The Beginner's Guide to the History of Soul Food

When you think soul food, your senses spring to life. Fried chicken, cornbread, sweet potato pie, pig’s feet, and collard greens all come to mind when you think of soul food. Soul food has a long and illustrious history, and it is steeped in a distinct culture that dates back to the 1620s when the first African slaves were brought to what would become the United States.

African American Culture
Table of Contents

What is Soul Food?

One of the most indulged and well-known forms of cuisine native to the United States is soul food. For close to 400 years, Black Americans have handed down hearty, delicious dishes that have been used to celebrate many a special occasion.


So what exactly is soul food?


Soul food is the traditional ethnic cuisine of African-Americans that originally started in the Southern United States.


The origins of soul food cuisine can be traced back to the Deep South, which is also known for having a large slave population, mainly Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Soul food can be traced to slave ships and the plantations that supported the Transatlantic Slave Trade, these slaves were given meager food rations that were low in quality and nutritional value, basically “table scraps”. These meager rations meant slaves had to be resourceful in order to survive.


African foods were also carried to the New World, and enslaved people preserved African culinary traditions as well as modified traditional cultural recipes with the ingredients they had available. These dishes and methods have evolved into today’s soul food as well as American cuisines in general.


This cuisine, now associated with comfort and heartiness, was created out of necessity and perseverance in the face of their struggles.

"Soul food tells a story, the story of American History, a story that begins in 1619."

The Influence of Slavery on Soul Food

Soul food’s pre-slavery influences come from both West Africa and Europe. Many of the staples of soul food come directly from the result of slavery, however. Soul food recipes are the direct result of the limited rations given to slaves in the Deep South by their owners. For example, it was not uncommon for a slave to be given only some cornmeal and 3 to 4 pounds of salted or smoked meat. This led to such recipes as barbecued ribs, cornbread, chitterlings, fried fishes such as catfish, and even neckbones. Other staples were collard greens, kale, beets, and other root vegetables, as well as sweet potatoes all of which play a big part in diets even today in 2022.

Another direct influence of slavery is that slaves needed a high-calorie diet as they spent long days performing manual labor and other physical tasks. This led to such things as breading meats with cornmeal, fried foods, mixing vegetables and meats, and other such creative high-calorie recipes. These methods of preparing meals became so popular that they even started to be enjoyed by the larger southern food community, as many slaves were now being used as cooks and kitchen staff across the south.

leafy greens

Central and West African Influences

The African background of American soul food has been noted by experts, particularly the influence of the Western and Central regions of Africa. This influence is represented by the heat level (spiciness) of many soul food dishes, as well as certain ingredients used in them. Malagueta pepper, as well as peppers native to the Western Hemisphere such as red (cayenne) peppers, were used to liven up soul food dishes. Southern cuisine and soul food are defined by a variety of foods that were domesticated or consumed in the African savanna and tropical regions of West and Central Africa. These include pigeon peas, black-eyed peas, okra, and sorghum.

corn and southern food

Native American Influences

Southern Native American culture, which includes the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Chickasaw people, is an essential part of Soul Food and Southern cuisines. The Native American cultures are best known for introducing maize (corn) into the cuisines of the Deep South, which led to hominy. Corn was used in making grits, cornbread, and even alcohols such as whiskey and moonshine. Another important ingredient would be fruits, namely berries such as blackberries and raspberries.


Lastly, meats, Native Americans subsisted on the local game which varied depending on area and season but meats such as rabbit, deer, and squirrel became part of the southern cuisines. The Native Americans also taught many the importance of using the whole animal, which led to chitlins (chitterlings), for example.

typical soul food meal

The Health Concerns of Soul Food Cooking

Traditional soul and southern foods, which are generally eaten in generous amounts, can be harmful to one’s health. Since the term was coined in the mid-20th century, opponents to traditional soul food have spoken out about health concerns surrounding the cuisine’s customs. Many people will avoid eating traditional Soul Food dishes for fear of high starch, fat, sodium, cholesterol, and calories. Traditional Southern foods have also been accused of being inexpensive and low-quality in ingredients such as salted pork and cornmeal. In light of this, they are many claims that the high rates of hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, blocked arteries (atherosclerosis), stroke, and heart attack suffered by African-Americans are linked to soul food diets.

Soul Food - A Historical Timeline

African American ethnic food, often called soul food, is a traditional cuisine from the Southern United States. The cuisine was created by the meals supplied to enslaved black people by their white owners on Southern plantations during the Antebellum period. It was also significantly influenced by West African and Native American traditions starting when slaves first were brought to North America (the 1620s). Soul food is closely linked to the cuisine of the American South because it has long been associated with African Americans and slavery, despite the fact that today it is widely recognized and revered in mainstream American culinary culture. Read on to learn a more detailed history of this ever-popular African American cuisine.

A New Cuisine is Born out of Struggle in Antebellum America (1619-1865)

Slave owners controlled the amount of food supplied to enslaved African peoples in both the North and South. This led to strict and cruel rationing for enslaved peoples. A typical ration would be given on a given day of the week and usually consisted of a couple of pounds of the cheapest meat available, this meat was usually salted or smoked, and tended to be fish, pork, or beef scraps. Slaves would also be given some starchy foods, usually rice, sweet potatoes, cornmeal, and lastly a jug of molasses. Slaves had to be creative and resourceful to survive. This led to slaves foraging, fishing, hunting, gardening (Okra for example was brought from Africa), and raising livestock such as pigs with the aid of their European captors, poor whites in the region, and indigenous individuals.


