Soul food is a cuisine associated with African-American fare popular for hundreds of years in the South. There are regional differences, however, based on available ingredients. South Carolina low country cooking, for example, includes rice, crabs, oysters, shrimp and sweet potatoes while Louisiana cooking features those ingredients plus okra. Soul food from landlocked regions is based on less seafood and more pork and chicken.
Food Is Old, Expression Is New
While people of many different backgrounds have eaten in this way since colonial times, the term "soul food" to describe it, however, is relatively new. It is thought to have been coined in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement to describe soul-satisfying black-American food ("food for the soul") and to express cultural pride.
How It Originated
Soul food reflects a type of frugal and creative cooking developed of necessity by black slaves who often had to make do with meager rations and offal or organ meats not consumed by their plantation owners. What developed out of necessity became a taste sensation and, even after slavery was abolished, it remained an affordable and much-desired way to cook, becoming part of the culinary repertoire.
Typical Soul Food
Soul food is a combination of healthy proteins, vegetables, fruits and grains. Recently, the cuisine has come under some criticism because most items seem to be prepared by frying. Moderation, as always, is the key.
Meats, poultry and seafood are typically fried but, in the case of tough meats, braised or simmered slowly for hours and can include chicken, turkey, ribs, freshwater and saltwater fish, shrimp, crawfish and these:
- Ham hocks: This lower portion of a hog's hind leg is a tough cut of smoked or fresh meat full of fat, bone, gristle and connective tissue that is used to flavor soups, beans and cabbage or as a meal on its own when braised slowly. Try hocks in a ham bean soup recipe.
- Souse: Also known as head cheese, souse refers to a terrine made from pig or calf's head set in aspic.
- Chitterlings: Also known as chitlins or chitlings, these are the small intestines of pigs that are labor intensive because they require much cleaning and simmering for several hours until tender. Then they are broiled, barbecued, added to soups, battered and fried, and even used as a casing for sausage.
- Gizzards: Gizzards are the stomach pouch found in poultry. It's a tough, muscular piece of meat because the bird uses it to grind food. They typically are cooked slowly by braising and then sometimes battered and deep fried. Poultry liver, heart and gizzard are known as the giblets and often used in stocks and gravies.
- Cracklings: Pieces of pork or poultry fat and skin are fried until they crackle (hence their name) and become crunchy. They are heavily salted and eaten as is or incorporated into biscuits, cornbread or scattered on beans and other vegetables.
Typical vegetables seen in soul food cooking include braised and slow-simmered cabbage, root vegetables, black-eyed peas, lima beans, green beans, butter beans, sweet potatoes, collard greens, turnip greens and fried or stewed okra.
Breads, Grains and Desserts
- Hoecakes/johnnycakes: Originally cooked by field hands on their hoes (hence the name), hoecakes are made differently and sometimes known as johnnycakes (journey cakes ideal for traveling were baked in colonial times). The one thing these flat pancakes, cooked on a griddle (although some versions are cooked in an oven like cornbread), have in common is they are made with cornmeal.
- Hoppin' John: A dish with African roots consisting of black-eyed peas cooked with salt pork or sausage and seasonings, and served with rice. This is one recipe for Hoppin' John sometimes served as part of a Kwanzaa feast.
- Hushpuppies: These deep-fried dumplings of sorts are made from cornmeal batter with chopped onion or scallions and are often served with fried seafood, especially catfish. When drizzled with honey, they make a quick snack or dessert.
Examples of Traditional Dinners
A traditional dinner might consist of the following items.
- Fried chicken with macaroni and cheese, braised collard greens, breaded fried okra, and cornbread
- Ham hocks, cheesy grits, chitterlings, and black-eyed peas with bacon and onion
- Fried catfish, hush puppies, and fried okra
- Smoked turkey wings, crackling biscuits, turnip greens, and johnnycakes
Spicy Smoked Turkey Wings Recipe
The drummette and the middle section of turkey wings provide a generous amount of meat. Wing tips should be removed and reserved for stock. In this recipe, the wing sections are brined, then seasoned with a spicy dry rub before smoking. If a milder end-result is desired, reduce the amount of chili powder and red pepper called for in the recipe or omit it entirely. This will make 4 hearty servings.
- 4 whole turkey wings to equal 8 pieces when cut
- 2 cups cold water
- 1 cup apple juice
- 5 teaspoons salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper or to taste
- Wash and pat dry the whole turkey wings. Cut each wing into two pieces at the joint. Remove the wing tips to use for stock. Set wing sections aside.
- Make the brine by combining water, apple juice, salt, chili powder, black pepper and red pepper in a nonreactive large pan or bowl. Add the wing sections, weighting down if they bob up, cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.
Dry Rub Ingredients
- 1 tablespoon sweet or hot paprika
- 1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon garlic salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper or to taste
- In a small bowl, mix paprika, onion powder, chili powder, sugar, salt and ground red pepper.
- Remove the turkey wings from the brine, rinse lightly and pat dry with paper towels. Season the wing sections all over with the rub.
- Heat a smoker or grill to 300 degrees, using apple or cherry wood for smoke if you have it.
- Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until tender. Let the smoked wings rest for 15 minutes before serving. Accompany with macaroni and cheese and braised collard greens, if desired.
Crackling Biscuits Recipe
What's not to love about pork fat? When combined with a flaky biscuit, it's a match made in heaven. Pork fat from the shoulder or Boston butt cuts is a good contender for cracklings. Keep in mind that the amount of pork fat trimmings will reduce to half or less than half after cooking. You will need 1 cup chopped cracklings for this recipe. Refrigerate or freeze any leftovers for another use.
- 1 pound fatty pork trimmings, cut into cubes
- Fry the pork fat cubes in a large skillet until golden brown. Drain, reserving the fat, and salt cracklings while hot.
- Let cool completely.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup chopped cracklings
- 3 tablespoons reserved crackling fat
- 2 large room-temperature beaten eggs
- 1/3 cup buttermilk or half-and-half
- Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Finely chop cooled cracklings and set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the cracklings and fat and stir to combine.
- In a separate medium bowl, add the beaten eggs and buttermilk or half-and-half and whisk to combine.
- Pour the egg mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture and bring the dough together quickly with the tips of your fingers. Do not over mix or the biscuits will be tough.
- Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat it (don't roll) to a 3/4-inch thickness. Cut into 3-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter. Transfer to prepared baking sheet and brush the tops of biscuits with some half-and-half.
- Bake 9-15 minutes (depends on size and thickness of biscuits). They should be lightly golden brown. Remove from oven and serve hot.
Soul Food Speaks to the Heart
Even though soul food is typically associated with African-American cuisine, every culture has its soul food or comfort food that speaks to the heart and soul. The foods are inextricably intertwined with their history.