Soul food: From the trauma of slavery came beautiful cuisine
The menu at Herman’s in Chattanooga features oxtail, collards, crowder peas, yams and more every Wednesday. (Photo: Anne Braly)
It’s 9:30 a.m. and the collard greens, crowder peas and butter beans are ready; the oxtails are roasting in the oven; and the pigs feet and ham hocks are simmering on the stove. It’s Soul Food Wednesday at Herman’s Soul Food and Catering in Chattanooga. Rodney Billups and his crew have been cooking since 6 a.m. Because of the pandemic, his dining room is closed and he’s choosing to offer take-out only, but it looks like he’s prepared for a crowd. There are dozens upon dozens of corn muffins at the ready, and a big pan of cracklin’ cornbread, too.
“And we’ll probably have to make more,” Billups says. “Soul Food Wednesday is our busiest day of the week.”
Soul food, in all its fried, pork-laden glory, is a cuisine different from all others, brought by Africans to America during the days of slavery.
“I remember my grandma would get a pig and cook every part of it,” he recalls. “She’d tell us that was soul food.”
It’s an offering of food that comes from the heart and feeds the soul – a cuisine filled with culture and emotion.
“There’s a lot of love that goes into the process of making soul food,” says David Swett from his 62-year-old soul food eatery in Nashville.
But how did this food on America’s menu jump from slavery to mainstream – one that’s enjoyed by whites, blacks and all people of color?
For starters, the Great Migration played a role. Many Blacks left the South following the Civil War for points North and West to better their lives, taking their food ways with them.
“Back in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, a lot of white people had blacks people working in their homes and cooking for them,” Swett says. “And they would cook the same food for the whites that they made at home for themselves.”
Thus, the introduction of soul food into white culture was further established.
It’s the original fusion cuisine with influences and ingredients thrown into one big pot to create the soul food tradition, says Adrian Miller, the man who wrote the book on soul food — literally. Miller, a lawyer, public policy adviser and culinary historian, is originally from Chattanooga and now lives in Denver, Colo. Among his books is “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine,” a tome that in 2014 won the James Beard Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.
“Soul Food brings together the ingredients, culinary techniques and traditions of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas,” he says. “It’s one of the key aspects for African-American cuisine, in addition to barbecue, Creole cooking, and low-country cooking.”
But don’t confuse it with comfort food. Soul food has a legacy all its own.
“I think of comfort food as a more general term, embracing several cultures,” Miller continues. “Soul food is the African-American version — a cuisine forged during several centuries as a response to persistent trauma from slavery and oppression.”
Historically a food that began during the tragic years of slavery in the South, when slaves would get cuts of meat and vegetables that were considered inedible by their white “masters,” the great migration following the Civil War introduced soul food to the entire country. But many former slaves remained in the South, and today, a food once considered rudimentary at its best is now found in almost every kind of place, from gas stations to diners and upper-crust eateries. Here are some favorites around the Volunteer State owned by African-Americans who put their heart and soul into every bite..
- Ask anyone where they can find the best soul food in town and the answer may give you several choices, but among them will be Swett’s (2725 Clifton Ave.). Three generations of the Swett family have worked at the East Nashville restaurant, where pigs feet are on the menu alongside pork chops and fried chicken. “It’s working-class food,” says David Swett.
- H&T’s Home Cooking (2264 Murfreesboro Pike) is known for big flavors and huge plates of wings, fried catfish,and sides of black-eyed peas, grits, turnip greens and all the things that put the soul in soul food.
- A former mechanic, Charles Chandler opened his restaurant, Chandler’s Deli (3101 East Magnolia Ave.), 20 years ago and became a place favored by people of all colors for its chitterlings — or chitlins if you’re from the South. “Black slaves were always given the throw-away parts of meat,” he says. “And since hog kills were in the late fall and there was no refrigeration back then, slaves would only eat chitlins in the winter. That’s when they eat them here now. White people like them too and eat them year round. But most blacks only eat them in cold weather. It’s a hand-me-down thing.”
- Soul food comes of age at Sweet P’s (410 West Jackson Ave.). There’s just about every kind of barbecue you’d want, but for a taste of soul, it’s the Smoke ‘n Soul Chicken. Order it with a side of Greens and Things — greens with black-eyed peas, carrots and bacon. A 21st-century take on a 19th-century staple.
- One of the oldest soul food restaurants in the country, The Four Way (998 Mississippi Blvd.) was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King when he visited Memphis. It remains a top place for soul food where locals come to chow down on liver and onions, chicken neck bones, boiled okra, turnips greens and more. But it’s also a stop for those on pilgrimage wanting to reflect on King’s life.
- Located in the historic Pinch District that parallels the Mississippi River, Alcenia’s bridges the gap between comfort and soul food with dishes such as smothered chicken and salmon croquettes and sides such as fried green tomatoes, yams, okra and pinto beans.
“Soul food brings people together,” says owner/manager/cook B.J. Chester-Tamayo. “It connects us.”
- There’s always a little soul food on the menu at Herman’s Soul Food and Catering (3821 Brainerd Road), but on Wednesday’s, owner Rodney Billups pulls out all the stops, adding pigs feet, oxtails, neck bones butter beans, boiled okra, collard greens, homemade banana pudding and more to the daily offerings. “My perception of soul food,” Billups says, “is if it takes a little more time to cook and you put your love and energy into it, then that’s soul food.”
The specials change daily at C and W Cafe (1501 East 23rd St.), but you’ll always find some good soul food choices, such as fried whiting or ham hocks with cabbage and fried corn. “It’s where magic happens at mealtime,” says chef and owner Carl Hill.
It's interesting how, under horrible conditions, African-American cooks created something beautiful and delicious.
– Adrian Miller
“There are several spins on traditional soul food that have taken root over the past couple of decades,” he says. The first is a health-conscious approach that substitutes healthier ingredients. Smoked turkey is used instead of pork, vegetable oils instead of butter and lard. “
But the hottest trend, he says, is vegan soul food in which no animal products are used, such as that served at The Southern V in Nashville.
“There’s also ‘upscale soul food’ that uses ingredients — exotic spices, heritage meats and heirloom vegetables — presented in interesting ways,” he says.
Soul food, a fusion food all its own, becomes even more interesting when fused with other cuisines, a trend that is gaining momentum, adds Miller, citing examples such as collard green quesadillas and egg rolls filled with soul-food ingredients, such as pulled chicken, greens and black-eyed peas.
“It’s interesting how, under horrible conditions, African-American cooks created something beautiful and delicious,” Miller says.
“They took nothing — those foods that white people wanted to throw away — and made it into something,” says Betty Joyce Chester-Tamayo, owner of Alcenia’s in Memphis.
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