During the Fall 2012 semester at Chesapeake College in Maryland, Professor Eleanor Welsh asked her students to reflect on and recall some of their strongest food memories. Then she asked them to take it a bit further with a journal assignment to think about their food heritage and to consider what dishes and spices taste and smell like their respective childhoods.
The students were asked to talk to their families about ethnic origins and family recipes, and to do some research based on what they learn or guess about your their own backgrounds.
The students were also asked to think about the friend in the last section of Omnivore’s Dilemma who tries to recreate the tastes of his Italian childhood in California, Andrew Beahrs’s attempts to find the foods Twain loved a century ago, or Julia Child’s surprise that the French would have wine with lunch.
Although people the world over eat food every day, there is wide variation in how that food is prepared from culture to culture. As I reflect back on the foods I grew up with, I realize that my food heritage was a hybrid of different styles. Some of our meals featured “comfort foods” such as mashed potatoes, meatloaf, macaroni, and chicken. Other meals would be considered “soul” food such as fried pork chops, chitlins, and greens. Additionally, we enjoyed the seafood the Maryland shore is widely known for such as hard shell crabs, crab cakes, fish, and oysters. I enjoyed eating dishes from all three styles of cooking and anytime I eat some today it triggers very happy memories.
As I researched to find a formal definition of what “soul” food is considered to be, I came across the following definition. From the website Ask.com I found this definition:
“Soul food is basic, down-home cooking with its roots in the rural South. The principle staples of soul food cooking are beans, greens, cornmeal (used in cornbread, hush puppies, johnnycakes, and as a coating for fried fish), and pork. Pork has an almost limitless number of uses in soul food. Many parts of the pig are used, like pigs’ feet, ham hocks, pig ears, hog jowl, and chitlins. Pork fat is used for frying and as an ingredient in slowly-cooked greens. Sweet, cold drinks are always a favorite.” (Lynne, 2012)
Now I can’t say that we ate all of those foods, but I would say that we ate a fair amount of pork. Not only as the main entrée, such as with pork chops and chitlins, but also as the seasoning in collard greens and kale. It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I realized everyone doesn’t season their greens with ham or ham hocks or fry their pork chops or even eat things like pigs’ feet or chitlins. This is not cuisine that appeals to everybody, black people included. But it’s interesting to know where this style of cooking came from.
The website, African American Registry, offers this explanation for the origins of soul food dishes.
“The style of cooking originated during American slavery. African slaves were given only the ‘leftover’ and ‘undesirable’ cuts of meat from their masters (while the white slave owners got the meatiest cuts of ham, roasts, etc.). We also had only vegetables grown for ourselves. After slavery, many, being poor, could afford only off-cuts of meat, along with offal. Farming, hunting and fishing provided fresh vegetables, fish and wild game, such as possum, rabbit, squirrel and sometimes waterfowl. Africans living in America at the time (and since) more than made do with the food choices we had to work with.” (African American Registry, 1492)
There are many soul food dishes that I enjoy eating such as pork chops, fried chicken, fried fish, greens, chitlins, biscuits, cornbread, grits, ribs and candied yams. I find these foods comforting because they provoke happy memories. I’ve often eaten these foods with family and friends. They are also a cultural experience because they are primarily enjoyed by other African Americans. As good as these foods taste, they also have a heavy emphasis on salt and fat. Due to family health problems such as hypertension and diabetes, I find it necessary to limit my consumption of most of these foods. I now look at them as a treat to be enjoyed from time to time.
I initially learned how to cook from my mother and she learned how to cook from her mother. So I decided to interview my mom to see what was on the family dinner table when she was a child. Since their family had eight kids, the family ate at home every night. Both of my grandparents could cook and my grandfather made sure that every child could at least light the gas stove and scramble eggs to feed themselves. My mom describes the menu as a blend of comfort foods and soul food. They ate comfort foods like mashed potatoes, roast beef, hamburgers and gravy, and homemade bread. In addition they ate soul food dishes like pig’s feet, chitlins, fried chicken, and cornbread. They occasionally had the “poor” nights with just beef stew or navy beans. My mother grew up in Bellevue near a crab house and an oyster house. Because seafood was so plentiful back then they ate fish every Friday night. Growing up my mother was not as impressed by seafood as she is now but that was because they ate it so much. As I talked with my mother I was struck by how much she enjoyed talking about the old days. It seemed that she spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the kitchen. While she may have learned a little about cooking, what she really enjoyed was spending time with my grandmother alone. That was their time together and her chance to talk to her one on one.
I realize the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. My mother followed the same pattern with me. We spent a lot of time together in the kitchen. It was not only the chance for me to learn how to prepare food but also a chance for the two of us to engage in conversation. To this day we enjoy spending time together in the kitchen. Some of our best conversations take place at the dinner table. I can’t say that I have fully carried on the family tradition of fixing comfort foods and soul food. Due to health reasons I can’t eat like that every day. But I do know that when I’m stressed out that’s the type of food I turn to. When my family members gather together that’s the type of food we share. So it will always have a place in my life. I’ve just learned that some of those dishes can be adapted and modified to be healthier. In the end, what makes “soul” food special is that it is made with love. And when I eat it, it reminds me of the people I love and the good times we’ve shared.
African American Registry. (1492, February 24). Soul Food A Brief History! Retrieved November 8, 2012, from African American Registry: http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/soul-food-brief-history
Lynne, A. (2012). Soul Food- History and Definition. Retrieved November 8, 2012, from About.com: http://americanfood.about.com/od/resourcesadditionalinfo/a/Soul-Food-History-And-Definition.htm