What we know as Southern cuisine is really a vast composite of many cuisines and varied influences. Creole and cajun cuisine, for one, while influencing Southern cuisine is of itself its own very complex domain—a truth that Time/Life recognized when they published their seminal Foods of the World cookbooks in the 1960’s and dedicated a full volume to Creole cooking, plus another volume to mainstream Southern foods. So the foodways we call Southern really are the styles that developed in Appalachia, in the low-country of South Carolina and Georgia, in the parlors of Richmond and the pioneer kitchens of Kentucky alike, and much of the influence that you see in city traditions or those of the plantation culture expectedly reflect British roots, some French as well. But strong black American contribution turns up from the days when slaves at plantations were responsible for the harvesting and cooking of food.
It is from this black American tradition directly we see the emergence of soul food, of the efforts to use humble but flavorful seasonal harvests to produce robust, hearty, well-seasoned foods. While its core ingredients—shrimp, pork, onions and the all-important rice crop—have a lot in common with the planters of the Carolinas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, the spirit of soul food is closer kin to Appalachian foodways where families grew or raised nearly everything they needed to survive, where gardens and barnyards provided the raw ingredients for family meals. This approach allowed for variety and also for unique developments in soul cooking across the region, but there are ample unifying factors in soul food, too. And while soul food, like all foodways, took cues from other inspirations, it can be considered America’s first original and most authentic cuisine, one that didn’t mimic those of Europe but grew out of native production and creativity.
The unifying traits of soul food are an emphasis on BBQ, on roasting or frying meats, using rice as a base for a meat dish paired with vegetable sides which often are stewed, slow-cooked, or sometimes fried. There is also an emphasis on sweets, on desserts, and on spicy seasoning for flavorful regional seafood. Chicken and pork—livestock easier to raise than beef cattle on limited land—make up the lion’s share of soul cookery’s meat selections. In coastal or riparian regions, fish such as catfish or whiting and shellfish like crab and shrimp also define the cuisine.
While fried chicken is often thought of in relation to soul food, roast chicken—often made with sweet peppers—is also a core dish. Creative mixing of various foods together—such as the chicken and waffles which in recent years has become a trendy dish—is another hallmark, as is the use of gravies but rarely of complex sauces: indeed, a line between the plantation cookery of the South and soul food was the lack of cream or butter-based sauces in the latter, when in contrast to the folk cooking of white Appalachia, soul food tends to use more seasoning than Appalachian country cooking where seasoning often is sparse and perhaps limited to salt and pepper.
There is a belief that soul food is most often unhealthy, laden with lard and other fats, filled with too much sugar, and covered with too much salt. But this doesn’t do justice to the range of the cooking at all, and soul food can be prepared in a healthy manner as well. If anything, generous portions, rather than food unhealthy at a base level, has probably been the culprit in soul food’s adding pounds to waistlines. Cooking with fats, including adding pork leftovers or side-meats into vegetables while cooking for flavor, is commonplace but can be adjusted to produce both a healthy and flavorful dish. The manner in which vegetables are often cooked is one of pragmatism: slow-cooking allowed the lady of the house, who was normally the one cooking, to attend to other chores while vegetables cooked and reached a flavorful zenith of taste.
The first known written record of soul food—before it even had that name, which would not come until the 1960’s—was the 1881 publication of a cookbook called What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by Abby Fisher. Even prior to this book, aspects of what would be known as soul food has been noted and discussed, especially those germane to the Gullah culture of low-country South Carolina and Georgia where black American cuisine had taken cues from Native American traditions and also from foods specific to the region, such as shrimp and okra. At times, Gullah cuisine has been confused with Cajun cuisine, but its origins differ greatly even if some of its dishes seem similar. While the Gullah language and culture are now more-narrowly located geographically than ever in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, at one point in history this culture stretched northward into North Carolina and south to around Jacksonville, Florida.
The influence Gullah foodways have made on soul food in general can be felt especially in Florida, where fried okra, yellow rice, garlic crabs, and other staples of Gullah-style soul food also can be found as commonplace. Some features though, such as red rice and okra soup are more specific to the low-country Gullah cuisine and display very clear African roots as there are dishes quite similar to these in Africa. Garlic crabs often are prepared with corn on the cob and potatoes and overlap the tradition known as the low-country boil, where various seafood is boiled with spices and often potatoes and corn. Shrimp and grits, one of the hallmark dishes of the low-country and, for that matter, of Southern cuisine in general, also has Gullah roots.
It is interesting to think that Abby Fisher in 1881 wrote of what she considered as old Southern cooking and in her cookbook focuses more on the fine dining variants of plantation food overall, yet soul food cooking such as ox-tail stew finds its way in the pages alongside grander dishes. Interesting too is that some of the most-prized dishes of the 1880’s, many of the finer ones, have fallen into obscurity, whereas plain cooking such as fried chicken and shrimp and grits have been elevated to a status fitting of fine restaurants. And in the finest and most-trendy of Southern restaurants indeed you can find such dishes, not far from their roots no matter the lofty setting: Gainesville’s Blue Gill Quality Foods, for example, serves a fried chicken dinner that comes with mac n cheese, collard greens, and corn bread—all soul food favorites and all prepared in a manner in keeping with tradition.
Soul food moving into the fine dining realm, however, is rather new and a product of the general New Southern cuisine movement. For the most-authentic soul food with little fanfare but lots of love, informal neighborhood restaurants across the region are best, mostly in black American neighborhoods such as Orlando’s Parramore or between around Duffy Street and Victory Drive in Savannah. Restaurants like STM Seafood in Gainesville or Bradley’s Crab House in Savannah focus on the famed garlic crabs, conch, shrimp n grits, and other seafood staples, whereas places such as Wall’s BBQ in Savannah and Pearl Country Store BBQ in Micanopy, Florida, expertly pick up the BBQ trade. Many seafood sellers in the soul food convention focus only on the seafood at hand, possibly selling raw seafood to take home and cook as well, though many serve sides and some also have desserts, while, in contrast, most BBQ restaurants, no matter how humble, do offer dessert.
In fact, some, such as Pearl Country Store, have an overwhelming array of ever-changing desserts daily. A typical selection at Pearl would be a classic chocolate cake, a spice cake, maybe a German chocolate cake as well, plus pecan, lemon, peanut butter, coconut custard, chocolate mud, and apple pies—perhaps even more choices. Red velvet cake, though probably not a soul food original (the actual origins of this classic cake are somewhat debated), also factors into dessert menus at soul food restaurants quite commonly. Sweet potatoes, a staple of soul food in many regards, also makes a dessert appearance as sweet potato pie, an item many restaurants such as Orlando’s A Taste of C.L.A.S.S. feature to this day.
It is easy to assume that soul food simply grew out of necessary day-to-day conventions of harvesting and cooking food, and at the most basic level this is true. However, a real richness and depth has developed in soul food which is really the basis for much of what we see in Southern cuisine across the board today.
See More Mike Walker Soul Food Photos Here