Many cultural foods surround us, and as part of MLK Observance Week at Kansas State, they narrowed in on one food–soul food.
Adrian Miller, soul food scholar, says the term, “soul food”, is commonly seen as a term that launched in the 1960’s at the height of the black consciousness, but adds that it actually dates back to times of Shakespeare.
“So in Shakespeare’s first play, The Two Gentleman of Verona, you have two characters, women, Juliet and Lucetta, talking about this really sexy guy named Proteus. Proteus walks by in a scene and Juliet says to Lucetta, ‘O, know’st thou not his looks are my soul’s food? Pity the dearth that I’ve pinéd in by longing for that good so long a time.'”
For the next 400 years, soul had a religious connotation and meant doing anything you could to edify your spiritual life. Miller says then in the 1940’s and 1950’s it became a music term, after white musicians seemed to be getting all the gigs over black musicians.
“These African American jazz artists decided to take music to a place where they thought white musicians could not mimic the sound, and that was the sound of the black church in the rural south. So, this gospel tinged jazz that emerges in the late 40’s and early 50’s, they started describing as ‘soul’ and ‘funky’.”
And so the reference to “soul” was born.
But where did the actual food come into play?
Well, Miller says the food itself goes back to times of slavery. He says during the Atlantic Slave Trade millions of African Americans were brought to the Americas and during this journey the enslaved were fed rotting meat. Miller says the mortality rates got so high that slave holders changed their tactics and started feeding the enslaved the foods they were used to from their native countries. He says this was the start of a narrowing of the African diet.
He says when slavery really took hold in British North America and enslaved Africans and African Americans were in the system, there was a replication of food waves from west Africa.
On large plantations, slave holders would control the amount of food given out. Miller says once a week they would give the enslaved cooks five pounds of starch, a couple pounds of salted, smoked, or pickled meat, and a jug of molasses.
“So, there was a lot of food insecurity for the enslaved so they had to figure out how to survive by supplementing their diet by gardening, foraging, hunting, and fishing,” Miller explains.
Miller adds that the meals the enslaved people were eating were actually close to what we now consider vegan. He says the image of “soul food” that we have today isn’t what they ate every day, but instead, only on rare celebrations.
He says after emancipation, millions of African Americans left the south for other parts of the country to seek opportunity, and in his opinion, soul food is the cuisine that really takes shape because of this movement.
“The black migrants do anything any other migrant group does. When you get to the new place, you try to recreate home and if you can do it with the same stuff that you had back home, you do, but often you have to find substitutes because of different climates, availability of foods, and other things. Also you are encountering new people from different parts of the world and you start looking at what they’re eating and incorporating that into your diet.”
Miller says he believes that soul food is really food that migrants took out of the south and transplanted in other parts of the country.
“So it’s a condensation of the southern menu that coincided with the emergence of our food system.”
So where do the two come together?
Miller adds that it was as part of a cultural movement that the term “soul” met up with the term “food”.
“Before the 1960’s, all of this food, regardless of where you were in the American south and who made it, it was called southern. But in the 1960’s, black power advocates were trying to figure out how do we connect African Americans who are all over the place in the country, and cultural ties was a way to do that. So, they started pushing the “soul” concept as a way to connect people.”
Miller says soul food as we see it today includes things like fried chicken, greens, candied yams, black-eyed peas, and peach cobbler. He adds that while he enjoys the meal himself, foods, especially cultural foods are about so much more than tasting good.
“I’m passionate about food as a way to connect us because cooking for someone is an act of love, right? They are tending to care for your survival, even if the food is straight nasty,” Miller adds. “It shows you that they care about you. When you sit at the table with somebody, you can’t help but recognize their humanity. I think we have fewer and fewer spaces left in our society where we can come together, and the table is one of them.”
See the entire presentation below.