When I hear the term soul food, I immediately think of chicken frying on the stove, next to a pot of greens that has been boiling for awhile. Black-eyed peas with ham. Sweet potato pie. I think of home.
I think of all the Southern-style dishes that my mother learned to make when she moved to America from Germany. My dad is from Alabama, and they settled there and in Tennessee before ending up in Kentucky. Since my mother didn’t know how to boil water when they got married, she learned her basics from the women around her.
Vegetables were slowly simmered until they fell apart at the touch of a fork. Every scrap of meat was used, because budgets were tight. Every part of the vegetable – from beet to beet green, turnip to turnip green – was used, as long as it was edible.
It was an approach that anyone who grew up in the Depression knew and passed on to their children.
We don’t always respect the wisdom of our elders. We don’t want to listen to how hard others have had it. And so, I have heard people deride the term “soul food” because it has negative connotations attached to it. It’s seen as poor people’s food, what you’d find only in certain low kitchens. Or it’s strictly African-American food born out of hard times.
What a waste. Food is something to celebrate, not mock.
As playwright and poet Ntozake Shange writes in her culinary memoir, “If I Can Cook/You Know God Can,” “… although we may leave home, get rid of our accents, and change our names and diets, the aroma of certain foods will trigger warm memories and fill us with a longing and taste to return home. Once in Rome, I passed someone’s apartment and the smell of collard greens ‘gently stewing in the pot,’ as Langston Hughes wrote, made my eyes tear and knees buckle. I wanted to go home.”
All food is soul food if it comes from something within you and you share it with others, be it your family at dinner time or friends at an elaborate party. It’s a gift that we share, especially at this time of year. Think of the Jewish tradition that infuses latkes at Hanukkah. Or the family traditions shared at Christmas while the tamales are being made or the oyster stew is cooking on the stove.
We continue the same communal bond over Kwaanza, into the New Year and on to Epiphany, which is a great feast day in the Greek community.
In Texas, our soul food includes everything from chicken-fried steak to breakfast tacos to slow-smoked barbecue. We have our family traditions on how we prepare each. Think of the myriad family secrets for how to make barbecue, from the wood used to the special rubs and sauces.
So, share some soul food with your family this week. Honor your ancestors and recount their impact on your own story. Feed minds as well as bodies.