Soul Food's Contested History

AP Images/ Jeff Roberson

The kitchen of Sweetie Pie's in St. Louis, Missouri.

About a year ago, I was going down the line at Sweetie Pie’s at the Mangrove, Ms. Robbie Montgomery’s culinary temple to all things soul in St. Louis. The macaroni and cheese gleamed, the fried chicken was crisper than Ms. Robbie’s outfits when she sang backup as an Ikette, and the peach cobbler was worthy of a last meal. Surveying the clientele, however, I wondered how much connection the crowd that packed the house had to the food at hand. My fellow bear brothers (stocky, hairy, gay, but unlike me almost all white) were in town from across the Midwest for their bar night. I was in St. Louis to present on the heritage of Missouri’s African American foodways during slavery. I was hankering for a dialogue—minority to minority—on the meaning of food as hot-sauce bottles were passed around and the uninitiated suspiciously sniffed, then scarfed plates of collard greens. I suppressed my culinary-historian self long enough to finish the cobbler and let the crowd go unbothered by my burdensome genealogy of its meal.

Leave the job of beginner’s guide to Adrian Miller, whose Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time is just the book to move readers from one end of the line to the other without getting bogged down in chronology. The last two decades have seen a proliferation of books about the history and heritage of African American cuisines. You might think the flowering should have occurred at least a generation or two ago. But this kind of food scholarship sprang up only recently, emerging as it did out of folklore and women’s studies. Even now, African Americans are still seen too often as a people with a casual culture, one that is not the product of thought so much as something that just sort of happened—a “cool” by nature that goes with the wind. In the infamous Carolus Linnaeus quotation, “Homo sapiens Afer [the African] … [is] ruled by caprice.”

Prominent among recent works have been Fred Opie’s 2008 Hog and Hominy, a streamlined treatment of the African American culinary experience. Opie’s important contribution is his chapter on the transitional foods of the Great Migration, when African Americans moved from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Jessica Harris’s 2011 magnum opus, High on the Hog (apparently Sus scrofa domesticus is the unofficial totem of black food), invites readers on Harris’s life’s journey as a chronicler of African and African American food traditions, with each memory accompanied by essays on a different aspect of the story from 1619 to the present. Harris’s treatment contributes a sense of sweep, slightly raising the contextual bar of the discussion and touching on the global implications and flashpoints of the cuisine from its birth to maturity.

 

The organization of Miller’s Soul Food is ingenious: a tour of the average soul-food menu, resulting in the assembly of a classic meal—from fried chicken and greens to banana pudding and peach cobbler. Framing these essays are definitions, a brief history of soul food, and a summation of the state of soul. At its best, Soul Food speaks to the enduring mythological power of its staple dishes. Miller states his mission thus: “I investigate each food item’s history; I also look at how food and culture intersect. … How does a food item get on the soul food plate? What does that item mean for African American culture and American culture?” Themes explored include “the centrality of pork, low social status of blacks, racial stigma, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and communal spirit.” Key to Miller’s thesis is the idea that “soul food was a response to racial dictates as African Americans asserted their humanity,” and he addresses concerns about the cuisine’s reputation as unhealthy, declaring he doesn’t write as someone who “resists change.”

Adrian Miller grew up in Colorado, the son of Southern migrants who loved to cook. His work with the Clinton administration took him to Washington, D.C., where he had his first African meal, and he has served on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization promoting the study of Southern regional cuisine. In some chapters, Miller’s method of combining personal experiences, a sharp eye for soul food’s appearances in the popular media, and analysis of historic recipes mimics the sermonic tradition. Many of his chapter-end recipes come from the Miller family collection, my favorite being “Chitlins Duran,” a dish inspired by his brother Duran’s recipe—one I will never make but admire for its authenticity, although I have never heard of chitlins being served with spaghetti before.

It’s not the presentation of the main meal that troubles me about Soul Food; it’s the appetizers and how the table is set. Where my expertise and interests and Miller’s depart is in soul’s beginning—in the ancient cooking of West and Central Africa, through the earliest Afro-Atlantic encounters and into America’s colonial and antebellum periods. Miller’s birthdate for soul food is 1619. Mine is thousands of years ago, when West and Central Africans were creating their own means of subsistence and utilizing creative strategies that would serve them well when many were exiled to temperate North America.

