Southern food. Soul food.
This is a contentious topic.
The ingredients, the dishes and the way of cooking in Southern food often originate from West Africa, or from slaves or former slaves in the American South where black cooks were the ones who cooked these meals for the white families that either enslaved them or employed them. “They weren’t eating it together, but they were eating the same thing.”
But today, it’s white chefs in expensive restaurants who often gain fame for cooking these dishes, while their black peers remain in the shadows. Like the Chef’s Table highlight of Sean Brock, the white chef behind Husk.
Which dishes are Southern, and which are soul food? Or, are they the same thing? And why does the name matter so much?
Fried green tomatoes. Okra. Beans and rice. Black eyed peas. Biscuits and gravy. Shrimp and grits. Cornbread. Greens. Chitlins. Pimento cheese. Catfish. Candied yam. These are just a few of the dishes often associated with this cuisine. And you may have already started to try and categorize them here – Southern vs. soul.
Many ingredients and dishes described as soul food are thought of as cheap and leftovers. The cuisine of poverty. They involved pickling and preserving, allowing the food to keep longer and the family to stay alive. Then these dishes started to be eaten, transformed and elevated by white, Southern families. Some may say appropriated – highlighted in Southern Living, cook books, tv shows and restaurants.
So, “soul food is a marketing term invented by Northerners. It was the home food of the black Southerners who moved in the Great Migration…it became black people’s food.”
Or was the term ‘soul food’ coined by African-Americans themselves, alongside soul music and other aspects of ‘black consciousness,’ to differentiate their cuisine and culture?
Let’s talk about one specific dish…
A number of things may come to mind at the thought of fried chicken. A chicken thigh and a biscuit at Popeye’s. The chicken tenders you ate at every restaurant as a kid. Or last week’s brunch of chicken and waffles.
“But American fried chicken will always be tied inextricably to race and the violent, egregious exploitation of black Americans.” Particularly after this scene of a black legislator was shown in Birth of a Nation – the propaganda film by the Ku Klux Klan.
Gastropod highlighted the history of fried chicken, citing a time during the Great Migration, when blacks moving north would sell fried chicken alongside the train routes, as something that would keep during the journey.
Then came Colonel Sanders and KFC in the 1940s. A white, Confederate ‘colonel’ marketing fried chicken. But then also came hot chicken in Nashville. A dish born out of the back of ‘soul-food’ shacks like Prince’s. And now it’s hard to go five miles in America without coming across at least one restaurant serving fried chicken.
But what you may not know about fried chicken is how prevalent it is in other cultures – from the Middle East to Malaysia to South Korea to Japan. After all, “killing a chicken, wringing its neck and cooking it for breakfast is a pretty traditional thing to do.”
So, does one culture really own fried chicken?
As almost all food is, Southern cuisine and soul food are deeply associated with family – with the mothers and grandmothers who cooked it for us when we grew up. It’s associated with large familial gatherings, such as church Sundays, backyard fish fries and brunching. The portions are large, and the food is sometimes considered unhealthy. But it’s comfort food. Regardless of race or history.
Where to go in Houston:
- Breakfast Klub
- Chicken wings & waffles (picture above), catfish and grits.
- The hospitality here is fantastic. It was my first time here, and they gave me free grits and potatoes, just to make sure I tried them.
- Houston This is It Soul Food
- Next up on my list to visit.
- Black-owned, featured in High on the Hog and visited by President Biden, Lucille’s is a main stay of Houston southern food.
- Fancier, downtown spot, specializing in Caribbean-Southern cuisine.
- Weekend brunch, with CFC & grits, biscuits & gravy, and gumbo.
- State of Grace
- Sunday Supper, with grits and honey-glazed fried chicken.
Where to go outside of Texas:
- The Grey
- A gorgeous Southern restaurant in an old Greyhound bus station in Savannah, Georgia, owned by Black chef Mashama Bailey. Named Eater’s Restaurant of the Year in 2017.
- Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, Savannah, Georgia
- Of Sean Brock fame, with locations in Charleston, Nashville, Savannah and Greenville.
Let me know what else you suggest!