The term soul food became popular in the 1960s, when the word soul became used in connection with most things African American. The origins of soul food, however, are much older and can be traced back to Africa. Many culinary historians believe that in the beginning of the 14th century, around the time of early African exploration, European explorers brought their own food supplies and introduced them into the African diet. Foods such as turnips from Morocco and cabbage from Spain would play an important part in the history of African American cuisine.
When the European slave trade began in the early 1400s, the diet of newly enslaved Africans changed on the long journeys from their homeland. It was during this time that some of the indigenous crops of Africa began showing up in the slaves' new home in the Americas.
As slaves, African Americans would "make do" with the ingredients at hand. The fresh vegetables found in Africa were replaced by the throwaway foods from the plantation house. Their vegetables were the tops of turnips and beets and dandelions. Soon they were cooking with new types of greens: collards, kale, cress, mustard, and pokeweed. African American slaves also developed recipes which used discarded meat from the plantation, such as pig’s feet, beef tongue or tail, ham hocks, chitterlings (pig small intestines), pig ears, hog jowls, tripe and skin. Cooks added onions, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf to enhance the flavors. Many African Americans depended on catching their own meat, and wild game such as raccoon, opossum, turtle, and rabbit was, until the 1950s, very popular fare on the African American table.
There was little waste in the traditional African American kitchen. Leftover fish became croquettes (by adding an egg, cornmeal or flour, seasonings which were breaded and deep-fried). Stale bread became bread pudding, and each part of the pig had its own special dish. Even the liquid from cooked greens, called potlikker, was consumed as a type of gravy, or drink.
After long hours of labor, the evening meal was a time for families to get together, and the tradition of communal meals was the perfect environment for conversation and the reciting of oral history and storytelling. Another tradition was the potluck dinner, with each family member bringing a different dish to the dinner. When it was their families' turn for a visit by the preacher, it was also common practice for African-American women to hold up Sunday lunches or dinners until he arrived. If the minister frequently graced one's family table, then that conferred upon the family a degree of prestige in the eyes of the congregation. The tradition of extended family, friends and neighbors gathering at one woman's household at Christmas and Thanksgiving because of her status as a cook also began with the preacher's approval. After slavery in the United States came to an end, many poor African Americans could afford only the least expensive cuts of meat and offal. Subsistence farming yielded fresh vegetables, and fishing and hunting provided fish and wild game, such as possum, rabbit, squirrel, and sometimes waterfowl.
While soul food originated in the South, soul food restaurants—from fried chicken and fish "shacks" to upscale dining establishments—exist in virtually every African American community in the USA, especially in cities with large African American populations, such as Charleston, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Florida, Houston, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, New Orleans, Memphis, Los Angeles, Oakland, Miami, Birmingham, Sacramento, St. Louis, Washington, D.C, and Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Impoverished whites and blacks in the South prepared many of the same dishes stemming from the soul tradition, but styles of preparation sometimes varied. African American soul food generally tends to be more intensely spiced than European American cuisine. Certain techniques popular in soul and southern cuisine, such as using all the parts of the animal for consumption (e.g. West Africa), have roots in ancient Africa. Others like frying meat have a long history of which evidence occurs in ancient cultures all over the world such as Rome, Egypt and China. Whichever way it was introduced to the American South, fried meat became a common staple. To this day it is popular among Southern Euro and Afro-Americans.
Many people in the south debate over what the difference is between soul food and Southern cooking. Before the 1870s, the south was made up of a predominately Anglo and black population. Many blacks were cooks on plantations and may have taught the poor whites in the area their culinary traditions. Soul food is the first of the southern cuisines to arise, along with Creole cuisine (a similar cuisine that was isolated in the French Louisiana territory). During the 1870s, Irish, German and Czech immigrants started to come into the south bringing their own traditions coupled with soul food. This is when the larger, broad category of Southern cooking developed.
It is also important to note the Native American influence on soul cooking. Natives had been cultivating beans, strawberries, maize, and chili peppers. For years Natives prepared hominy (also the source of hominy grits), hotwater cornbread and strawberry bread, which Europeans appropriated as strawberry shortcake.
