The deep cultural connections of soul food

This year's Civil Rights Movement Tour experienced soul food in Alabama. Photo by Gary Jones.

This year's Civil Rights Movement Tour experienced soul food in Alabama. Photo by Gary Jones.

By Janet Pugh

Gary Jones, a faculty member at Oklahoma Christian University, annually spearheads a spring break trip centered around the Civil Rights movement. Each group of participating students gets the chance to visit historical sites in different states such as Little Rock, AR, and Memphis, TN.

For the past three years, the tour stops in Birmingham, AL, and formed a tradition of having a lunch break at a local church, Avondale Church of Christ with its star menu: soul food.

The history and purpose of the food represents togetherness, love and culture. I was involved in preparing and serving the food as a member of the congregation sharing my love for my hometown, its history and my mother’s constant appreciation for Oklahoma Christian.

This year, 30 students including three chaperones came to indulge in the feast. The menu included (but was not limited to) cabbage, collard greens, black eyed peas, dressing, cranberry sauce, yams, macaroni and cheese, ham, baked chicken, orange salad, banana pudding, brownies, red velvet cake, pound cake and cornbread.

From my observations and conversation, most of the students on the tour had not visited Alabama nor had a chance to try soul food, so the expressions on their faces were astonishing and delightful that the food was so rich in seasoning and flavor.

The history of the soul food tradition dates back to 1492. Soul food is a term used for an ethnic cuisine, food traditionally prepared and eaten by African Americans of the Southern United States. Many of the various dishes in ingredients included in soul food are also regional meals and comprise a part of other southern U.S. cooking as well. The style of cooking originated during American slavery.

African slaves were given leftovers and undesirable cuts of meat from their masters. Vegetables were grown by the slaves. After slavery, many, being poor, could only afford off-cuts of meat, along with offal. Farming, hunting and fishing provided fresh vegetables, fish and wild game such as possum, rabbit, squirrel and sometimes waterfowl.

The term ‘soul’ originated in the 1940s, from jazz music. White artists became more popular in the music genre than African Americans. So to distinguish the style of the artist, African Americans would describe their display of playing as adding soul to the music. Same way with food; because of struggle and hardship from slavery, the history of perseverance and strength is represented in the food they cooked.

Food brings people together for any occasion but the original purpose of the meal was to overcome adversity now becomes a symbol of unity, it shows progress. Even though we have so much more work to do, it’s a start.

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