafting the narrative around our foodways so that it won’t matter if other folks marginalize it. Soul food is in the marrow of our bones and the forfeit of that legacy for legitimacy in the mainstream is so dangerous.
Michael Twitty says: I rather enjoy that the moniker “soul food” continues to speak to an outsider perspective. I could care less if our received cuisine is mainstreamed because it was never really meant to speak to the needs of anyone outside of our communal and family circles—that it does is beautiful. I said in a recent talk—I figure if you name your cuisine after something metaphysical and spiritual, it has the opportunity to transcend difference. You need that reminder: this is exilic, migratory, magical, metaphysical edible jazz.
Psyche Williams-Forson says: As long as soul food is tied to blackness and African American identity (I use black and African American deliberately interchangeably), then yes, it will always be considered inartful and unsophisticated. Culture is fluid and food culture is no different but the two concepts—soul food and blackness—are inextricably linked. This is a good thing! But yes, until African-American cultures are seen as celebratory (outside of hip hop), then we have a long road ahead of us as food scholars, writers, and activists.