by Rianna Wilson
Food is a big deal in the US and Black food is an even bigger deal. We have all seen pictures of the elaborate and hearty cookouts, barbecues, seafood boils, Juneteenth celebrations, and the festive holiday meals that Black Americans make. So, what makes their meals different? The answer is Soul.
“Soul food is one of the many ways enslaved Africans were able to keep a link to their original homes and traditions.”
Soul food is one of the many ways enslaved Africans were able to keep a link to their original homes and traditions. It was a way for them to create an identity for themselves in this foreign land of America. The term ‘Soul Food’ itself became popular in the 1960s/70s during the Black Power Movement.
You can see the cultural retention of West and Central Africa food ways on Black American foods, from the ingredients put in dishes. Ingredients like hot peppers, okra, rice, and black-eyed peas to name a few. The methods used to cook food, methods like roasting meat over open fire, frying in palm oil and more were also retained in African-American cooking styles. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved Africans in an effort to replenish and retain their cultures took the food provisions that were available to them and impressed their traditional cooking styles and flavours to develop a cuisine and delicacy that was unique to their history and experiences both during and after enslavement. The recipes and meals found in Soul Food tell a rich history of the origins of enslaved Africans, the journey of the Middle Passage, the fight for emancipation, and the resilience and strength that defines the Black American community.
Now for our favourite foods and their history…
Gumbo – Louisiana
If you’ve watched The Princess and the Frog then you’ll be familiar with this dish. Originating from the Louisiana Creole tradition in New Orleans, Gumbo is the official state cuisine of Louisiana, and rightly so. It’s a stew usually made with shrimp, chicken and sausage served with rice.
It combines culinary practices from Africa, France, Spain, and Indigenous Americans. It is a real melting pot of cultures. It also includes the African top three ingredients, which I hope you haven’t forgotten – onions, tomatoes, and hot peppers. Cooked for at least three hours, gumbo is definitely a dish that has a lot of heart and soul in it.
Pepper Pot – Philadelphia
This dish is interesting because when I think of pepper pot, Philadelphia doesn’t come to mind. I automatically think of countries in the Caribbean such as Guyana, Grenada, or Trinidad and Tobago. Philly’s pepper pot can be traced as far back as the 1600s and is said to have been imported by West Indians who ‘moved’ to the area, but became popular in the 19th century when Black women started selling it on the street. It was so popular, that Campbell’s Soup Company started selling it in tins in 1899 and didn’t stop producing it until 2010. The canned soup kept the legacy of pepper pot soup alive for a little longer as the dish had started to become less popular in Philadelphia restaurants in the 1990s.
Hot Sauce & Collard Greens – Black America
“I got a hot sauce in my bag” — Beyoncé, 2016
“Oh, oh, collard greens” — ScHoolboy Q, 2013
It is impossible to talk about Black food in America without mentioning hot sauce. It’s a staple in their cuisine, the perfect accompaniment to any savoury dish. Not too different from the use of shitto in West African cuisine. Usually made from tabasco or cayenne peppers, hot sauce adds a little heat to any dish.
Collard greens are another Black American staple food. Collards are vegetables that have large green leaves and tough stems. Collard greens are usually cooked with pork (bacon or ham hock). The dish is so popular that in 2011 it became the official dish of South Carolina.
The Food of Juneteenth
Juneteenth was a lesser known holiday to those outside of the US, but to Black Americans it is an extremely important day of celebrating and remembering. On 19th June, Black Americans commemorate the day that the last of the enslaved Africans were notified of their freedom in 1865.
The main feature of the Juneteenth feasts are the ‘red foods’, used as a remembrance of the bloodshed of the enslaved. Some of the featured red food dishes are watermelon, tomato salad, red velvet cake, and strawberry pie. The seemingly most important part of a Juneteenth celebration is the famous red drink. Made from the hibiscus flower, it is usually served in Kool-Aid or as a Jamaican Sorrel. The drink comes with a long history that acknowledges the culinary traditions and goods, brought over to America by enslaved Africans.
Black foods are a staple of American culture. Taking influence from other Black countries around the world, Black people living in America were able to establish their own culinary identity, one that is recognised globally.