Mention “soul food” and you will hear scores of health and medical professionals claim that it is the downfall of the health and well-being of African Americans. It is true that African Americans have some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers of any group in this country. But frankly, I’m getting sick of soul food being held partially responsible for this. The majority of people imagine the traditional soul food diet as unsophisticated and unhealthy fare comprised of high-calorie, low-nutrient dishes replete with, salt, sugar, and bad fats. Rather than vilifying traditional soul food, let’s focus on the real culprit, what I like to call instant soul food.
In reality, soul food is good for you. In order to understand why, you have to understand grits. As seen with instant grits, mass production and distribution has diminished the product’s superb quality and has obscured the distinctive characteristics that make down-home hominy so darn desirable in the first place. The taste of instant grits boxed up in a factory can never compare to the complex nutty flavor of grits stone-ground in a Mississippi mill. So it’s understandable that those who have only had that watered-down stuff (read: many of my friends in the Northeast) scoff at the mention of grits.
Similar to instant grits, instant soul food is a dishonest representation of African American cuisine. And to be clear, when I refer to instant soul food, I’m not just describing the processing, packaging, and mass marketing of African American cuisine in the late 1980s. I’m also alluding to the oversimplified version of the cuisine that was constructed in the popular imagination in the late 1960s.
The term “soul food” first emerged during the black liberation movement as African Americans named and reclaimed their diverse traditional foods. Clearly, the term was meant to celebrate and distinguish African American cooking from general Southern cooking, and not ghettoize it. But in the late 1960s, soul food was “discovered” by the popular media and constructed as the newest exotic cuisine for white consumers to devour. Rather than portray the complexity of this cuisine and its changes throughout the late 19th and 20th century, many writers played up its more exotic aspects (e.g., animal entrails) and simply framed the cuisine as a remnant of poverty-driven antebellum survival food.
To paraphrase food historian Jessica B. Harris, “soul food” was simply what Southern black folks ate for dinner.
Sadly, over the past four decades most of us have forgotten that what many African Americans in the South ate for dinner just two generations ago was diverse, creative, and comprised of a lot of fresh, local, and homegrown nutrient-dense food.
Most self-proclaimed soul food restaurants, a considerable amount of soul food cookbooks, and the canned and frozen soul food industry reinforce this banal portrayal of African American cuisine. Moreover, film and television routinely bombards viewers with crass images of African American eating habits and culinary practices that further distort and demonize soul food.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, collards greens, and peach cobbler being reinterpreted. But romanticizing comfort foods that should be eaten occasionally, and presenting these foods as standard fare not only rewrites history, but it also normalizes unhealthy eating habits for African Americans who are unaware of their historical cuisine.
When I think about the soul food that my grandparents and their parents ate, I do have some fond memories of deep-fried meats, overcooked leafy greens, and sugary desserts occasionally making a cameo on our menu. But, I also recall lightly sautéed okra, corn, and tomatoes recently harvested from their “natural” backyard garden in South Memphis. Divine recollections abound of butchered-that-morning herb-roasted chicken from Paw-Paw’s coop; “grit cakes” fashioned from breakfast leftovers and then grilled alongside pulled pork; Ma’Dear’s chutney made from peaches that came from Miss Cole’s mini-orchard next door; and fresh watermelon purchased from a flatbed truck on the side of the road and served with salt sprinkled on each slice.