A Brief History of Soul Food

Soul Food derived from prized southern dishes during the American slavery era. Soul Food was mostly known as Southern or comfort food, and is now the foundation for bringing back memories of family dinners and special celebrations. This method of cooking also introduced the foundation from which many popular dishes are made from today.

Era 300 - 1619

Between 300 -1619, the first group of Africans landed in America in Jamestown, Virginia. African American slaves were farmers, cattle raisers, and fishermen and introduced several plants and seeds to plant such as black-eyed peas, okra, sweet sorghum, and watermelons as part of American’s crops and foods.

Slaves Created Their Meals

The slaves created their own meals from the leftovers that their masters did not eat. They often exchanged recipes verbally with each other which led to the development of African American cuisine. This was how many of their foods were gathered for their meals.

Although their love for cooking included pork, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and spoon bread, breakfast was considered the most important meal of the day. A typical breakfast consisted of hoecakes and molasses.

Young Girls Learned to Prepare Meals

During that time in history, young girls learned to prepare traditional foods such as fufu, which is made with vegetables and pounded yams. Fufu was often served with soup, stew, or roasted meat. The native foods were yams, vegetables, rice, and groundnuts. Africans were also very skilled in frying, roasting, grilling, boiling, and steaming their foods. They also had special talents preparing wild game, and planting small gardens including wild greens and fruit. Women often worked 16 to 18 hours in the fields then prepared one-pot meals for their family.

Cooking Methods and Techniques

Cooking was mostly done on open pits or fireplaces with large swing black pots and big iron cast skillets and were prepared by black cooks. Cooking on open pits are now used as grills.

The slaves did not use measuring cups or cooking devices. They had no cookbooks or formal training in cooking. They had no one to learn from except each other.

It was a great challenge for them to create good food with primitive tools and very limited ingredients. They also cooked such foods as biscuits, baked beans, a variety of breads, and barbecue.

They used large amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to season their foods because it was readily available. Salt was also used as a preservative since there were no refrigeration or other methods to keep food cool.

When testing their food for doneness, they used their own senses, and when they felt the need, they added a pinch of seasoning to enhance the flavor of their dish. They knew by their instinct when their food was done as many cooks know today. That’s also why you see many recipes that read "a pinch of salt and pepper" or “bake until golden brown.”

Cajun and Creole were also a familiar style of cooking and included such popular dishes as jambalaya, bread pudding, desserts, dirty rice, gumbo, and red beans and rice.

During that time in history, black cooks verbally exchanged recipes as they remembered them and today many Southerners still cook without a recipe, just by simply remembering main ingredients and adding seasonings and spices to their taste. This way of cooking has produced many great cooks.

By the end of the Civil War, Black Americans cooked on cattle farms and were pioneers as farmers and survived off the land. During these hard and difficult times, they adapted their own cooking habits and techniques and formed many new ones along the way.

African American Cuisine- Now Soul Food

In the 1960‘s, Southern-style cooking by Black Americans was renamed “Soul Food” in honor of black cooks who prepared food during the slavery era. It was also a reminder that these cooks paved the way in the development of African American cuisine - now soul food.

Today, people from all walks of life, young and old, enjoy soul food cuisine. Soul food is also prepared in many households in America for family gatherings and special celebrations. The foundation for soul food was laid many years ago, and today, the tradition lives on.

Cassandra Harrell is a Soul Food Advisor and recently owned a soul food restaurant and catering service. She has coached one-on-one sessions on preparing great soul food cuisine.

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