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Excerpt from Chapter 7: The Chitlin Circuit: The Origins and Meanings of Soul and Soul Food
Soul Food Defined
Some argue that soul food is basically southern food. "I don’t know any of those so-called soul food items that southern Euro-Americans particularly did not eat," says Alton Hornsby, Jr., who has spent his life in Atlanta, Georgia, with the exception of short stints in Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas. Natives of the black belt region of Alabama and South Carolina (born in 1933 and 1928,respectively) make similarobservations. Interviews reveal that differences in cuisine are more regional than ethnic; black and white folk in the South ate according to essentially African American–shaped culinary traditions formed over hundreds of years. The differences in eating habits are greater between northerners and southerners of any race than between white and black southerners.
Ella Barnett, for example, a professional caterer for over fifty years in Westchester County, observed that the food requests from white and black clients were very different. According to the 1930 census records, however, at that time most of the county’s African American population had been born in the South or raised by one or more parents born in the South. In contrast, most of the white population had been born in the North, born in Europe (Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe), or raised by one or more parents that were European.
Over the years, Barnett found that her white clients "didn’t know nothing about soul food" and "never had anything like that." It was her African American clients that wanted a "little bit different" kind of cooking: "Black folks want pigs’ fit [sic] and chitlins and stuff like that." Soul food, says Barnett, is "black folk’s food, that’s what I call it." Reginald T.Ward, Joseph "Mac" Johnson, and Clara Pittman all define soul food as the "food that you were brought up on."
A part-time caterer and superb cook of southern cuisine, Reginald T. Ward left Robinsonville in Martin County, North Carolina, the day after graduating from high school in 1962. "In my hometown there was no work," he said. "I graduated from high school on a Wednesday, and on Thursday I was gone." He first migrated to California to attend UCLA. After completing school, he migrated to the southern Westchester city of Mount Vernon, where his brother lived. His brother had left for New York years before, taking a room in a boardinghouse owned by women who had previously lived seven miles from the Wards’ home in North Carolina. "We all had friends that lived in our town that migrated to Mount Vernon,"says Ward."Some of the kids thatI grew up with were living there at the time." He asserts that soul food was food that they had all enjoyed as children in North Carolina. It was food that had "flavor and taste."
Joseph "Mac" Johnson was born in Banks, Alabama, in Pike’s County, in 1933. He is a retired professional cook and restaurateur living in Poughkeepsie, in Dutchess County, New York. During World War II, his father had migrated to Poughkeepsie to work in an elevator factory and sent money home to his family, who were tenants on a dairy farm. Mac went into the military after high school and worked as a cook. After his tour, he took a job as a dishwasher for the state of New York at the Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. By 1952 he was the head cook at the center. He went to school and advanced to a position at the Bureau of Nutrition Services, among other jobs for the state of New York. From 1966 to the 1980s he operated a very profitable take-out-only venue, simply called Joe’s Barbecue, that specialized in chopped barbecue and other southern soul food dishes. Posting only professionally made signs and menus, requiring his employees to wear uniforms, and keeping the barbecue stand spotless, Johnson successfully marketed southern food to both black and white customers.
According to Johnson, soul food is inexpensive food that is "seasoned so good that it fascinates you." He adds, "I am seventy-two years old, the things that they sell now you could go to the slaughter house [in urban areas of Alabama] and they would give them to you. Pigs’ feet, they would give to you, spare ribs," and chitlins. "So you had to learn to cook those things." Interestingly, when the food industry started marketing southern African American cookery such as soul food in the 1960s, supermarkets started putting "their soul food on display in frozen packages, cellophane-wrapped bags, and instant-mix boxes," writes an author in a 1969 article published in the African American magazine Sepia. In the late 1960s whites in the food industry began making money off soul food after years of laughing at the black women who collected the hogs’ ears and pigs’ feet that slaughterhouses and butcher shops discarded. "Your corner A&P right now may be stocking boxes and bags and cans of prepared soul food," says the article in Sepia,"guaranteed authentic, no doubt, by a Soul Housekeeping seal-of-approval."
Clara Pittman, who grew up in Pinehurst, Georgia, and St. Petersburg, Florida, agrees with Ward and Johnson’s definition of soul food. She says that before soul food became profitable for grocers, when she was growing up in the 1950s, it "was basically all the food that blacks had to eat. It was the least expensive and the only food they could afford to buy." She adds, "I would say on average of three or four days a week you had either necks, bones, or chitlins, or pigs’ feet, with some greens, or some type of corn bread or biscuits or whatever."
