Atlanta chef and culinary historian discuss the complex history of soul food
Soul food is a Southern staple with a heavy history. During the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved Africans created meals from what little rations they were given. What started as a means for survival has flourished into the delicious meals we now know as soul food. The Dekalb History Center is hosting its 14th Annual Black History Month Celebration with an event called Soul Food in Dekalb: A Tasty History, to be held both in-person and virtually on Feb 10. “City Lights” producer Summer Evans spoke via Zoom with two of the event’s presenters, Chef Asata Reid and culinary historian Akila McConnell, about what soul food means to them.
What do we mean when we say “soul food“?
“I think most people who have a food culture have their own soul foods; they may call it ‘comfort food’ or ‘traditional cooking.’ Our soul food is derived from our African legacy, so it reflects some of the things that have been a part of our culture for centuries, like black-eyed peas, greens, grilled meats and things of that nature,” said Reid.
McConnell added, “I think that’s a wonderful definition, but … I also think that soul food is about reclaiming roots. Originally when the words ‘soul food’ came about, that was in the ’60s, during this time period of Civil Rights Movement and social upheaval, and as part of that, it was African-Americans reclaiming the roots of African cuisines and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we eat, and what we eat is wonderful, and it matters.”
The fascinating history of soul food:
“The roots of it come from the food that was cooked in Africa. In the 1500s, West Africans were known for their incredible cuisine. I mean, that was something that, if you read historical books, Europeans would go, and they would talk about how well fed they were in West Africa,” said McConnell. “When you think of something like okra, for example, okra is a West African vegetable. Collards and greens were not eaten by Europeans; the Europeans did not believe that eating greens was good for the mind. Actually, they believed that eating greens would make you depressed, and it was the Africans who taught the Europeans how to eat greens.”
“James Heming … was Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved cook, and Jefferson paid for him to be trained in France,” recounted McConnell. “Hemings learned French techniques, including two dishes that he brought back over to the United States. One was pommes frites and the second was what they, at the time, called macaroni au gratin … Today that’s macaroni and cheese and french fries. I mean, can you imagine a world in which we don’t get to eat macaroni and cheese and french fries? It would be terrible.”
How soul food and family go hand-in-hand:
“I did not learn how to cook by reading recipe books. My grandmother makes or made the most amazing dumplings. Like, the wrapper on them was so thin that you could just see through them, and she taught me that by hand,” said McConnell. “That is historically, for thousands and tens of thousands of years, how people learned to cook. There were no YouTube videos. There were no food bloggers, there were no cookbooks. We learned at the hands of our mothers and our grandmothers, and being able to honor their legacy is why I love being a culinary historian because it’s in covering those stories about those women.”
“I remember my aunt Mildred telling me how to fry chicken by listening. She said, ‘It’ll tell you when it’s done.’ She taught me how to make dumplings, and she was a huge influence on me understanding the essential nature of food and how it can soothe your soul. It can make you happy. It can bring you comfort and solace,” said Reid. “People always say, ‘Don’t eat your feelings,’ and I’m like, ‘Baby, you must not have had soul food.”
Dekalb History Center’s presentation Soul Food in Dekalb: A Tasty History takes place at the Historic Dekalb Courthouse, Feb. 10, from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm. More information on this event can be found at dekalbhistory.org/programs/black-history-month-celebration-2022.