Soul Food: A New Place at the Table

Illustration for article titled Soul Food: A New Place at the Table

My own interest in the study of black food culture field began innocently enough as a child at the tables of my mother and grandmother where I savored hot water bread, oxtails and chess pie all the while pondering the logic of pig feet, stewed okra and banana pudding. My interest in the Diaspora grew stronger after living in France for a short time, as an affaire d'amour led me on a journey of discovery deep into the North African neighborhoods of Paris in search of the best Algerian pastries I could find. The affair ended, but the experience led to an article in Gastronomica, an obsession with Algerian food and culture I still can't shake, and an even deeper interest in the cultural and culinary connections among people of African descent outside of the continent.


I know that there are others who share my passion for our food culture, so I was thrilled to learn that Dillard University is creating an Institute for the Study of Culinary Cultures. To be housed within the university's department of African-American material culture, the institute will examine the foodways (i.e., the gathering, preparation and consumption of food of a cultural group) of the people of the African Diaspora.

After I read about the institute in Saveur magazine, I was so excited that I called its director, Jessica Harris. As I heard about all her expansive plans which include the creation of an online clearinghouse for the general public and an international conference on the food of the Diapsora, I couldn't help but wonder: Why had something like this not been created before now? Why has so little attention been given to the food of African Americans and the African Diaspora never been fully explored? Cookbook authors have provided scores of recipes for greens, cornbread and barbecue sauce but that seems to be where interest and research ends for most. Certainly there has never been an academic entity created with the singular focus of expanding the body of information on black foodways. There are organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance that looks at the food of African Americans under the umbrella of Southern food and the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a self-described educational charity that focuses on the examination of the foodways and the food history of people around the world. While my own response to the dearth of material on black foodways—racism—was admittedly somewhat parochial, Harris had a far more nuanced take on the situation: She suggested that this lack of attention is a result of the conflict that people feel in the Americas regarding enslavement and their roles within it.

Upon reflection I realized that during slavery and until very recently in the Americas, blacks and whites have had very specific roles in relationship to food, with whites in the role of consumers almost exclusively and blacks in roles that included preparing, cooking and disposing of the waste generated by whites. The sordid history of servitude has generated profound feelings of guilt, shame and anger on both sides of the fence. For black people in particular, that history continues to shape our food choices and our lives in the kitchen and at the table.

In the United States, the body of work on African-American foodways that has been compiled by black people has often been in the context of our social condition, which has led us to exoticize our own food under the guise of consciousness-raising or pride (see the chapter entitled "Soul Food" in Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice). Ultimately, this has led outsiders to do the same. To be sure, there are plenty of examples to the contrary, Harris herself, Bryant Terry, the late Edna Lewis and others but it seems that there is a disproportionate focus on the extremes of the cuisine—high fat, sugar and salt contents, and of course offerings like chitlins, which served very specific purposes for the ancestors that are no longer beneficial to our health or dietary needs today. This is the norm that has helped to marginalize black foodways: presenting a very limited view of the diversity and richness of the food.

Within academia, the study of the foodways of people of African descent, particularly in the United States, has been approached not as a legitimate, singular field of study, but as an area of interest from scholars across the disciplines. The same can be said of interest in the food of the Diaspora in the non-academic culinary world of chefs, restaurants and foodies. The gravitas that has characterized the study and emulation of European and Asian cuisines seems thus far to have eluded the cuisine of people of African descent (save Morocco) around the world. Thus, the idea of an institute created by blacks devoted to the study of the foodways of black people outside of Africa is quite simply, a seminal moment in the food history of African Americans and of the African Diaspora in general.

The idea that the legacy of enslavement shapes our attitudes about something as quotidian as our food is a poignant one. Going beyond scholarship, this means that everything we choose to put into our mouths (or not), particularly as black people in the United States, is shaped by that legacy. This may be true in other parts of the Diaspora in the Americas, but it is undeniable in the United States, where even our food choices are somehow politicized and weighed down heavily with the complexity of our origins in the New World. From sitting down to a Sunday dinner that might include greens and cornbread, or heading to the local soul vegetarian restaurant for a meal, or firing up the grill in the park for a family gathering, or even preparing mushrooms and shallots for a tasty thyme-infused mushroom ragout to accompany a juicy steak or pork loin, most people, I am convinced, rarely connect choices that they make to the legacy that anchors our existence in the United States.


So many of us who have not thought about our food do not consider or perhaps take for granted that African-American cuisine is so much more than the social construct that is soul food. Flipping through Edna Lewis' classic work The Taste of Country Cooking substantiates this claim. First published in 1976, the book is filled with anecdotes of Lewis' childhood in the Virginia Piedmont during the early part of the 20th century. Most significantly it holds dynamic seasonal menus for every meal, with recipes for things like spiced Seckel pears, braised leg of mutton, and lentil and scallion salad alongside recipes for biscuits, sweet potato pie and fried chicken.

As I have begun to discover the wonders of the foodways of the African Diaspora in my own kitchen, incorporating what I have learned from Algerian, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Brazilian friends thus far, I have made room for orange flower water, coconut milk, sofrito and plantains, in my own larder. My hope is that the creation of the Institute of Culinary Cultures can help to spark a movement that helps African Americans see our food with new eyes, carefully considering it and embracing not only the regional elements of African-American foodways that make the cuisine so diverse, but also the techniques and ingredients that tie us to our brethren in the African Diaspora of the Americas and ultimately to Africa. I agree with a sentiment Harris shared: It will be "nice to have people who have the taste in their mouth, in their blood, if you will, writing about it." Nothing gives more credence to a cultural movement than having people within that culture accept and advance it.


For more information, check out the following resources:

Jessica Harris has stocked a full pantry with culinary literature. The Southern Foodways Alliance stores information on organization and programming. The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco has a permanent exhibition on culinary traditions in the Diaspora.


Rachel Finn is a Chicago-based food writer.