Like It Or Not, Soul Food Is Part Of Black History Too

February 24, 2015  |  

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I hate the belief among some of our people that in order to progress in society, we must disavow all things related to our past.

Now in some respects, I can see why people would want to do this. Racism, sexism, homophobia and classism are all societal ills we should definitely leave behind. But sometimes our people take this disassociation thing a bit too far.

Like when we try to disown fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread.

I have no idea where and how this movement to disassociate ourselves from the bird and all of its delicious friends on the side started, but I want no part of it.

As reported by USA Today:

The president of Wright State University and its dining services vendor have apologized for a Black History Month menu that featured fried chicken and collard greens.

The menu screens at the Ohio school also offered mashed potatoes and cornbread under photos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders. The Dayton Daily News reported that people circulated images of it on social media, calling it offensive and disrespectful. Fried chicken has long been associated with racial stereotyping in the United States.

This isn’t the first time some fried chicken and collard greens created a culinary controversy. A few years back, Questlove of The Roots put the entire NBC cafeteria and its staff on blast because they served fried chicken, collard greens and jalapeno cornbread in honor of Black History Month. Seriously? Is he crazy? Who complains about jalapeno cornbread? Anyway, it came out later that the menu was actually the creation of a Black cafeteria worker who wanted to honor BHM with dishes that they felt best represented our heritage.

Granted, I can certainly understand creating an uproar if the chicken is dry or if the wrong persuasion is behind-the-scenes frying the chicken in afro wigs and Blackface during Black History Month. Both of those scenarios are just flags on the play. But as some have pointed out, many soul food staples were brought over to the New World from Africa, along with our people. So what’s wrong with serving and honoring soul food as traditional African-American cuisine?

More specifically, what is wrong with honoring soul food as traditional African-American cuisine at a time when people are trying their damnedest to whitewash over it?

A couple of years ago, Charleston chef and Southern food “visionary” Sean Brock detailed his culinary expedition to Dakar, Senegal, where he hunted for the origins of Hoppin’ John, gumbo, collard greens and other traditional soul food dishes. All of these dishes have roots in West Africa. As noted in the Food and Wine article about his trip, “this isn’t a mere academic exercise; he’s rooting around for culinary inspiration.”

I would say both “rooting” and “inspiration” are understatements. It’s more like pilfering. As the article notes:

Throughout his visit, Brock was scribbling down notes in a red book and communicating with the cooks in his kitchens back home, sending them changes to menus in real time. At one point, as he watched Ly steam rice over a pot of aromatic broth to infuse it with flavor, he cried out, “Genius! Why don’t we do this?” He then promptly emailed his sous chef to tell him about it. “I would love to see what I’ve learned here not just on my menus, but on low-country menus everywhere,” he says. “Western African traditions have shaped one of the oldest cuisines in America, but as we modernized these dishes, they lost their soul. We owe it to both Southerners and Western Africans to find it back again.”

Who owes what to whom? The only thing the creators of soul food owe the South is a bill for all the culinary misappropriation. The only thing worse than the actual thievery of techniques and recipes from the kitchens of Senegal (neatly hidden behind some sappy message about helping soul food reconnect with its native tongues) is the blatant attempt to erase American blacks’ influence out of the entire menu.

Not once is “soul food” mentioned in the article, nor is there any mention of how this traditional style of West African cooking, as well as its recipes, evolved into what it is today. Instead, soul food is being replaced with the more geographically (and dare I say racially) inclusive “southern” term and more contemporary meals to bring us dishes that have “lost their soul.”

The irony is that fried chicken, watermelon (also with origins in Africa) and other soulful favorites were once used to ridicule and mock Black people. This is why so many of us cringe when we see our dietary indulgences mentioned anywhere in public and in mixed-raced discourse. I get that. But as traditional soul food dishes begin to grow in popularity and expand out of the kitchens of Black America, so will the need to disassociate it from its roots. White people might have eaten it too, but very few like to be reminded that what they are eating is, in fact, ‘Black people food.’

Therefore, I am all for Black History Month menus as reminders of both our creativity, as well as our keen ability to maintain the taste and culinary techniques that have been passed down to us from generations.

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  • dee

    Is it wrong to serve corn beef and cabbage during ST. Patrick’s day? No it is not. People need to get a grip. I went to an HBCU and we had Fried Chicken Wednesday’s. And the cafe would be packed on that day and long lines for the fried chicken. I get that certain foods like fried chicken and watermelon was used or talked about in a stereotypical way, but that doesn’t stop most African Americans from using the n-word. People say they have embraced the n-word and gave it a new meaning. Well I embrace fried chicken any chance i get.

  • roxy

    I love ‘Soul Food’ in moderation.

  • Simone Mackey

    I think we as African-American people need to worry more about registering to vote, black on black crime, uniting as a race among other things, instead of why “Soul Food” is considered racist. I mean we even have Soul Food Restaurants in this country started by Black people such as Sylvia’s in Harlem, which is very good by the way. So why get offended.

  • Emily Mobes Ajumobi

    I never understood the appeal of soul food but than again I am a first generation Nigerian American so that could be part of the reason. I have lived in the south all my life but there is a disconnect from that type of cuisine.

    • Maria

      Sorry to hear that lol It’s goooooooooooooooooood! 🙂

      • Emily Mobes Ajumobi

        I just don’t like my vegetables being mangled and unhealthy. My only thing is that takes perfectly nutritious(has its on wonderful sugars) things like fruit and vegetables and just kills it.

  • rainbow

    Soul food is not black food, it is southern food.

    • Guest

      Did you even read the article?!?! ALL of the connections AND history of it is explains right then and there for you. Unreal!!!!

  • mmmdot

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about soul food as long as it’s not done in a stereotypical way. “Color-blindness” is NOT the appropriate way to deal with white supremacy. If you “don’t see color” you live in la-la land. It’s OK to truly love someone and acknowledge that race will still impact their lives whether it’s through racial privilege or racial discrimination. It’s as simple as “checking your biases” and “avoiding racist and hateful speech” when you talk to or about non-white people and the topics of race and racism. “White people might have eaten it too, but very few like to be reminded that what they are eating is, in fact, ‘Black people food.’” Exactly. And calling it “Southern food” instead of “Soul Food” is some racist cultural appropriation b.s. It’s just like people using “Urban music” when they CLEARLY mean “Black music”. ::Eyeroll::

  • Chanda

    Wow are we that funny? If you don’t like Soul food then don’t eat it but don’t mess it up for everyone else who wants some good home cooking. It’s not like we eat it everyday so what’s wrong with “treating” yourself every once in a while. I’m sure even white people aren’t complaining, they know the deal. You can go back on your diet tomorrow.

  • FromTokyo

    What’s the “or not?” I know a lot of white folks who both cook and tear up that food too. The only people who would feel some kind of way about it are the people who’ve never had good/real soul/Southern, Cajun, or Creole food. It’s the best “American” food in the States.

  • Princess

    My family is from New Orleans & I was born there, we now live in Denver, CO & let me just say that what these chicks call “soul food” out here is a JOKE.

    • FromTokyo

      I 1000% agree about the food in Colorado. I’m native Louisianian and went to a “Cajun” restaurant in Colorado and the food was so not-Cajun I was irritated.