Origins of Soul Food
Soul food can be traced back to Africa in the 1400's when European explorers brought their food supplies to Africa. Some examples are turnip from Morocco and cabbage from Spain. Other foods native to the Africans include okra, yams, watermelon, peanuts, millet, and sorghum. In the 1600's, slave ship cargoes brought crops from Africa to North America and soon these foods became a part of African American cuisine.
Dishes prepared by slave cooks varied depending on their owners. Food often included okra, yams, sweet potatoes, collard greens, cabbage, squash, butterbeans, black-eyed peas, and tomatoes. The slave cooks brought with them their own style of cooking that included meals seasoned with pepper, onion, and garlic. Larger plantations usually had two types of slaves; those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the "Big House." Meals cooked by the house slaves for their owners varied from plantation to plantation. According to Frederick Douglass, a slave born on the Lloyd plantation in 1817, meals prepared and cooked for their owners and guests included a wide variety of foods and beverages. Beverages included brandy and wine from France and teas from China. Meats and seafood included wild goose, quail, pheasant, mutton, venison, beef, oysters, crabs. Vegetables included asparagus, parsnips, and cauliflower. According to Douglass, "Lloyd's plantation was like a pretentious quasi-nation, indulged and swollen in 'the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificene and satiety."' (Source: Aspects of Afro-American Cookery by Howard Page).
Meals for the Slaves
After working in the fields, slave families would sit down at a table in their one room log cabin to eat dinner, talk and recite oral histories. Slaves supplemented their food rations with foods from their gardens. They were rarely given coffee and had to make it out of okra, corn and other grains. Meals for them might be stews and soups made from their own garden vegetables and cuts of meats that slave owners discarded. Some of the meats were ham hocks, gizzards, pigs feet, and chitterlings or chitlins (hog intestines). It was common for slaves to make one pot meals on a shelf above the fireplace.
Soul Food and Regional Differences
Ingredients and methods of cooking soul food vary for a couple of reasons. Many slaves could not read or write, so the recipes were passed on orally. In addition, soul food cooking varies from region to region depending on settler influence and ingredients special to a region. For example, low country cuisine traditionally refers to a region along South Carolina's coast. Ingredients special to South Carolina's coast are rice, crabs, oysters, shrimp, and sweet potatos. In Louisiana, Gumbo is traditionally a New Orleans Creole dish. The main ingredient is okra, or quingombo, a native plant of Africa. Creole cuisine has also been influenced by the Spanish, French, Carribean and Native Americans settlers.