In the city of Mount Vernon, New York, North Carolinian Reginald Ward remembers that in the 1960s he and fellow southerner Eugene Watts survived on similar kinds of inexpensive meals prepared at a restaurant called Green’s Royal Palm. According to Ward, that place "kept me and Gene alive!" Like Gene Watts, the owner of Green’s Royal Palm was a migrant from Virginia. "We went there every morning, every day, because it was what we could afford," says Ward. "Everything he had was affordable.He had fatback and biscuits,with a cup of coffee would have cost you about sixty-five cents." Ward adds, "The biscuit was huge! Then he made chicken gizzards and chicken necks in a stew over rice." A large serving of the stew and rice filled you up, and it only cost about $1.50.40 Alton Hornsby of Atlanta argues that economics reasons might have caused black southerners to eat more of what today we call soul food items in larger quantities than did white southerners, but every poor person struggling to survive ate soul food on a regular basis.
It was during the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s that the survival food of black southerners became the revolutionary high cuisine of bourgeoisie African Americans. Writing in 1968,Eldridge Cleaver said "ghetto blacks" ate soul food out of necessity while the black bourgeoisie ate chitlins and such as a "counter-revolutionary" act that mocked white definitions of fine dining. For example, in 1969 a writer for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, described soul food as high cuisine, a "blend of the best traditional cookery of Africa, Spain, France, and the American colonies to which Negroes added their knowledge of culinary herbs." Cleaver scoffed at the glorification of soul food. Black folks in the ghetto "want steaks. Beef steaks."
Black Intellectual Property Rights
The black power movement and the glorification of distinctively black culture inspired the emergence of the black arts movement of the 1960s. One of the leading figures in the black arts movement, Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, wrote about soul food in 1966 in his book Home: Social Essays. In an essay on soul food, he presented a rebuttal to critics who argued that African Americans had no language or characteristic cuisine. He insisted that hog maws, chitlins, sweet potato pie, pork sausage and gravy, fried chicken or chicken in the basket, barbecued ribs, hopping John, hush puppies, fried fish, hoe cakes, biscuits, salt pork, dumplings, and gumbo all came directly out of the black belt region of the South and represented the best of African American cookery. "No characteristic food? Oh, man, come on. . . . Maws are things ofays [whites] seldom get to peck [eat], nor are you likely ever to hear about Charlie eating a chitterling. Sweet potato pies, a good friend of mine asked recently, ‘Do they taste anything like pumpkin?’ Negative. They taste more like memory, if you’re not uptown."
In response to the black power and black arts movements, the first soul food cookbooks began to appear in progressive bookstores in the 1960s. Before then, largely white southerners had published cookbooks with instructions on how to make "southern dishes" like those Baraka described. These southern cookbooks, however, angered black chefs such as Verta Mae Grosvenor. An African American cook and writer originally from South Carolina, Grosvenor used her considerable cooking talents to raise money for organizations like SNCC. After she migrated to New York, she made a name for herself as a Harlem caterer and author during the black power movement.
What bothered Grosvenor were white women like Henrietta Stanley Dull (home economics editor of the Atlanta Journal) who called themselves in their cookbooks "experts of southern cuisine." The back cover of Dull’s Southern Cooking describes her as the "first lady of Georgia and the outstanding culinary expert in the South." In response to the claim, Grosvenor argues that Dull’s book "ain’t nothing but a soul food cookbook with the exception that Mrs. Dull is a white lady and it is a $5.95 hardbook by a big publishing house." Grosvenor was angry because white authors and publishers were profiting from an African American invention without compensating or acknowledging African Americans. "Cookbooks ain’t nothing but a racist hustle." She adds, "It’s all about some money, honey, and if that ain’t so, how come it ain’t Carver Chunky Peanut Butter?" Grosvenor goes on to say,"We cooked our way to freedom,and outside of a few soul food cookbooks there has been no reference to our participation in, and contribution to, the culinary arts."
