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What is Soul Food?

Dana Hinders
Updated May 16, 2024
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Soul food is a type of cuisine that is associated with African-American culture in the southern United States. Recipes for chicken fried steak, cracklins, hoghead cheese, chitterlings, Hoppin’ John, and other dishes were first created by slaves who needed to cook hearty and substantial meals to enjoy after a long day of strenuous physical labor. After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, this type of cuisine became an inexpensive way for the newly freed slaves to feed their families as they struggled to build a new life.

Soul food recipes were typically a reflection of the cook’s creativity, since food was often in short supply and cooks were forced to make do with the limited ingredients they had available. Common meats used in this type of southern cooking include ham hocks, chicken livers, chicken gizzards, fried chicken, fried fish, ribs, and shrimp. Black eyed peas, cabbage, lima beans, green beans, butter beans, and sweet potatoes are the most common vegetables in soul food dishes. Cornbread, hoecakes, and Johnny cakes are the breads most typically served with this type of southern cuisine.

Since slaves were often forbidden to learn how to read or write, recipes were passed down orally for several generations. There were no widely distributed soul food cookbooks until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Civil Rights Movement sparked a renewed interest in African-American culture. Around this time, black-owned soul food restaurants began to appear in New Orleans, Birmingham, and other cities with large African-American populations. These dishes also became a large part of the festivities associated with Juneteenth, a celebration of African-American culture and the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Today, however, this food is widely criticized as being unhealthy. In fact, many researchers blame southern cuisine for the higher incidences of obesity in the African-American population. According to the American Obesity Association, African-Americans are 9% more likely to suffer from obesity than whites and 1.8% more likely to suffer from obesity than Hispanics.

In response to this criticism, some cooks have begun preparing traditional African-American cuisine using more modern cooking methods. Frying foods in canola oil is a great way to cut fat and calories from many soul food recipes. Using smoked turkey instead of pork, substituting low fat dairy products for whole milk, or replacing salt with herbs and spices can also help make your favorite dishes part of a well-balanced diet.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Dana Hinders
By Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to her work as a freelance writer. After discovering her passion for freelance writing following the birth of her son, Dana has been a vital part of the DelightedCooking team. She also showcases her versatility by creating sales copy and content for e-courses and blogs.
Discussion Comments
By feasting — On Dec 20, 2012

One thing I've learned from soul food menus is that vegetables are always better when cooked with fat and onions. I cook green beans, butter beans, and even black-eyed peas with bacon and onions, and it makes them so much better.

You can either boil them in the water with the beans, or you can boil the beans alone for a few minutes and then toss them in oil with the onions and bacon until they get a little brown. If you want to cut down on fat, it's best to boil them, but you will get more flavor if you saute they them in oil for awhile.

By shell4life — On Dec 20, 2012

@orangey03 – You can improve your soul food cooking by using certain seasonings other than salt, or you can use them in combination with salt to cut down on the sodium content while still preserving flavor. I like to use celery salt and herbes de Provence for flavor that won't raise my blood pressure.

Also, I never fry anything in a deep fryer. That makes food way too greasy, and it will make me sick to eat it. I just cover the bottom of a skillet with canola oil or peanut oil and fry the chicken in that, turning it halfway through.

Before I put the chicken in the skillet, I dip it in a mixture of egg and milk and roll it in flour sprinkled with seasoning salt. This gives it a nice flavored crust.

By orangey03 — On Dec 20, 2012

I'm all for changing up the recipes and making healthy soul food. Does anyone have any recipe ideas, particularly involving chicken and tasty vegetables?

By DylanB — On Dec 19, 2012

There is a Southern soul food restaurant in my town that serves up food that is more filling than any other kind. However, you can easily make yourself sick on it.

I usually get the fried chicken, which is full of grease but oh, so good! I also have green beans with bacon and buttered cornbread, and for dessert, a big piece of chocolate cake.

The food is pretty cheap, and it will hold you over for many hours. You may not need to eat dinner that night, but you will most likely find yourself miserably uncomfortable for a few hours after eating lunch!

By anon307126 — On Dec 03, 2012

I'm replying to the very first post (anon42499), you say "soul food" is not African American food? well I guess that Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Asian, and Greek food were never originated from their own race as well. It's the taste and the recipes that give the credit to their country/culture, not whoever introduced a specific type of food. For example, Chinese food uses a lot of chicken in their recipes. Now let's say some other race like the French imported chicken to the Chinese. Does that give the French all the credit for the Chinese developing their type of food under their culture's name?

By anon163418 — On Mar 27, 2011

Soul Food is a cuisine born from slavery, not simply food for the soul or food cooked for the soul.

By anon105043 — On Aug 18, 2010

soul food is food that the slave master didn't eat. the slave master ate high on the hog. the slave master gave the scraps to the slaves. for instance, collard greens that he fed his hogs and beans. sweet potatoes and watermelon came from africa.

By anon74632 — On Apr 03, 2010

African-Americans, freed or slaves, have had to subsist on the scraps given by the white masters, or Massas. From that, was created a legacy of fine cuisine. We must all remember our place in this rich history.

By anon54660 — On Dec 01, 2009

@anon42499 You state that slaves or any blacks for that matter where introduced to the food they ate by southern whites. I would have to disagree with you.

Most meals prepared by the slaves were not taught to them -- they were created by them. So although the cow and pig were provided it was the slaves (black) who introduced the way the food was prepared or seasoned. Although the collard green was imported many would agree that the traditional way of cooking them would be from what has been passed down by the black culture.

I am the descendant of a slave and to my knowledge she was never handed a receipt or instructions for any of the traditional "soul food" meals. It was the creativity of the black culture that provided us with many items that we have today.

So today the food that we like to call "Comfort food" or "food for the Soul" originated in the south but was created by African-Americans. Thanks tjc KCMO

By anon43139 — On Aug 26, 2009

It's not where the food comes from that makes it indigienous to a particular culture, but how it's prepared. Every culture, every people has soul food. Food that sticks to your gut and to your heart. Food that your mother, aunt, grandmother spends hours in the kithen cooking. So wether you're in Turkey stuffing collard greens with beef, rice and raisins, or in Chester, South Carolina stuffing your face with smoked turkey necks and collards, it's soul food to them, it's soul to us. Chinese dumplings or chicken and dumplings. I do not recall seeing Southern whites cooking in Gone With the Wind. Don't get me wrong Escoffier did a lot for cooking. He is one of the masters (no pun intended). It is not until you drop your ego, and embrace all possibilities that you begin to respect everyone's key role in flavor.

By anon42499 — On Aug 21, 2009

I believe the term to mean "food for the soul" or sustenance. Slaves or freed Africans ate the food that was introduced to them by southern whites. No slave owned a cow to make butter or a pig to produce the lard to fry foods. The collard green was imported from the middle east by the french to the south. As we look at all the ehtnic societies around the world (thanks to the cooking channel) we learn that everyone eats everything and that "soul food" is not African-American food, it's origin is from the southern whites.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to...
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