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The African American Cuisine of the United States: Soul Food

Soul Food was a term made common during the civil rights era in the 1960's at a time when many African Americans sought to reclaim their cultural legacy. The term may have first been used in 1962 by civil rights activist and poet Amiri Baraka. Sylvia Woods opened her now-famous Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s in that same year. Today, Woods is known by many as “the queen of Soul Food.” Soul food restaurants and cookbooks continued to be popular through the ’70s.

Soul food has its roots in the enslavement of African people when they had to make do with what was on hand. For the next 100 years after the abolition of slavery, many Black Americans continued to make use of the ingredients that were part of their food traditions. Of course, soul food isn’t entirely defined by a racial divide. Historically, there hasn’t been much of a difference between the foods eaten by poor Black Southerners and poor White Southerners.

The staples of soul food cooking are beans, greens, cornmeal used in cornbread, hush puppies, johnnycakes, and cornmeal as a coating for fried fish, and pork. Pork has been almost limitless in several uses in soul food, from seasoning vegetables and stews to dehydrating and pickling staples like pork rinds and pig feet, pig ears, and chitterlings.

Did you know fried chicken came to America in the 1900's by Scottish immigrants? Black folks just spiced it up and paired it with our famous collard greens. Collard greens—one of the oldest members of the cabbage family—are also deep in our history.

Trying to differentiate soul food from Southern food shouldn't be complicated. While not all Southern food is considered soul food, all soul food is Southern. I remember my mother frying okra that she picked from her garden, then later mixing the okra with stewed tomatoes and rice. When I see okra and tomatoes it brings back fond memories of her. Slaves were not allowed to bring any items from their homeland. So, they placed seeds were placed in their hair which allowed them to have some memory of their homeland. Some examples of the seeds are watermelon, yam, okra, black-eyed peas, and peppers just to name a few.

African Americans have made major contributions to American cuisine, and we need to embrace it. So make sure to celebrate by having some soul food this month in remembrance of our forefathers from Africa. Just remember the keyword is moderation! Enjoy!

Ms. Gaines is a founding partner and Director of Nutrition Services at Hebni Nutrition Consultants, Inc. Ms. Gaines has co-authored several wellness books. “The New Soul Food Cookbook for People with Diabetes”, “Slim Down Sister”, “Month of Meals,” Family Style Soul Food, and Healthy Soul Food, in conjunction with the American Diabetes Association.

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