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The History of Soul Food Cuisine in the United States

Soul food is the ethnic African-American cuisine traditionally cooked in the Southern United States. The term was invented in the mid-1960s when the Black Power movement was gaining momentum and African Americans tried to emphasize their unique culinary traditions (Avieli & Markowitz, 2018). Besides being a traditional cuisine of the Africans, it carries the terrifying fate of the slaves. It is inspired by their best way to preserve the African heritage despite all their eradication and suffering. This paper aims to discuss the history of soul food and its impact on American cuisine.

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With the rise of civil rights and black nationalist movements in the 1960s, many African Americans sought to reaffirm their share of American cultural heritage. Since terms such as “soul brother,” “soul sister,” and “soul music,” were common, it was natural that the term “soul food” would be used to describe recipes that African Americans have been preparing for generations. This term may have been first used in 1962 by a civil rights activist and poet Amiri Baraka (Avieli & Markowitz, 2018). Sylvia Woods opened her famous Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem the same year. Today, Woods is known by many as the “queen of the soul food”.

The soul food, now known as home cooking with its roots in the Deep South, mainly Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, originates from Africa. If African slaves had not been imported to the United States in the 17th century, Americans would not have known about the existence of Coca-Cola or barbecue, two basic components of modern American cuisine (Avieli & Markowitz, 2018). For centuries, African Americans have been cooking rich, generous food on special occasions and passing recipes to further generations. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, African slaves received cheap and low-quality food, but despite these difficulties, they preserved their cultural heritage and adapted their traditional recipes with the given food. Over time, their cooking techniques have been modified into the soul food dishes that people eat today.

The method of deep-frying fish or cooking barbecue-style meat was documented in West Africa long before the Transatlantic Slave Trade began. Such dishes as gumbo, thick soup with spices, or jambalaya, consisting of chicken or seafood mixed with rice, are traditional African dishes (Avieli & Markowitz, 2018). The main products used for cooking soul food are pork, rice, greens, and okra. These four ingredients establish a link between America’s slavery past and the African culture carried by the enslaved people.

Rice, like many other vegetables and crops used in soul food, were unknown to Americans before the slave trade. Enslavers deliberately took some native African plants on the ships to make small portions of food and give to the slaves to keep them alive. Later, Africans grew these plants on the plantations as the sources of energy that helped them during the hard work. Since rice is a key ingredient in many African recipes, slaves adapted their cooking and set the foundation for the well-known southern American cooking traditions. Similarities can be found between such rice dishes as jambalaya and jollof, a popular dish in many African countries (Avieli & Markowitz, 2018). Another dish Hoppin’ John, consisting of rice and peas, resemble Ghanaian waakye.

Barbeque, the most popular soul food, is not just a special dish for backyard celebrations; it is an American tradition with modest African beginnings. For centuries, pork has been an important product in the South, and the main method of preserving it was smoking and salting. During the slave trade, Africans were assigned to preserve meat, and as a result, many techniques of preparing pork were developed by African Americans in that period (Avieli & Markowitz, 2018). The cheapest and undesirable cuts, such as head or intestines, were given to slaves. To mask the bad smell of the meat, they used the mix of herbs and seasonings, as well as hot red peppers and vinegar. Today, this flavoring is the base of various barbecue sauces used in the South.

Such dishes as Ethiopian gomen or Ghanian kontomire stew, made from leaves and greens, are similar to some dishes popular in the United States. For example, Ethiopian okra, used as a soup thickener, is used in many African American stews and rice dishes. In the African food culture, it is common to boil green leaves (Avieli & Markowitz, 2018). During slavery, they were boiled in pork fat and herbs with any available vegetables. People soaked the juice left from cooking and ate it with cornbread, which was the best accompaniment to any meal. This eating style reminds an African practice of dipping a piece of bread into a gravy. Similar to pork, cornbread was consumed by free people and slaves almost every day. Meat and corn were common products for the enslaved people in the South since they gave energy for hard work.

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Southern soul food has gone through modifications and innovations and continues to adapt to modern people’s needs and preferences. However, it is important to remember that the food, which is now associated with pleasure and richness, was born out of suffering and survival. African slaves had a huge impact on American cuisine and created recipes without which today’s American cuisine is unthinkable, especially the cuisine of the southern states. The history of soul food links African American culture to its roots, which is reflected in the traditional recipes and techniques.


Avieli, N., & Markowitz, F. (2018). Slavery food, soul food, salvation food: Veganism and identity in the African Hebrew Israelite Community. African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 11(2), 205-220.

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