When I was a child, my mother taught me how to cook by demonstration. Most times she just wanted me to wash the dishes, but even with my back turned and my arms elbow deep in warm, soapy water, she explained everything she was doing to prepare my favorite feast, be it gumbo during the holidays, rice and gravy on a Sunday, or any of her mid-week meals, like red beans and rice or jambalaya, for which I had a special affinity.
As I got older she allowed me to help more by seasoning the food, chopping the vegetables, and telling me why she did what she did in the kitchen. But it wasn’t until I was out of the house, living in my post-undergrad apartment, that she actually gave up the recipe goods.
My family recipes aren’t written on paper. They’ve been passed down through experiential teaching methods that go back more generations than I can count. For example, when I called my mother last New Year’s Day as I was preparing to keep to tradition and make black-eyed peas, she told me, “Season it like you do red beans but add a pinch of sugar.” That informal approach helps make up the very fabric of soul food.
Soul food is not to be confused with Southern food. Though it is a part of overall Southern cuisine, the difference is in the details; specifically, the seasoning. “It’s going to have more spice, it’s going to be sweeter, more fat,” says soul food scholar and cookbook author Adrian Miller. And while finagling the techniques from my mother was simple, for those who want to learn to cook soul food, getting this information is not always so easy.
“You have to stand there and watch and practice and cook with them,” Miller says. “And other times when you finally get that person to write down the recipe, they often give you a ‘lesser-pe,’ which means they intentionally leave out something so that you can’t replicate it.” These “lesser-pes,” lack of sharing, and generations of growth and mobility within the Black community, combined with a persistent myth that soul food is unwanted slave food, has led to some shunning of the cuisine by the descendants of the people who created it. “I think in the last 20 years for whatever reason parents just didn’t teach their kids this stuff,” Miller says. “Some traditions were severed or lost or very diminished.”
But with the rise of food competition programs like Chopped and Food Network Star, and celebrity chefs such as Sunny Anderson and the late, great B. Smith, there’s a yearning to reconnect with these cooking traditions. This is evidenced by the popularity of the Facebook group Black Girls Cook & Meal Plan, founded by Ashley Dewberry. With nearly 50,000 members, the group’s mission is to break the generational stigmas and stereotypes that surround Black cooking. It does this by opening up traditional soul food recipes to even those who didn’t have them passed down directly from family members, requiring each shared photo of a meal to include instructions on how to make it.
Teresa Southern, a media strategist from Macon, Georgia, and a member of the Facebook group, says her earliest memory of soul food is being in church and eating collard greens and cornbread with her fingers. Her mother tells her collard greens were the only vegetable she would eat without putting up a fight. But while Southern is a soul food aficionado now, she says that when she was younger, she wanted no part of the other common soul food staples her parents made growing up, including neckbones, pig tails, pig ears, and chitlins. Her picky childhood eating habits play into the stereotypes and stigmas that have surrounded soul food for generations.
A mark of soul food is eating from the “roota to the toota,” or whole-animal cooking. This tradition dates back to hog-killing rituals from the country’s antebellum period. African-American history courses often teach that enslaved people were given rations of tainted pork, or the unwanted parts of the pig, along with cornmeal or vegetables. From this lesson comes the persistent narrative of Black people taking the scraps from the master’s table and making them into something delicious. The main example of this is chitlins: cooked pig intestines.
However, Miller says the idea that enslaved people were forced to eat the worst parts of the pig (or any animal) and not the choice cuts of meat like ham, bacon, ribs, or steak is only partially true. Even during slavery, he says, it wasn’t just Black people who ate chitlins. “[This narrative] that we’re digesting white superiority really ignores the lineage from Western Europe and then it also ignores West Africa,” he says.
Miller, in his quest to become the definitive soul food scholar and write his first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, read 500 cookbooks and 3,000 oral histories of formerly enslaved people. In those oral histories, he found one story of a slaveholder who beat his enslaved cook because he didn’t think she made the chitlins well enough. “Europeans were grubbing on chitlins in the 1600s and 1700s,” Miller says. “The earliest written recipe for chitlins — they were beef chitlins, not pork — is in a British cookbook from 1740.” Despite this fact, the notion that soul food consists of food that is unwanted and lesser persists.
Toni Tipton-Martin notes in her 2015 book, The Jemima Code, that cookbook authors who published during the 1970s “tried to unring that bell by embracing the confidence and cultural pride of the black power movement, embellishing and deepening it with African foods, celebrations, and practices.” According to Tipton-Martin, this new breed of chefs worked to prove that soul food was more than pork parts, greens, and cornbread. It was through their culinary artistry that soul food came to include a wider range of foods that tap into the heritage of the Black experience, in America, Africa, and across the diaspora. It was in this way that these chefs of the ’70s began to explicitly define what soul food was in taste, smell, and ingredient profile.
