Learning To Love Soul Food

As a young cook, I pushed back against the term when it was used to describe my food. Here’s why I finally stopped fighting, and what I’m excited about in the years ahead.
By Latria Graham
February 10, 2020

I have a confession: I love soul food. Until a couple of years ago, I never would have said that, even though I’ve been cooking the cuisine since I was a teenager.

Back in college, when I was homesick but unable to admit it, I would do the half-mile walk to the local food co-op on Sunday mornings, composing my menu in my head. I would return with my backpack stuffed with fresh ingredients. Sunday was my day off from studying, and I spent the midday hours cleaning, chopping, and preparing. I cooked all the things that I would never find in the Dartmouth College cafeteria in the wilds of New Hampshire: squash casserole, butter peas, cornbread. When my parents dropped me off at the start of the semester, they made sure I had a case of chowchow, and it stayed out of sight at the bottom of my closet, only to be opened on special occasions. I begged my grandmother to send me proper cornmeal, since our local store only had the roughly ground stuff in their bulk bin. Removed from its original setting in my South Carolina home, my classmates insisted that what I was serving was soul food.

“It’s inescapable, that term,” award-winning restaurateur Alexander Smalls said as he sighed through the phone. When he decided to transition from his career as a renowned opera singer to that of a chef, he would not allow the term to define the dishes he was cooking. Instead, he called it heritage cuisine. “In the 70s [soul food] still had a sweetness to it,” he explains, “but in the 80s and 90s, it was essentially code language and a limitation. All of a sudden, color was the deciding factor to what you cooked and who you were culturally,” he says. “I think it became a cataloguing for white people to deal with black people–what black people did and could cook.”

Left: Latria Graham Carlo Nasisse
Right: Alexander Smalls Beatriz da Costa

So, by the time I was in college in the early 2000s, the term “soul food” felt like a slap in the face. I associated it with funky, undesirable plates of offal that my ancestors only ate because they were starving. Back in the Carolinas, we called the dishes I made lots of things–Southern food, country cooking, comfort food. But under no circumstances did we call it soul food. Acknowledging soul food requires an understanding of our country's uncomfortable history, and I couldn't yet see that soul food was the epicenter of American cuisine, whose underpinnings were built on the backs of black people brought to this country as enslaved labor.

The hallowed halls of learning threatened to take the little pride I had in my homeplace. In class I learned that I was the descendent of transatlantic human cargo, people who, before 23andMe, had no identifiable country. I couldn’t tell people I was Swiss, French, or Senegalese. There was nowhere—no country, no community in the world—where I could go, speak, and be truly understood. I had watermelon, peaches, and cotton in my past, and I was ashamed of it. I knew little about my ancestors, who they were, or when they arrived, and history books always painted them as poor unskilled know-nothings huddled together against the South Carolina mountain cold. Now I understand that they were architects who built the rice field's levees, cultivating staples of the American diet, forever transforming the landscape.

Reclaiming My Story

My environment’s messaging was clear: Modern women don’t make soul food. I also got some of that signaling from my mother, a woman I looked up to, who would only eat pickled pig feet when she thought no one was looking (sorry, Mom). Sometimes the name of a dish didn’t help either. My paternal grandmother made something the family called a “junk pot” every winter holiday after the hogs were killed. Comprised of pork parts like hog lips, feet, and ears, it was simmered until it became one gelatinous mass. Even though I was a pint-sized, adventurous eater ordering sushi and creating my own recipes by the age of 10, I was never curious about the flavors in the junk pot. After all, why would I want to eat junk? I tucked away all of the foods that we were told never to eat in mixed company: hogshead cheese, salmon patties, and liver and onions. I stuck to the safer staples like fried chicken and sweet potato pie.

In college word got around about my cooking, and people started showing up, money in hand, or asking how they could contribute. Soul food brought me something that I desperately needed: community. My friends, who hailed from all over the country and from as far away as Hong Kong and Romania, would meet me in the basement of my dorm, and for a couple of hours we understood that we could lay our burdens down, pretend our hypercompetitive environment didn’t exist, and enjoy one another’s company. What happened around the table is what sustained me. A proper meal gave us permission to stop worrying about our futures, the impending recession, and what we wanted to be when we grew up. Partaking in dining experiences, like the ones I grew up with, showed me how the people around me were emotionally bound together—whether mourning at a funeral or celebrating a new life at a baby shower.

In the early days of Facebook, many of my classmates (myself included) were still trying to outrun the history of our ancestors, doing our best to fit in with our white peers. We beat the curves off our bodies with strict exercise regimes, permed our hair, and fretted about becoming “mad black women” when we were upset. The pressure to assimilate into society meant the last thing many of us wanted was to be seen as aggressively, unapologetically Black­–and both soul food, which conjured up images of afros and Black Pride, were exactly that.

