Ethnic. Soul. Southern. Gullah. Afrocentric. Creole-inspired. There is a vast amount of titles that can represent the cuisine that was originally crafted by Africans more than 400 years ago, then recrafted by African slaves brought to the Americas, and is still being recrafted now, post-slavery. Soul Food is the most culturally relevant food for all Black or African American communities. “It’s not just about food. It’s a slow process. It’s about gathering with family. It’s heavy. It’s a culture to nourish not just the body but the soul.” as described by Emmy Sprayberry, one of my favorite baristas in Jackson, MS at Deep South Pops. As an African American raised in the south, this ethnic cuisine has shaped my palate and the way I see food, but not just me, I believe Soul food has been imprinted in the soul and palate of America. The food culture influenced in America by the black community is a spectrum. Whether it’s in the bayou of Louisiana, the backwoods of Arkansas, the grill pit of North Carolina, or the Mississippi Delta, the “food culture of soul” has and is still greatly shaping the American cuisine.
We use the terms Cajun, Creole, Soul, Lowcountry and overlook the origins. These derive from variety of cultures and nations, from French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, Italian, Native American and others, all shaping a new culture. With certain fruits, vegetables, and herbs originating in a various regions like sweet potatoes in Central America, Yams in West Africa, or Muscadine Grapes in what is now the Southeastern U.S. Slaves took what was found, what they knew, and made something new. These quickly became traditions and now after generation to generation we still benefit from this creative process of food that fills our bellies and our souls.
Of course just about everyone is aware the health complications that come about with a diet filled with fried catfish, chicken livers, collard, turnip, and mustard greens, butter and lima beans, black-eyed peas, cornbread, grits, chitterlings, ham hocks, okra, gumbo, beans and rice, crawfish, shrimp, and hushpuppies. Read that sentence again. There is a great variety of vegetables present. So I pose the question, “What’s the deal?” I would say it’s the bacon fat, the ham hock, the fact many things are fried in lard or some kind of animal fat. But I would not be fully correct. I was having a conversation with Mr. Terry Rhodes, a cross country and track and field coach at Jackson State University, and he stated, “That [soul] food was good for the slaves, it fulfilled their nutritional needs for laboring in the fields from sunrise to sunset in the blistering hot South. We have come long and far from that lifestyle, being now so sedimentary, that diet does not fit us.” So the next question is, how can adjust our diets but still enjoy the over 400 year old cuisine?
Over the span of this school year at Brown Elementary, I have been finding ways to cook Soul food with the students but with a healthier twist. Sweet potatoes are a staple in Mississippi. The students and I harvested sweet potatoes from the school garden and with those we made sweet potato chips. Thinly sliced sweet potato with a little sunflower or coconut oil on parchment paper baked at about 325° F for about 20 minutes until crisp and lightly added cinnamon and sea salt. It was a huge success, the students still ask about making it again. Later, we made fried green tomatoes. Yes, I said fried. I was able to teach the students about the culture of frying in the South. Here’s the twist though: a pan instead of a pot. We pan-fried green tomatoes with green tomatoes, of course, battered in fry cornmeal in a very little bit sunflower oil. Another huge success.
We can create Soul food that’s good for the soul and body with today’s lifestyle. Although it seems impossible or that flavor must be compromised, with learning the skill of recrafting our cooking processes, we can truly find successes in healthy culturally relevant food in our Black and African American communities. I salute all of my ancestors, the ones who took what they knew, what they found, and made something deliciously new, our world has been forever changed.