NPR logo The Heart of Soul Food


The Heart of Soul Food

In honor of "Soul Food Month," commentator Joseph C. Phillips talks about the origins soul food — making the best of the food plantation owners didn't want — and the life-affirming properties of simmered greens and black-eyed peas. Phillips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles.

ED GORDON, host:

Commentator Joseph C. Phillips share his thoughts on soul food, a cuisine he says, deserves more respect than it gets.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS (Actor and Columnist, Los Angeles): June is National Soul Food Month, and I'm throwing a party.

I'm not sure who decides these things, but as an amateur chef and lover of food, my hat is off to whoever decided to finally give this uniquely American cuisine some much-deserved recognition.

Soul food has been unfairly labeled as unsophisticated and unhealthy fare. You know, peasant food cooked in pork fat. That, however, misses the true essence of the food. Not only has the cuisine evolved, incorporating dishes from Haiti, Jamaica, and the West Indies, it's also adapted to America's more health-conscious habits. Chefs and home cooks are finding ways to prepare traditional dishes without the addition of meats. Lighter oils, like canola, are now used instead of lard.

Most significantly, soul food is not merely about how the food is prepared. It's about the stories the food tells. It wouldn't be an exaggeration, to state that the story of soul food is the story of America.

Author Gary Puckrein writes: From 1750 to 1940, black Americans were a dominant force in the cooking industry of the United States. The story begins in the plantation kitchen. English recipes influenced by French techniques with Native American ingredients, all prepared with an African sensibility, by African hands. These same hands took the leftovers from those kitchens, along with inferior cuts of meat, vegetables grown in small gardens, and fresh fish, possum, rabbit and squirrel - the only quarry available to hunters during the evening after a long day's work - and created magic.

The tale continues with the mass migration of southern blacks, along with their culinary traditions, from the rural south to the urban north following World War I. Platters of greens, ham hocks, fried fish, hush puppies, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, cornbreads and fruit pies, reminded black workers of home.

It's the story of the modern civil rights era, when the food that soul brother and sisters ate, food begun in plantation kitchens and slave quarters, became known as soul food. But the story doesn't end there.

Soul food also recounts the history of black American culinary excellence. Cookbook author John Egerton notes: The southern kitchen was one of the few places during slavery, where the creative talents of blacks could run free. Most importantly, perhaps, soul food is the story of family and friendship. It's about tradition, and passing on an essential part of our heritage to the next generation. It's Sunday afternoon gatherings. It's men telling tall tales, the sound of women's laughter, and the squeals of children. It's popping your fingers to some Al Green, and singing along with The Isley Brothers.

Soul food is and has always been about sustenance, safety, and love. Perhaps it's no coincidence we honor fathers the same month we celebrate soul food. You know, I think I may have died and gone to heaven.

This week I'm going to prepare a large meal, make a big pitcher of sweet lemonade - one for adults and one for children - and invite some good friends to the house. Because another wonderful thing about this uniquely American cuisine is that where there is soul food, there is reason for a party.

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GORDON: Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles.

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