Greg DuPree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro; Food Styling: Margaret Monroe Dickey

I would be a college graduate with hundreds of Sunday dinners under my belt before I understood that soul food gave Black people a tether, a story that we could be proud of, if only we understood its origins and not just the marketing surrounding it. The cuisine is the summation of the ability and ingenuity of thousands of unnamed cooks who taught their skills to others, keeping a people’s culinary memory and sensory story alive.

The term “soul food” was coined at a time when the nation still had “white” and “colored” water fountains, when Black folks had to enter a restaurant through the back door and get their food to go. Soul food spots owned by black businesspeople were havens from segregation. At a number of establishments like Dooky Chase's Restaurant, proprietors gave activists a place to organize. Cooks like Georgia Gilmore sold food to fund the alternative transportation that Black people used during the Montgomery bus boycott. To the long lens of history, people like her were just cooks—those who made foods taught to them by their elders—but as part of the fabric of the civil rights movement, they helped change everything.

Trailblazers Patrick Clark, Joe Randall, Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, Princess Pamela, Sylvia Woods, and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor wrote down what they knew, creating a tangible bridge to the past. Kitchens were once places of great societal change and innovation, and the potential for that type of momentum exists once again.

Soul Food vs Southern Food

I am not the only one who has come to this realization—historians, chefs, and diners across the country are reexamining their relationship to the complicated term. As more information about our African ancestry becomes available, we learn more about the rich backstory of the food we grew up with and are able to enjoy the nostalgia without the shame. Still, I’ve struggled with articulating some of the basic underpinnings of the cuisine: What is soul food, if it is not explicitly Southern food? Who owns the term? Why do the culinary offerings seem to be frozen in time, and who is working to move the cuisine forward?

Recipe: Chicken Thighs and BBQ Beans By Todd Richards, SOUL 

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Claire Spollen; Food Styling: Margaret Monroe Dickey

In an effort to answer the first question, I reached out to culinary historian Adrian Miller, the author of the James Beard Award winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time. “I think the differences between Southern and Soul are very blurred, but they sharpen when you get outside of the South,” he explains. As America expanded, Black people traveled the unfamiliar terrain taking their foodways with them as they sought their fortune out West or up North, carrying recipes and memories in shoebox meals for train rides during the Great Migration. “Soul food tends to be more seasoned.” He presents an example: “You have fried chicken, which is definitely part of Southern food and soul food, but it makes total sense that something like Nashville fried chicken comes out of the African-American tradition—that’s a difference in seasoning.” For him, there are also differences in ingredients. “In a lot of Southern restaurants, I’ve just never seen chitlins,” he points out. “I’ve seen them in soul food restaurants.”

Left: Adrian Miller Bernard Grant
Right: Carla Hall Melissa Hom

Chef Carla Hall has decided to reclaim the term Soul Food. Hall understood that memory and heritage live in the spice, smoke, and heat that comes as part of the strong flavor profile of Soul Food, but she didn't realize just how much of the cooking traditions and techniques that define Southern food were invented and executed by African-Americans, making it their economic and social legacy. As a Howard alum with decades of professional cooking experience, she considers herself well educated in many areas but admits she had limited knowledge of the breadth and depth of foodways of the African diaspora in America until she became the ambassador for Sweet Home Café, the hallmark restaurant of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now she believes Soul Food is a cuisine that demands capitalization. "Usually a cuisine is capitalized because it comes from a particular place. Well, we [Black people] don't have a place. It's not my fault—or the cuisine's—that it cannot be attached to a place or a country," she explains. In her 2018 cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food, she writes a love letter to the food of her elders and ancestors, her region, and herself: “We relied on seasonal vegetables, beans, and grains, with meat on rare occasion,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “We made the most delicious dishes with what we had,” she adds. Soul Food, for her, is vegetable centric, and she focuses on the everyday foods her family ate, occasionally including the richer, heavier celebration foods that are considered standards in the cuisine’s repertoire. Hall presents Soul Food as filling but also intellectually challenging. Yes, smoking and frying foods impart flavor, but they were also acts of preservation in the days before refrigeration. By redefining the scope of Soul Food, she hopes to change the stereotypes about it, destigmatizing dishes, and helping a new generation of chefs explore what Soul Food means for them.