A few of the earliest contributions to the literature of soul food cookery provide insights into the black power roots of soul food. In the introductions to their cookbooks, several black culinary artists carefully describe, in distinctly black nationalist terms, what soul food is and what it most definitely is not, apparently in an attempt to patent and protect their intellectual property rights from the likes of the Dulls of the world. In his 1969 soul food cookbook, for example, southern-born African American Bob Jeffries emphasizes that soul food is not southern food in general. "When people ask me about soul food, I tell them that I have been cooking ‘soul’ for over forty years—only we did not call it that back home. We just called it real good cooking, southern style. However . . . not all southern food is ‘soul.’" He goes on to explain, "Soul food cooking is an example of how really good southern Negro cooks cooked with what they had available to them"; it’s about knowing how to season food to perfection. Jeffries argues that southern African American cooks "have always had an understanding and knowledge of herbs, spices, and seasonings and have known how to use them."
Returning to the theme of black invention and property rights, he goes on to say that "what makes soul food unique—and more indigenous to this country than any other so-called American cooking style—is that it was created and evolved almost without European influence." In earlier chapters in this book, I argue against Jeffries’s black nationalist interpretation of soul food. Instead I argue that soul food is distinctively African American but was influenced by Europeans, who introduced corn to African foodways and then provided cornmeal, meat, fish, and other ingredients as rations to the first enslaved Africans in southern North America. In 1971 culinary writer Helen Mendes seconded Jeffries’s Afrocentric view of soul food in her book The African Heritage Cookbook. Soul food unites black Americans "with each other, and provides an unbroken link to their African past." She adds, "At the heart of Soul cooking lay many elements of African cooking."
In A Pinch of Soul in Book Form, published in 1969, Pearl Bowser uses the words "our" and "us" throughout her description of soul food. I interpret this choice as signifying her belief that soul food is the intellectual invention and property of southern-born African Americans. It’s about how we somehow transformed "such things as animal fodder into rich peanut soup or wild plants into some of our favorite and tastiest vegetables dishes," and it "represents a legacy of good eating bequeathed to us by our parents and grandparents," who as slaves and later as sharecroppers "broke their backs but not their spirits."
According to Bowser,"Soul food is also food rich in taste.What is bland becomes exciting by the addition of our spices—garlic, pepper, bay leaf—and the other condiments which are always on the table along with the salt and pepper—hot pepper sauce, either from the West Indies or Louisiana, and vinegar to go on many meats and vegetables." In another section of her book, she writes, "Our main meat source is still pork—fried, barbecued, roasted, smoked, pickled, spicy and hot."
Restaurants and Soul Food in the Late 1960s
Bowser and others writing in the late 1960s and early 1970s observed that the black power movement made soul food both fashionable and popular in urban restaurants. Bowser argues that it was the black power movement that gave black people a sense of pride about their food. In addition, the message of black power inspired people like her to write soul food cookbooks: "There was a time when soul food could be had only at home or when provided by the church sisters. It certainly never appeared in print and was seldom referred to with pride, however much it was enjoyed. Its emerging popularity is due not only to its significance as a remembrance of things past but also as an affirmation that black is beautiful."
Black power also inspired restaurateurs to put soul food on their menus. An article in Sepia confirms the growing popularity of soul food. Published in 1969,the article says, "Soul Food is so ‘in’ these days that restaurants all over the right neighborhoods are featuring it. But now restaurants in many of the wrong neighborhoods are opening up to serve soul food too. . . . Soul food is ‘in’ and wouldn’t you know it, the price has gone up as the demand has soared." The article goes on to say,"Four bits used to get you a meal in lots of restaurants if you didn’t mind a cracked plate and no tablecloth.The menu was scratched fresh everyday onto a blackboard and your choice was typically either chicken or ox-tail served up with greens and rice. For an extra dime you could have a piece of fresh homemade sweet potato pie. Now that such substantial eating has been dubbed ‘soul food’ it’s started moving downtown—and the prices are moving up."
Notable African American celebrities in the 1960s invested in short-lived attempts to sell soul food restaurant franchises. Starting in 1968, gospel recording artist Mahalia Jackson sold a Chicken Store franchise that sold "mouth-watering southern fried chicken along with catfish, sweet potato pie and hot biscuits." James Brown entered into a similar venture franchising Gold Platter soul food restaurants all over the country. The "menu at the look-alike chain outlets will feature chicken with French fries, cole slaw and cornbread; catfish with hush puppies; or less cultured hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Everything is to be served up, of course, on a gold platter just like the sign out front." Muhammad Ali got into the act too, with a franchise of restaurants that featured what he called the "Champburger." Starting in Miami, Ali hoped to start a chain of black-owned-and-operated Champburger Palaces in black neighborhoods. "In addition to the Champburger, the establishments also will sell hot dogs, fried chicken, fried fish, boiled fish, other food products and soft drinks." Southern-born blacks, however, argued that Ali’s Chamburger palaces were not serving soul food.
