Southern Food in Film: Soul Food (1997)


The history of soul food is steeped in tradition and customs.  Its origins can be traced back to Africa, the elements of which were introduced to America through the slave trade.  Slaves were often forced to make do with whatever ingredients were available, which usually consisted of the discarded leftovers of their owners. Those cast-offs now make up many of the staples of soul food cuisine, including cornmeal, greens, and pork, as well as less common cuts of meat such as ham hocks and chitterlings.  Soul food recipes and cooking techniques were commonly passed along orally among African Americans until Emancipation, after which they increasingly gained attention and popularity. Today soul food is traditional in the cuisine of African Americans, and is closely related to Southern fare.  The serving of soul food is often associated with gatherings of families and friends enjoying a home-cooked meal together.  It is this custom around which the 1997 film Soul Food is based.

Directed by George Tillman Jr., who based the movie off of his own family, Soul Food follows the lives and problems of an extended African-American family living in the North, who are brought together by the tradition of soul food and their weekly Sunday dinners.  The ensemble cast features, among others, Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, and Nia Long as the three sisters of the family, as well as Irma P. Hall as Mother Joe, the matriarch of the family.  After Mother Joe suffers a stroke, the family begins to struggle without her guidance and peacemaking.  Issues of money, old rivalries, relationship troubles, jealousy, and resentment between sisters, as well as in their own personal relationships, threaten to tear the family apart.

It isn’t until Mother Joe’s grandson, 11-year-old Ahmad, manages to trick everyone into coming to a Sunday dinner that the once close-knit family begins to heal.  Ultimately, it is this tradition of gathering together to cook and enjoy a meal of delicious soul food that finally brings the family back together.  While at times the movie can be somewhat soapy, the simple pleasures of soul food, and its ability to join people together and strengthen relationships, still rings true with the audience.  Scenes of delicious looking fried chicken, cornbread, fried catfish, and black-eyed peas not only leave the viewer craving some home-cooked soul food, but even somewhat nostalgic for the large family gatherings these dishes inspire. As Mother Joe tells us that “soul food cookin’ is about cookin’ from the heart”, we see that these elaborate Sunday feasts really represent the heart and soul of this family.


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