The enslaved often had access to high-quality ingredients and meals only on weekends, while the work schedule was slow, this often included refined sugars and processed flour. The combination of poverty and food scraps mixed with prestige and pride set the foundation for soul food.


Soul food was born out of necessity, survival, struggle, and perseverance.

Soul Food and the Reconstruction Era: Black Churches and Sharecropping (1865-1910)

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.

The Great Migration (1910s-1970s)

After years of spiraling debt, unendurable racism, and subjugation, millions of Southern blacks decided that the best option was to leave the south to escape this new brand of slavery known as sharecropping. This became known as the Great Migration, a period of mass migration that spanned over seven decades (the 1910s to 1970s) and occurred in waves. It would change the fabric of soul food as well as the American landscape in general, what was one day to be known as soul food was about to explode across the USA.


The Great Migration brought soul food to unfamiliar northern cities, for many it was a reminder of the family, friends, homes, and lives they had left behind in search of a better life.


The increase of the black populations in the cities resulted in overcrowding, and many moved into meager high-rise apartments with little in the way of adequate cooking facilities. Because of all this, home-cooking became difficult, once again, relief agencies, restaurants, street vendors, and inner-city black churches were there to help the hungry population.


Soul food helped bridge cultural gaps that were often encountered in American cities. Foods are an important aspect of understanding and humanizing other cultures, African American cuisine was no different.


Due to the fact that non-Anglo-Saxon whites were forced to reside in close proximity and in specified parts of the cities, African-Americans met many immigrants, as well as other people of color, and were introduced not only to their customs and traditions but also to their cuisines. African-Americans were partaking in cultural dishes far before the mainstream white population such as tacos, enchiladas, and chilis (Tex-Mex cuisine), pizza, pasta dishes, and other Italian recipes as well as pork fried rice and a myriad dishes the Chinese brought to the USA.


As the economic situation of African-Americans improved following World War II, some moved into homes with bigger yards for gardens, modern kitchens, and more disposable income to buy foods with. Sunday dinner with the extended family and community, complete with a table brimming with special-occasion soul food meals, grew out of this slowly evolving prosperity. Soul food was once again evolving as African-Americans were making progress in post-World War II America.

Lizzie McDuffie worked in the White House for FDR

Lizzie McDuffie was a cook and maid for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and is said to have made FDR more relatable to the black community during his 1936 election campaign.

Soul Food, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Power Movement (1960s-1990s)

Even though the term “soul food” was burned into our consciousness during the 1960s, it had been used in black culture since the 1940s. During the 1960s, black cultural identity was more strongly expressed, economic and political power was on the rise as well. The Black Power Movement was gaining steam, and quickly. However, as often is the case, as soon as soul food began to enter mainstream America its meaning, and history began to erode.


Many people recognized its culinary, cultural, and commercial allure but simply regarded it as a new brand for the finest home-cooked dishes handed down through the generations.


Cultural totems like food were seen by black power advocates as a potent unifying element that broached geography, class, and different experiences with oppression as well as privilege.


Soul food for them was seen as something that Southern whites, despite their shared culinary heritage, couldn’t grasp. Others suggested that genuine soul food wasn’t a cuisine that developed due to the Transatlantic Slave Trade or chattel plantation slavery. They saw it as a return to their ancestors’ traditional fish and vegetable diets, which included West African ingredients such as okra, millet, and black-eyed peas.


The split from Southern cuisine was deliberate, and the term “soul” has come to signify “black.” “Southern” equals “white,”. Bringing soul food back under black ownership, the African-American contributions to Southern cooking have been lost.


Soul food and Southern food are ostensibly rooted in distinct cultural traditions. Both black and white Southerners of comparable social strata have largely been eating the same foods.

Zephyr Wright Influenced the Civil Rights Movement

Zephyr Wright who was employed by Lyndon B. Johnson became an influence on Johnson as he sought to focus on civil rights. Johnson witnessed the treatment she received as they traveled through the south. Wright was even present during the signing of some of the civil rights laws.

Soul Food Restaurants, Community, and Activism

Many cultures met and socialized around cuisine, the African American community was no different. Many black-owned eateries also served as meeting places where the community not only socialized and ate together but oftentimes led to community activism. This was especially true during the Black Power era of which soul food was a cornerstone.

Soul Food - A Continuing Evolution of African American Cuisine (1990s- 2022)

leafy collard greens

In 2022 soul food has become a multi-faceted phenomenon with many culinary niches. Southern cuisine, in its purest of traditions, is linked to specific regions that focus on seasonal vegetables as well as regional heritage game prepared using traditional methods.


Soul food, in its most common and well-known form, owes its existence to restaurants and a slew of home cooks who transplanted and modified Southern cooking to enable it to thrive outside the American South. From this foundation, a cuisine known as “down-home healthy” came to be. Taking traditional soul food recipes and evolving them to be healthier using less, sugar, salt, and fat has become popular among the soul food community. On the other side of the spectrum, “upscale soul food” takes the opposite outlook, adding exotic and oftentimes expensive ingredients.


Another modern sub-niche of soul food and the one with the most passion and growth is the vegetarian and vegan communities. Vegetarian and vegan soul food culinary niches are often cast as a complete departure from the traditional cuisine, but the focus on vegetables closely aligns with how African-Americans ate during slavery and Reconstruction. It’s not a departure from culinary traditions but rather a return to the roots of what became soul food cuisine. It also accommodates those on a complete or mostly vegetarian diet or a vegan diet.

Hemp&fork Hemp Hearts - The Healthy Alternative
Put a new twist on your favorite classic soul food recipes with Hemp&fork's Hemp Hearts.