Since the mid-20th century, many cookbooks highlighting soul food and African American foodways compiled by African Americans have been published and well received. Vertamae Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, originally published in 1970, focused on South Carolina "Lowcountry", Geechee, or Gullah, cooking. Its focus on spontaneity in the kitchen—cooking by "vibration" rather than precisely measuring ingredients, as well as "making do" with ingredients on hand—captured the essence of traditional African American cooking techniques. The simple, healthful, basic ingredients of lowcountry cuisine, like shrimp, oysters, crab, fresh produce, rice and sweet potatoes, made it a bestseller.
At the center of African American food celebrations is the value of sharing. Likewise, African American cookbooks often have a common theme of family and family gatherings. Usher boards and Women's Day committees of various religious congregations large and small, and even public service and social welfare organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) have produced cookbooks to fund their operations and for charitable enterprises. The NCNW produced its first cookbook, The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, in 1958, and revived the practice in 1993, producing a popular series of cookbooks featuring recipes by well-known and celebrity African Americans, among them: The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1993), Celebrating Our Mothers' Kitchens: Treasured Memories and Tested Recipes (1994), and Mother Africa's Table: A Chronicle of Celebration (1998). The NCNW also recently reissued The Historical Cookbook.
Celebrated traditional Southern chef and author Edna Lewis wrote a series of books between 1972 and 2003, including A Taste of Country Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) where she weaves stories of her childhood in Freetown, Virginia into her recipes for "real Southern food".
Another organization, the Chicago-based Real Men Charities, in existence since the 1980s, sponsors food-based charitable and educational programs and activities around the nation. As its primary annual, celebrity-studded fundraiser, Real Men Charities sponsors "Real Men Cook" events and programs in fifteen cities nationwide, where African American men gather to present their best recipes—some original, others handed down for generations—for charity. The event is timed to coincide roughly with Juneteenth and Father's Day and is promoted with the slogan "Every day is Family Day When Real Men Cook." In 2004, Real Men rolled out its Sweet Potato Pound Cake Mix in select food retail establishments in several cities, and published a cookbook in 2005 titled Real Men Cook: Rites, Rituals and Recipes for Living. Proceeds from these events and from the cookbook help fund the organization's varied operations and activities.
Formerly, an important aspect of the preparation of soul food was the reuse of cooking lard. Because many cooks were too poor to throw out shortening that had already been used, they would pour the cooled liquid grease into a container. After cooling completely, the grease resolidified and could be used again the next time the cook required lard. Used cooking lard was simply a way to reuse an ingredient.
Frequent consumption of these ingredients without significant exercise or activity can contribute to disproportionately high occurrences of obesity, hypertension, cardiac/circulatory problems, and/or type 2 diabetes, conditions which often result in shortened lifespan. Additionally, trans fat, which is used not only in soul food, but in many baked goods, is a known contributor to cardiovascular disease.
As a result, some African-Americans may use methods of cooking soul food different from those employed by their grandparents, including using more healthful alternatives for frying (liquid vegetable oil or canola oil) and cooking and stewing using smoked turkey instead of pork. Changes in hog farming techniques have also resulted in drastically leaner pork. Some cooks have even adapted recipes to include healthier alternatives to traditional ingredients including tofu and soy-based analogues. Critics have argued that the attempt to make soul food healthier has the undesirable effect of not being as flavorful as the traditional recipes.
Certain staples of a soul food diet have pronounced health benefits. Collard greens are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, B6, and C, manganese, iron, calcium, folic acid, fiber and small amounts of omega 3 fatty acids. They also contain a number of phytonutrients which are thought to play a role in the prevention of ovarian and breast cancer. Peas, rice, and legumes are excellent, inexpensive sources of protein which also contain important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of beta carotene and trace minerals as well, and have come to be classified as an "anti-diabetic" food. Recent animal studies have shown that sweet potatoes can stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance.
The importance of frying as a cooking technique is in large part responsible for soul food's reputation as greasy and unhealthy. However, when done correctly, deep fat frying at high temperatures can allow less oil into the food than pan frying with small amounts of oil. When foods are deep fried, the water in the food boils out. This outward force of steam is greater than the inward force of the oil, so very little oil ends up in the food. However, heavy breading, insufficient oil, or too low a temperature can result in oily, generally unhealthy food.