When someone thinks of the South, food is often what comes to mind. Macaroni and cheese, collard greens, green beans and fried chicken are all hallmarks of what is popularly known as Southern food. However, these items can also be classified as soul food.
What is the difference and where did the name soul food come from?
“Soul food the phrase originates in the culture of the 1960s with the black arts movement, in that same time as soul music,” said David Davis, associate director of Southern Studies at Mercer University.
Soul food has a continual presence in black culture and in Southern life.
“(The) scholar Frederick Douglass Opie actually describes soul food as the African-American cultural equivalent of music dance and other cultural forms,” Davis said.
Sometimes soul food is described as “African American vernacular foodways” but it is not as easy to sell biscuits with that name, Davis said.
There is a lot of overlap between Southern food and soul food, he said. Many of the food items and techniques found in the preparation of soul food can also be found in Southern food.
“Southern food is a synthetic culinary paradigm,” Davis said. “That means it’s made up ... of contributions between indigenous foods found in North American foods and cooking techniques that are transported from Africa to the New World and the culinary patterns and taste of European colonizers in the New World.”
He said this cultural transfer of ideas happened between Southern and soul food in large part due to European colonization, slavery and later sharecropping.
“This also contributed to the kinds of food that make soul food and Southern food distinct from one another,” Davis said.
According to Davis, soul food is typically known by the lower quality and less economic value of the foods being prepared.
These items include pigs feet, oxtails, chitlins and other foods that were typically discarded by white families.
Richard Locket, owner of Memaw’s Kitchen in Macon, sees a difference between soul food and Southern food that is based on health and quality of food.
Memaw’s is labeled as a soul food restaurant online and yet Locket prefers that the food they sell at the restaurant be called Southern food.
“What we call soul food comes from surviving food. And we have overcome that and we’re looking basically now at mostly health food,” Locket said.
Locket sees soul food as a marker of what its creators had to do to eat and survive in the era of sharecropping in the South. However, he doesn’t like the connotations around the phrase soul food.
“Well, for so many years people have related soul food with greasy food,” Locket said.
He said they don’t like that label.
“Because our food is not greasy. But it’s good,” Locket said. “Our food is not salty, (or) over-seasoned. It’s good. And we learn how to develop the integrity of the food (and make) our customers come back.”
In the South, the culture of soul and Southern food overlap and mix together with each other to create a uniquely Southern identity.
“Food is such a fascinating signifier because it cuts across so many social constructions,” Davis said. “It’s a fascinating signifier because it’s an economic item. It’s also a signifier because its an agricultural item. (It’s) also a fascinating signifier because it’s a social, political and cultural item.”
He said the main thing though is that food isn’t just food.
“Food is meaning. And we can learn an awful lot about who people are by how and what they eat,” Davis said.