I was recently alerted to a troubling trend in the food industry by someone who contacted me to voice their outrage. The concerned citizen explained that there was a large population of people who were confused, or were being intentionally misled, about the difference between soul food and the more widely available fare often described as “Southern cuisine.”
Aside from holding an advanced degree in wypipology, I was raised in a family that owned a series of small soul food restaurants. I would therefore like to use my expertise to offer this handy guide to a few ways you can tell the difference between soul food and Southern food.
Who Cooked It
This is the most important aspect. While anyone with a kitchen, a tub of butter and a Paula Deen cookbook can make Southern cuisine, soul food requires certain things from the cook.
First of all, all soul food technicians usually listen to gospel music when they are preparing the meals, preferably James Cleveland or the Mississippi Mass Choir. Their attire should consist of a pre-1993 family reunion T-shirt and house shoes (not to be confused with slippers; athletes and ballerinas also wear slippers).
To qualify for soul food consideration, the cook must also be an aunt, uncle, grandfather or grandmother. It doesn’t have to be a blood aunt, but there must be someone who refers to the cook as Aunt Wilma or Uncle Charles. I make my candied yams the same way my mother taught me when I was 17, but now that my sisters have gifted me with nieces and nephews, my candied yams somehow taste different.
Southern cuisine uses herbs and spices. Soul food uses seasoning. If you are confused about whether something qualifies as a seasoning or as a spice, there is an easy way to tell: Spices grow in herb gardens, while no one knows where seasonings come from. No one buys seasoning; it just exists. I’ve been using the same bottle of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt since the George W. Bush administration, and it’s only half-gone. I run out of thyme all the ...
OK, no puns.
Southern cuisine is concocted from recipes, while soul food is made from knowledge. I once saw a recipe that said “season to taste” and finally understood why white people’s chicken tastes like a crisp fall breeze blowing an American flag at a Toby Keith concert.
Soul food instructions come with measurements like “a little bit of nutmeg,” “’bout this much butter” and “a bunch of sugar.”
Speaking of chicken ...
Soul fool chicken is cut into individual parts, while there are only two pieces of Southern chicken: the breast and the quarter. If you order fried chicken in a Southern restaurant, you will either receive a breaded boneless, skinless chicken breast or one-fourth of the entire bird.
In a soul food restaurant, you can order a thigh and a wing. I contend that the thigh is the most underrated and least-talked-about piece of chicken, yet it is never separated from the leg in Caucasian cuisine. Legs are trash. If you’re over 7 and you still eat legs, you need to grow up.
Even when Southern restaurants bake or barbecue chicken, they surface-season their food. Soul food seasoning actually reaches the soul of the chicken and spreads itself through the meat.
One of the easiest ways to tell whether a meal is black-based is by examining the juice. I’m not referring to gravy here. All soul food makes its own juice. While collard green juice is perhaps my favorite juice, followed by the combination of black-eyed peas and candied-yam juice, some people prefer meat-based juices like turkey-wing juice.
The juice at the bottom of a plate of soul food is exceeded only by Fruity Pebbles milk on the list of drinkable remnants. There is one more thing I must add, but I must step back a few feet and turn on all caps:
WHITE GRAVY IS NOT A THING!
White gravy is the devil’s semen. There is no meat that turns gravy white, so stop doing that right now!
The most noticeable difference between soul food and the Southern variety is the ancillary items that accompany the plate. Biscuits and cornbread may be served in both soul food and Southern-cuisine eateries, but Southern-cuisine biscuits are perfectly rounded, and their cornbread muffins sometimes include bullshit like corn.
Soul food cornbread is square. How the fuck am I supposed to sop up my cabbage juice with a circular piece of bread?
And don’t come in here with that yeast-roll bullshit unless you want to get stabbed in the eye with this cornbread knife.
If you eat Southern cuisine, there is no difference between a macaroni edge and the center of the baked dish. Soul food, however, is an edge-centric art form.
The burnt edges of baked macaroni are the best, followed closely by all crust-related desserts. The centers of peach cobblers are trash. In the two thousand eighteenth year of our lord and savior Gladys Knight, why hasn’t anyone figured out a way to make an all-edge peach cobbler? Apparently scientists are too busy focusing on bullshit like sex robots and the cure for cancer to concentrate on real issues.
This is a very important but underrecognized aspect of soul food. Southern cuisine uses vegetable or canola oil whenever a dish requires frying. But to be considered soul food, it must be fried in grease that someone saved from the last time you made the dish.
You’re probably wondering how you get old grease if you never use new grease. Listen, nigga, If you want to get into a metaphysical argument about which came first, the chicken or the grease, go eat some chicken-fried steak, because you want Southern food. No one breads and fries a perfectly good steak.
And don’t ever confuse the fish grease with the chicken grease. It’s the cardinal rule of greasery.
Southern restaurants will give you a knife, a spoon and possibly two forks. You can get a fork with a plate of soul food and that’s it. Soul food should be eaten with your hands or with another part of the meal. Biscuits are perfect for rounding up loose pieces of rice and gravy. And you should use paper towels from a roll when eating soul food, while napkins (cloth or paper) are allowed with Southern-based dishes.
I hope this disambiguation clears everything up. If you are still unclear whether your food is soul food or Southern food, just remember:
Any cook, black or white, can make Southern cuisine ...
But only one of the two has a soul.