Real Soul Food
Debates over soul food were common on the streets of New York City and other cities. Northerners and southerners just did not agree on the definition of soul food.Southerners complained that much of the food advertised as soul food by restaurants was not soul food at all or was "more Southern than soul." "To people who just do not know better," wrote Bob Jeffries, it means "only chicken and ribs, corn pone, collards, and ‘sweet-taters,’ but nothing could be more authentically soul than a supper of freshly caught fish, a fish stew, or an outdoor fish fry." Southerners in New York argued that, for real soul food, you had to stand in line at Harlem restaurants like the Red Rooster, Jock’s Place, and Obie’s, where they sold trotters, neck bones, pigs’ tails, smothered pork chops, black-eyed peas, candied yams, and "grits ’n’ eggs."
For many, soul food was difficult to describe because it was all wrapped up in feelings. "Soul food takes its name from a feeling of kinship among Blacks," wrote Jim Harwood and Ed Callahan, who coauthored a soul food cookbook. It is "impossible to define but recognizable among those who have it." Similarly, Harlem restaurant owner and cook Obie Green, who, like James Brown, was a native of Augusta, Georgia, insisted that soul is cooking with love. "And I cook with soul and feeling." Bob Jeffries, also a southerner, argued that soul food was down-home food "cooked with care and love—with soul."57 South Carolina–born culinary writer and cook Verta Mae Grosvenor also makes the argument that the right feelings are essential to making soul food, "and you can’t it get [them] from no recipe book (mine included)." She insists that a good cookbook does not make a good cook. "How a book gon tell you how to cook." It’s what you "put in the cooking and I don’t mean spices either." Jeffries also agreed that soul food was made without recipes; it was made with inexpensive ingredients that "any fool would know how to cook" if they grew up eating it.
Soul food, then, according to black cooks, is an art form that comes from immersion in a black community and an intimate relationship with the southern experience. Soul food originated in the quarters of enslaved Africans in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It is a blend, or creolization, of many cooking traditions that Africans across the Americas seasoned to their own definition of perfection with their knowledge of culinary herbs gained from their ancestors. Soul food was spiritual food because some dishes were served only on Sundays and other special days during slavery and thereafter.
It was simple food, yet it was often complex in its preparation. Soul food required a cook with a good sense of timing of when to season, how long to stir, mix, fry, boil, sauté, bake, grill, dry, or smoke an ingredient and how to cut, skin, dip, batter, or barbecue. Without timing and skill, a cook had no soul worth talking about. Soul food was nitty-gritty food that tasted good and helped African Americans survive during difficult times. For a long time, none of its ingredients came in a can or box, and thus soul food was free of artificial preservatives. Oral history based on African folkways ensured that cooks passed on recipes from one generation to the next, and recipes and cooking techniques developed out of a common black experience and struggle with racism. Summing up reflections and commentaries on soul from the black power era, I have been able to formulate six statements about and working definitions for soul food:
Soul is a cultural mixture of various African tribes and kingdoms
Soul is adaptations and values developed during slavery and emancipation
Soul is the style of rural folk culture
Soul is the values and styles of planter elites in the Americas
Soul is spirituality and experiential wisdom that make black folk unique
Soul is putting a premium on suffering, endurance, and surviving with
During the 1960s and 1970s a somewhat heated debated developed between three camps within the African American community: African American intellectuals who argued that soul food was uniquely part of black culture and therefore the intellectual capital of black folk; white intellectuals who insisted that soul food was a southern regional food that belonged to southerners; and members of the Nation of Islam, advocates of natural food diets, and college-and university-educated African Americans who argued that soul food was nothing to be celebrated or guarded as their own because it was killing black folks. I discuss the last school of thought in the final chapter, when I turn to critics of soul food and movements advocating natural food diets. But before that, in the next chapter, I turn to a look at the history of Caribbean influences on soul food and urban identity.
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