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The Wide Range Of Soul Food

Updated on February 26, 2010

Feel like some soul food? How about a hot tamale on the Mississippi Delta, or a delicately composed rice dish from South Carolina? Pepper Pot from Jamaica, or a tagine of northern Africa? Perhaps some sesame cookies for dessert?

But wait, you protest, this is not soul food, is it?

Guess again.

Collard greens and ham hocks are great, but it's time to expand our definition of African-American foods. And while we're at it, why don't we just throw out the word "soul food," too. Just forget it. It simply doesn't work anymore. Goodbye.

Which raises the question: What, then, is African-American food about? It's all about memories... It's about the memory of Africa.

The memory dates back to 1620 when the first Africans made the Middle Passage to Virginia, marking the beginning of the largest forced migration in human history. When the slaves came, they brought not only their labor, but also many skills, including distinctive culinary traditions and techniques that shaped the American style of eating. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the legendary cuisine of the American South, Caribbean and Brazil.

Today, you can find the African hand in gumbo thickened with okra, Hoppin' John made with black-eyed peas, crackers baked with sesame seeds and of course the bright pink watermelons of summer. All these ingredients are indigenous to Africa, brought over by slaves. Slaves also established new cooking techniques in this country, such as deep-fat frying, a skill mastered by African cooks long before Europeans. Most of all, the African legacy can be found in the flavor and seasoning of Southern specialties, a distinct love of hot peppers, a flair for the piquant and, yes, Red Devil hot sauce on the table.

In slave cabins, far from the rich larders of the big plantation home, slaves used whatever provisions they had and heavily supplemented with vegetables they grew in their garden plots and foods they hunted and gathered in whatever free time they had. Here, too, they recreated Africa in their cooking pots and merged memory with the realities of slave life. They used smoked pork parts instead of the smoked fish they were accustomed to. They grew sweet potatoes because it reminded them of yams from home.

More than 100 years later, the term "soul food" was created to express pride for the black experience. But deep-fried chicken, ham hocks and biscuits made flaky by lard, once fine for the muscle-powered labor of agriculture, are today associated with health problems. What was then positive has become a negative, besides that's not the diet African-American food originated from. The African diet was often vegetarian. It embraced leafy greens, tubers, nuts, fish and beans, and small amounts of meat for flavoring daily stews, wonderful traditions to rediscover today.

Food habits have a constant way of changing. As African and Caribbean people continue to immigrate to this country, they bring new definitions of African-American food. Through food, new and old memories are constantly being adapted, changed and brought to life again. That's why soul food has a whole new and much broader meaning today than it has ever had before.

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