“I didn’t grow up with the term Soul Food—when I hear that term, I immediately think of Southern food,” says 27-year-old chef Alejandro Bolar. An Atlanta native, Bolar is the brain behind the pop-up dining experience Éclair ATL. He cites the dearth of black chefs in the industry as a major detriment to the understanding of Soul Food cuisine, and he is currently in the middle of his own culinary journey. Often working with regional ingredients like the plums from his grandparents’ farm, highlighting indigenous staples like corn, and utilizing the New American plating aesthetic, Bolar is troubling the boundaries around diners’ perceptions of what his cuisine should look and taste like

Left: Alejandro Bolar Amber Schreiner
Right: Adrienne Cheatham Melissa Hom

Good Food and Good Company

Another culinary practitioner pushing the envelope is chef Adrienne Cheatham. “I don’t think I’m doing my job highlighting a cuisine if I’m doing something my great grandmother did in exactly the same way. That’s kind of my job—to see things and reinterpret them,” she emphasizes.

With 15 years of professional experience under her belt, she has cooked in some of the best kitchens in the country. For eight years she worked at the three-Michelin star restaurant Le Bernardin, eventually becoming its Executive Sous Chef. She then became the Chef de Cuisine of the Marcus Samuelsson Group. After she took home second place on season 15 of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” she decided to focus on pushing the conversation about Southern cuisine and Soul Food forward. Now she hosts a dining series called Sunday Best, which stems from her family’s tradition of gathering on Sundays to enjoy good food and good company. Until recently, Cheatham says, she stayed away from soul food and Southern cuisine because it got no respect. “It was home cooking,” she says. “It’s the same way the French viewed bistro cooking—yes it had a place, but it wasn’t a place that got a lot of respect or recognition, so if you wanted to be a serious chef it was not a kind of cuisine that you were going to go and cook.”

Greg DuPree; Prop Styling: Claire Spollen; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Cheatham’s father hails from Mississippi, and when she was younger, she saw soul food as something familiar that she didn’t need to study–at least until she entered formal training: “I would learn things in culinary school and I would realize, oh my god, this is a bechamel? This is exactly how you make mac and cheese. You call it a mornay, but I call it the sauce for mac and cheese because that’s what my great aunt in Mississippi calls it. So there are all these techniques that are shared in so many cultures and cuisines and I started to connect the dots,” she says. At the restaurants where she worked, she occasionally tried to add regional ingredients to the menu. “It was weird to see how resistant some people were to giving Soul Food respect, but that’s exactly how French cuisine evolved into Nouvelle cuisine—you took down-home country cooking and made it a little fancier,” she explains. “Why does Southern food have to stay in a vacuum? Why can’t it be something that evolves and grows and changes?” A new generation of innovators like Edouardo Jordan, Mashama Bailey, Ashleigh Shanti, Kwame Onwuachi, Todd Richards, Toni Tipton-Martin, and Howard Conyers seek to answer that question.

The Future of Soul Food

Food has always been, and will continue to be, a political statement. It is a tool used to signify who we are and how we ground our identity. It took a decade of deprogramming for me to understand that beauty comes in every shade, to take confidence in the knowledge I gleaned from my family’s land, and to learn to view Soul Food with a less harsh lens. Once I started reading about the history of my people and their ingenuity and innovation in the kitchen, I realized that Soul Food was never just neckbones and junk pots. America is my country and Soul Food is my cuisine. I am the descendant of people who had so little, but did so much with the little they had, leaving behind a legacy of creativity, patience, strength, and hope. Within it are memories of sun-kissed shoulders in the Carolina sun, red-eye gravy early on Sunday mornings, and winters spent roasting sweet potatoes in the coals of the woodstove. What I put on my plate is a testimony of sorts—of survival, determination, achievement, resistance and indomitable spirit. My palate is the result of my ambitions and growth, and I get to travel, seeing and tasting things my ancestors could never comprehend. I understand that we—Americans as a whole, but specifically as Black people—can’t know where we're going if we don't know where we've been.

Soul Food is slowly starting to be appreciated and is finally earning James Beard Awards. Many of the flavors we have always enjoyed are being reinterpreted, and diners are eager to taste the cuisine’s latest offerings. The new definitions of Soul Food seek to hold concepts like heritage, community, survival, pride, struggle, celebration, and love in conversation with one another. Soul Food, as I define and understand it, is not my enemy, nor does it have to be my entirety, and I can’t wait to see where chefs decide to take the cuisine next.

Recipe: Ginger and Collard Green Fried Rice By Todd Richards, SOUL 

Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Margaret Monroe Dickey; Prop Styling: Thom Driver

Latria Graham is a journalist, and fifth generation South Carolina farmer. Find more of her work at LatriaGraham.com