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Get To The Heart Of Soul Food With These Words

It’s always a good time for soul food. And June is an especially good time because June is National Soul Food Month. But before you dig in, do you know what soul food really means, and where it comes from?

The rich history and vocabulary of soul food are rooted in the cultures of the African diaspora, and its dishes and traditions were shaped by the conditions forced upon and endured by African peoples under chattel slavery in the United States. Indeed, the soul food you enjoy today was born from the ingenuity of enslaved peoples who took the humble ingredients available to them and turned them into what has become a celebrated global cuisine, nourishing people—body and soul—in the US and in many places around the world.

Load up a plate, and let’s talk about where all these good eats—and their names—come from.

What is “soul food”?

Soul food is the traditional Black American cuisine of the American South that blends together cooking techniques and traditions from West Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Chitterlings, pig knuckles, turnip greens, and cornbread are just a few of the dishes considered examples of soul food.

While soul food is Southern food, not all Southern food is soul food. Seafood-focused Southern food from states like Louisiana and the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia aren’t necessarily soul food, for example, whereas many dishes from inland Georgia and the landlocked areas of states like Alabama and Mississippi (otherwise known as the Deep South) are. The cuisine of this area spread throughout the US during what is known as the Great Migration, when millions of Black people moved out of the South during the early to mid 1900s.

As a name for this important cuisine, soul food is first recorded in the 1960s. Originating in 1940s jazz slang, the term soul is an adjective that describes something that’s “of, characteristic of, or for Black Americans or their culture.”

Want more jazz? Hop over to this collection of other jazz slang terms.

The actual phrase soul food was first recorded in Old English, and had the more literal definition of food that nourished one’s soul. Though the usage isn’t the same, the term soul food indeed calls back to the phrase’s original sense of “spiritual sustenance” created not only by the ways that food brings people together, but also in the shared history, experience, and identity borne of the food.

A short history of “soul food”

Soul food’s roots draw from West Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The cuisine is linked to dishes that were made by people who were enslaved in the part of the Deep South sometimes referred to as the Cotton Belt.

Enslaved people from West Africa often had to make do with few resources during forced transit through the Middle Passage and in the Americas. They used ingredients native to West Africa like rice and okra for sustenance. They were also forced to use parts of the animal that were considered undesirable by enslavers, like pork organs and trimmings. Spices and hot peppers from the Americas, as well as cooking techniques like adding ingredients to slow simmering stews, made the cuts more palatable.

These cooking techniques and traditions continued to be used in the Deep South after the Civil War and the end of slavery. During the Great Migration in the early to mid 1900s, millions took their cooking with them, and soul food further developed as dishes typical to the South were adapted elsewhere in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. These Southern dishes found their way to a new set of tables in the North and Midwest and some slightly changed. Nashville hot chicken, for example, took fried chicken and added a kick, while smoked turkey is sometimes swapped for ham hocks in collard greens.

Today, soul food is beloved in big cities and small towns across the country. Though some recipes have gotten new additions, at its heart, soul food is still linked to the techniques used to make simple ingredients into delicious dishes.

Take your cooking up a notch with this explanation on the differences between smoking, grilling, and barbecuing.

Soul food vocabulary

We’ve gathered a sampling of soul food essential foods below, along with their history and significance. Take a look to nourish your vocabulary and your soul.

offal

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Also sometimes called variety meats, offal is the butchered parts of the animal excluding muscle. It encompasses cuts such as oxtail, sweetbreads (thymus gland), intestines, hearts, and other internal organs. Offal (a compound of off and fall, and so having a literal sense of “fall-offs”) is often used in main dishes and to flavor vegetables. These were the parts of the animal often available to enslaved people and were turned into delicacies.

grits

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Coarsely ground hominy (corn with the bran and germ removed) that’s boiled until soft. It’s often eaten for breakfast, and ingredients like cheese or shrimp are commonly added for flavor. The word originally comes from Old English and referred to coarse ground grains more broadly—corn is native to the Americas and didn’t make it to Europe until the late 1400s, when Spanish traders took it back home. Indigenous peoples were eating coarsely ground corn treated with lye prior to European arrival.

collard greens

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A variety of kale with a crown of edible leaves that’s grown in the southern US. The name dates back to the mid 1700s. Collards were plentiful, cheap, and often given to enslaved people, but are also tough and bitter if not made right. Enslaved people cooked them slowly with salt and ham hocks to turn them into a delicious, and nutritious, dish.

chitlins

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Also called chitterlings, this refers to the food prepared from a pig’s small intestine. The word originally comes from Middle English and dates back to about 1250. In the South, the small intestine was viewed as a food scrap and given to enslaved people. They transformed it into a meal by cooking it slowly with vinegar and spicy sauces. During the Jim Crow era, it’s said that Black artists knew that venues that served chitlins were safe to go to, helping to give rise to the name Chitlin Circuit for these venues.

okra

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A vegetable that comes from a shrub in the mallow family. Okra is originally from West Africa, and it has sticky pods that are used as a thickener for stew or are covered in batter and deep fried. Enslaved people brought okra from Africa and grew it in the Americas for sustenance. It later became a staple on Southern restaurant menus more broadly.

ham hocks

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A ham hock is the joint in the hind leg of a pig above the back of the foot—think of it like the ankle in humans. Like chitlins, ham hocks were considered a scrap and enslaved people cooked it slowly to make it more palatable, often with collards.

cornmeal

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A coarse, unsifted powder ground from corn. Cornmeal is used in many soul food dishes, such as cornbread, hush puppies, and fry batter. Like with grits, the use of cornmeal also comes from Indigenous Americans.

red drink

In soul food, red drink can refer to a number of red-hued beverages. Red is an important color with ties to enslaved people originally taken from West Africa. Today, it can refer to punch and strawberry soda, and is commonly served at Juneteenth celebrations.

Feel satisfied with everything you've learned about soul food? Then head over to this quiz to test your knowledge!

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