The term “soul food” didn’t become common until the 1960s. With the rise of the civil rights and Black Nationalism movements during the 1960s, many African Americans sought to re-claim their part of the American cultural legacy. As terms like “soul brother,” “soul sister” and “soul music” were taking hold, it was only natural that the term “soul food” would be used to describe the recipes that African Americans had been cooking for generations. According to some sources, the term may have first been used in 1962 by civil rights activist and poet Amiri Baraka. 1962 was the same year that Sylvia Woods opened her now-famous Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s; today, Sylvia is known by many as “the Queen of Soul Food.” Soul food restaurants and cookbooks continued to be popular through the ’70s.
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.
“Soul” or “Southern?”
To a lot of people, all that just sounds like a description of Southern food. The distinctions between soul and Southern are hard to make. In his 1969 Soul Food Cookbook, Bob Jeffries summed it up thusly: “While all soul food is southern food, not all southern food is ‘soul.’ Soul food cooking is an example of how really good southern Negro cooks cooked with what they had available to them.”
Soul food has its roots in slavery, when African Americans had to make do with whatever food was available to them. For the next hundred years after the abolition of slavery, most African Americans lived in poverty, so recipes continued to make use of cheaper ingredients. Of course, this isn’t entirely a black/white issue. Historically, there hasn’t been much of a difference between the foods eaten by poor black Southerners and poor white Southerners. John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, once wrote: “The differences between the foods of Black and White Southerners are subtle. More capsicum pepper heat, a heavier hand with salt and pepper and a greater use of offal meat are comparative characteristics of Soul versus Country Cooking.”