But a shift away from soul food also took place during the Black liberation movement, says Miller. Some people didn’t view cooking, especially the cooking that emerged from slavery, as valuable work to engage in. “Over time, African Americans throw shade on cooking because it’s like, ‘Well, we were forced to do that. We couldn’t get out of the kitchen,’” says Miller. “And that’s why I think when you get to the civil rights movement and more of the economy is opened up to African Americans, you start to see fewer and fewer cooks as part of the profession.” This dichotomy of thought, some expanding the food and flavor profile of soul food while others distanced themselves from it, led to the rift we see now, with some Black cooks and families shunning soul food as others embrace the cuisine.
In the 1970s, America also saw the rise of fast food, which helped raise a generation of African-American children away from soul food cuisine and traditions. Miller notes the decline in business at soul food restaurants in college towns over the last 20 years as evidence of the trend, while Southern felt the shift growing up. “My dad always joked that he thought I grew up off of hamburgers because whenever my mom made those [soul food] meals, she always made me a hamburger,” she says. “I mean, that was just all I ate.”
When Southern joined the Black Girls Cook & Meal Plan group, her first post was a video of her cooking a soul food staple: fried chicken. “I was so amazed at how many people do not know how to fry chicken. [They] were like, ‘Uh, oh my God, look at your fried chicken! It’s so perfect and brown in the cast-iron skillet.’ I was like, ‘People don’t know how to cook fried chicken?’ I was just aghast.” Admittedly, Southern doesn’t remember learning to fry chicken. “It was just one of those things I always stood in the kitchen [making] with my mom and my dad,” she says.
Southern’s parents granted her access to family recipes and soul food secrets, access she’s granting in the Facebook group and on her personal social media pages. Of the sharing, she says, “It just felt like a sister circle, a friends circle, a place to talk about things that we all love [about] being Black women, soul food, but [it’s] also a way to amplify what you’re already cooking.”
Her experience is similar to that of university professor Alicia Pryor, who is also in the Black Girls Cook & Meal Plan Facebook group. While she says she joined the group to see the photos of members’ plates, she has come to appreciate the mission to break the generational stigma surrounding the sharing of soul food recipes. “If you’re one of those people that’s trying to learn different things and perfect your craft of cooking,” she says, “why not be able to try new recipes things or put in ingredients that you hadn’t thought might go well together?”
It’s a lesson Pryor has learned first-hand, not only from the Facebook group, but also from her own upbringing. To this day, she enjoys her favorite soul food dishes from her childhood, including the liver and onions she learned to make from her grandmother. “My mom is not the best cook, so she would send me up with my grandma, and my grandma would be throwing down in the kitchen,” Pryor says. She also has fond memories of her maternal uncle’s grilling. “He would barbecue all this country food, like raccoon and possum, and we would tear it up.”
Cooking her grandmother’s macaroni and cheese, which was passed down to Pryor’s mother and then to Pryor, along with other food from her summers in Panama City, Florida, helps her keep the memory of her grandmother alive since her death some 20 years ago.
Pryor comes from a line of cooks on both sides of her family, but she says trying to learn the recipes of her paternal great-aunt Gussie Mae Pryor has been more difficult. Those recipes were passed on to her father. “When my dad was in his 20s, he was in the military,” she says. “This was in [Great-Aunt Gussie Mae’s] final days. My dad came home and my Aunt Gussie said, ‘Can you make this pound cake for me?’ And my dad was like, ‘Yeah, just tell me how to do it.’”
Pryor’s father made the cake, Gussie Mae enjoyed several slices, and she passed away later that night. Upon her death, Pryor’s father was given all of Gussie Mae’s recipes — recipes he has held sacred and is only now beginning to share. “My dad, up until last year, did not share with me his pound cake [or] his sweet potato pie recipes,” Pryor says. “He’s always like, ‘Well, I’ll make it and I’ll bring it.’ Last year, he decided to share those two in particular. He’s shared more with me since then, but those two were the big ones.”
Pryor is a fan of the increased transparency of the Facebook group, and it also helps her learn cooking techniques she may have never come across. Southern feels the same way, although she has benefitted from having family members who have always shared their recipes with her whenever she’s asked. “My dad was known for his amazing macaroni and cheese,” Southern says, recounting the time she called and asked for the recipe. “I could just see him in his La-Z-Boy, leaning back, running off the ingredients. ‘Okay, you got a can of condensed milk, grate your cheese, don’t go and buy no cheese already shredded, you sit down and you grate that cheese. Add your noodles, add this, three eggs, beat ’em before you put ’em in the pan.’ I feel like I am blessed that I do have family who are open and ready to tell us how to make it.”
Pryor, Southern, and I have all learned our families’ soul food secrets by being present in the kitchen, asking questions, and then trying them on our own until we’ve perfected them. Some children have interest, and some don’t. Some people may not have interest until they’re adults, which is why groups like Black Girls Cook & Meal Plan are helpful. “I really thought about that and I was like, ‘Man that’s kind of cool,’” Pryor says of the group. “Food is for everyone to enjoy.” In this way, Black cooks and Black families have been able to reclaim their place in the kitchen, reconnect with their history, and advance a tradition that’s sustained us for centuries.
Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award-winning producer and the author of the novel Beyond Bourbon Street, centered around the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.