Review by JENNIFER EDWARDS
Soul Food:The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time
University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill 2013)
Adrian Miller, an attorney, writer and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado, has taken on a challenging task: chronicling the story of soul food, from its West African origins through the present day. He writes this biography, as he says, “one plate at a time,” taking characteristic foods like fried chicken, catfish, black-eyed peas, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie and banana pudding, and even “red-flavored” Kool-Aid, and describing their history and place in the food culture of African-Americans. He examines the question whether soul food can be a national American cuisine. Expounding on the differences between soul food and Southern food, he busts the myth along the way that soul food was food eaten by slaves and Southern food was what the rich white folks at the Big House ate. Rather, after the Civil War, white and black Southerners alike were living in poverty and everybody ate the same. Dividing the history of soul food into four broad periods—The Slave Food period (1619-1865), Southern Cooking period (1865-present), Down Home Cooking period (1890s-1970s), and the Soul Food period (1950s-present), Miller describes the history of African-Americans in this country as much as he does their food. The conditions of enslavement, the great migration to the North after the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement all played a part in the development of this cuisine.
It’s an interesting read. We learn, for example, that the humble macaroni and cheese, a dish that takes its place at the Thanksgiving dinner table of African-Americans with pride, began as an extremely expensive dish in Italy, when cheese was not widely available, and even in this country, where we had no native cheese production. It took Kraft and the invention of processed cheese to turn macaroni and cheese into a dish for the American masses. It became a “black thing,” says Miller, when urban African-Americans in the North lived in proximity to Italian-Americans, and when Louisiana sugar growers employed Sicilian immigrants to work in the fields after the Civil War, allowing more exchanges between the blacks still on the plantation and the immigrant Sicilians. Miller explains throughout the book how what had once been feast and celebration food in an immigrant culture, in this case that of the enslaved Africans, ultimately becomes everyday food, and this is another example.
He also explains, once and for all, the difference between sweet potatoes and yams, an always confusing topic. West Africans raised true yams, but what we call yams in the United States are actually sweet potatoes, originally grown in Peru. Sweet potatoes became popular in Europe and in the American colonies; the British ate them at the table at Southern plantations. Slaves had eaten true yams on the voyage from West Africa, but in the antebellum South, they learned to raise sweet potatoes in their own plantation gardens. And so candied yams end up on the African-American Thanksgiving table, along with the mac and cheese.
There’s a spiritual component to chicken—something that Miller claims explains the prevalence of fried chicken at the Sunday dinner table, the “Gospel Bird.” In West Africa, the chicken, introduced by Arab traders around 1000 B.C.E., was a sacred bird, used as a diviner and for sacrificial purposes. Fried chicken in this country originally made from an English recipe published as early as 1747 was a complicated and laborious dish to prepare. It required the catching, killing and dressing of a chicken, before the bird was battered and fried in lard much as it is today. Thus it generally ended up on the table on Sundays, when slaves had more free time. Itinerant, hungry, and underpaid preachers were invited to eat lunch after church at the home of one of their congregation on Sunday, thus giving rise to the term “Gospel Bird.” The visiting preacher usually consumed all the best pieces of the fried chicken! Miller writes, “Sunday fried chicken in the rural South preserved and transmitted some important cultural values: reverence for God by observing the Sabbath, respect for the preacher as God’s representative, the feast as an acknowledgement of God’s continued blessings, and the importance of family and community.” That’s how fried chicken on Sunday became an integral aspect of the Down Home Cooking period.
Miller makes many surprising points and teaches us a great deal about our Southern foodways’ relationship to soul food as a subset—or is Southern food a subset of soul food? Along the way, we get some fascinating insights, and a few great recipes and illustrations. The questions he debates are at the heart of our national identity and culture. He discusses the “unhealthy” reputation of soul food, how it can be reinvented, and what its role is in this age of “post-blackness,” as he calls it. Defining soul food, it turns out, may be just another way of defining who we are. And isn’t that what food always has done?