The rise of sharecropping, which was just another form of slavery, and the Black churches further affected the cuisine we now call soul food, for better and for worse.
The best food was on display at Emancipation celebrations, holiday parties, and black church gatherings in the rural South. Of the above, black churches had the most influence on both the community and soul foods themselves. These celebrations served cakes, different types of sweet potato pies, fried fish, fried chicken, red drinks, and watermelon were served as celebratory foods throughout the South.
During the remainder of the week, rural black communities subsisted on a diet similar to those of the slavery days of their recent past. These meals consisted of seasonal vegetables, cornbreads, meager rations of slated and smoked meats as well as extremely unhealthy processed foods.
If the black churches symbolized some of the best of the rural South, the sharecropping system definitely represented the worst. The sharecropping system, in which farmers rented land from former plantation owners and worked it for a certain length of time, represented the worst aspects of rural life in the South. The former plantation owners, known as “landlords,” divided their land into smaller parcels for individual farmers (known as “tenants” or “sharecroppers”).
The tenants agreed to farm the land and split half of the crop yield with their landlords. Landlords frequently extracted loans against future earnings from their impoverished tenants merely to acquire the fundamental goods and equipment they needed to cultivate. The tenants were in debt, and the landlords did everything they could to keep them there. Sharecroppers had more incentive to till every inch of their land for a cash crop rather than growing their own food.
With the money they had to borrow from their landlords, they acquired their own groceries, with an increasing amount of processed food purchased at a nearby commissary owned by the same landlord. The decades following the Civil War maintained the pre-slavery diet of poverty food during the workweek and special event food on weekends at social gatherings often times at the churches. In many ways, sharecropping was just another form of slavery and eventually led to the Great Migration.
When African-Americans began to migrate once again to “The Promised Land,” which for millions of individuals was anyplace but the South, the next evolution in soul foods would begin to take place. Thus began what was known as the Great Migration.