Is it Soul Food or Traditional Southern Cooking?

by Angela Perez

A few days ago, I had lunch in a tiny country cooking restaurant in a rural town in northeastern NC. Wilson, to be exact. I hummed in joy as I threw down on yams, collard greens, mustard greens, and fried porkchops. I noticed while I was eating that I was the only white person in the restaurant – and not another white person came in while I was there. Earlier, while I was waiting in line to order from the hot buffet, an elderly woman struck up a conversation with me. We chatted about high blood pressure and diabetes – both of us have these ailments but neither of us was worried about dying in that moment (we both agreed that moderation was the key). And we both couldn’t wait to get some of that good home cooking.

As I sat down to eat from my Styrofoam plate, I began to wonder, “What’s the difference between soul food and traditional Southern cooking?” A lot of you know that much of my identity comes from the food I grew up eating and that I now continuously search for as certain Southern foodways seem to be disappearing. Or, rather, as those foods are disappearing or changing in urban areas. But as soon as you drive an hour east from Raleigh, NC, you’ll find little country cooking restaurants that are busy every day with locals ordering up collard greens, fried chicken, yams, fat back, hushpuppies, fried pork chops, chitterlings, neckbones, pigtails, and so on. And you’ll find that Southerners from rural areas, of all races, suffer from diabetes (we refer to it as “my sugar is high”) and high blood pressure. A rural Southerner could be going blind, on dialysis, and about to lose some toes from poor circulation, and will still sit there at a family dinner wolfing down mac and cheese and red velvet cake while exclaiming, “Whoo, Lord, I’m going to have to take some extra sugar pills tonight!” Knowing full well we should only be eating a little of that food, if at all. But I will tell you right now, I’d rather not have any collards if they are cooked with turkey necks and not fatback. (I’ll write a separate article on food culture in the South, race, and health.)

So what IS the difference between traditional Southern cooking and soul food? I’ve read a great deal of research on how Southern cultural identity is bound up and differentiated by both concepts. The fact of the matter is that the most well-known traditional Southern dishes would not exist if it was not for the enslavement of Africans here in the South. And enslaved Africans and African Americans processed and cooked much of the food that some white Southerners ate. Some research differentiates Southern cooking from soul food by the parts of the pig used – the pieces of the pig that white plantation owners did not want like neckbones, pig tails, and chitterlings – and cornmeal. But if fried catfish and pickled pigs feet are on the tables of both black and white Southerners, which is it?

I grew up eating all of the foods listed here and sometimes it was prepared by white Southerners and sometimes by black Southerners. Is that what makes the difference between Southern cooking and soul food – the race of the person preparing it? I was perusing one scholarly journal article that definitively defined soul food as, “traditional southern food cooked by blacks.” We now celebrate and elevate food that was once considered the throw-away parts. And Southerners use food to distinguish themselves from other groups, even if those other groups “try” to cook the food. My identity is bound up in grits, homemade biscuits, both molasses and pepper vinegar as permanent fixtures on the kitchen table, fried cornmeal-breaded okra and fish, and cabbage cooked in fatback. I’m also half white and half Mexican, raised in northeastern NC. But if a half-white, half-Mexican person from, say, Lansing, Michigan achieved fame by running a celebrated restaurant featuring traditional Southern food, well, I’d probably, initially, turn my nose up at it and have a few negative things to say.

Anyway, as I sat there in the restaurant finishing up my banana pudding, I wondered, is this dessert soul food because it was prepared by a black cook? If I was eating this same dessert at a homecoming at an all-white church prepared by white hands, would it be something else? Either way, I surely do love it. But I can’t not think about the history and culture behind the food I so dearly love.
P.S. There are a lot of articles and books on the history of soul food, the history of the term “soul food” and acceptance and criticism of it, and the evolution of this cooking in the North as African Americans migrated there from the South, bringing recipes and culinary styles with them. In a future article, I will explore how soul food in the North has changed from the original Southern cooking that started it. And I also want to further explore the history of the term “soul food.”

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