Miller steamrolls through a generic, accepted timeline. The sense of evolution of this cuisine inside of a cuisine, born inside a nation within a nation—the sense that beyond tropes of race and caste and class this is also an inherently ethnic tradition—gets lost. In his schema, Arab traders bring chickens to West Africa around the year 1000. But chicken remains go back 500 years earlier, to ancient Jenne, a pre-Islamic city in what is now Mali. Despite Miller’s assertion that “we can’t say for certain that fried chicken existed in precolonial West Africa,” fried chicken is indeed referred to in West Africa during the slave trade—one reference dates to the 1730s. Sweet potatoes are not just eaten “primarily for the leaves” but are reported roasted at 17th-century markets on the Gold Coast. Dishes with greens were not born in the colonial South but were conceived in various ports where slave trader Jean Barbot found:

 

“The rich often have the meat of pigs, goats, harts and cows as well as of a large number of fowls, from which they even make [stock for] cabbage soup, and several other stews which they have learned from the whites and passed on from one to another. Malaguetta [pepper] is always prevalent in all their stews.

 

Later still Miller includes information about Mary Randolph of Tidewater, Virginia, Sarah Rutledge of Charleston, South Carolina, and Lettice Bryan of Kentucky, three privileged white American cookbook writers of the 19th century, about whom we inevitably learn more than the black women who taught and raised them and the black girls who played with them. Here is where I start to grapple with the work. To Miller, “master” set the table; indeed, had a “viselike grip.” But the distinction between Southern food and soul food is not just one of race and caste and economic class. These categories, while essential, take a backseat to ecological constraints and historical happenstance of trans-Atlantic mercantilism. The ethnicity of arriving enslaved Africans, whom they worked alongside and for, what environment they came from and arrived into, are very much a part of what makes soul food unique. Miller brings out excellent archival sources but doesn’t use them to their fullest potential. What the reader misses is the deeper notion that exiled Africans were sophisticated agents in remolding their own culinary traditions, as well as those acquired by assimilation and coercion.

 

Soul was a negotiation based on centuries of insider-outsider dialogue, with Africans translating ingredients, icons, and understandings into a structure at once familiar and almost impenetrable. There are layers that you have to go under, metaphysical beliefs at work. Black-eyed peas are not just black-eyed peas. They were put on people’s graves, thrown into paths for good luck to make women fertile. Each food had its proverbs, songs, spells, and lore. How do we tell this story and not forget that enslaved people and people under duress kept a large part of it to themselves? We can’t put a name or label on that. But we know it happened.

The story of soul is not only about leftovers or economic expediency, and soul food is no ailing cultural bastard. It is the cuisine of Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” edible jazz, the most surreptitious means of preserving African culture. Thinking back to the St. Louis restaurant, Miller’s premise that soul food is unknown isn’t exactly honest or realistic. Soul-food restaurants routinely bring crowds of non–African Americans in for a bite. I wouldn’t advocate for culinary justice if African American heritage foods were not being constantly remixed by white hipster chefs and others and re-spun as pan-“Southern” cuisine brought into the 21st century. Still, “soul food” when not cooked by soul hands is often labeled “Southern style,” and the salty, spicy, sweet, greasy element that Miller posits as soul taste gets amplified, not toned down. The same principle makes Yum Brands rich through Kentucky Fried Chicken, the worldwide leader in watered down, mass-marketed soul. The world may not call it soul, but we know that the “Colonel” is perpetually playing Jolson.

Miller’s concluding chapter, which brings out multiple and conflicting definitions and notions of soul food, is probably where he and I agree the most. I am satisfied with the idea that soul food is, according to one definition, “love.” Miller has written his own love note to soul food. For me, studying and re-enacting the birth pangs of soul food is also a labor of love, but my primary goal is to show the genius machinations of a supposedly powerless people in dire circumstances and the skill with which they thwarted them. Soul is as much about the cerebral as it is about comfort.

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