Where did the term come from?
The term “Soul Food” was first used in a recorded history of Malcolm X written by Alex Haley in the 1960’s, to which Malcolm X said that soul food “represents southerness and commensality”. During the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North in search of work, many ate and socialized at soul food establishments, reminders of the homes they left.
What does it comprise of?
Soul food is a combination of African, European and Native American culinary contributions. Some of the elements of Soul food encompasses culinary traditions from the original homelands of the first generation of slaves to have arrived in America, mainly from North and West Africa. In addition, many slave-owners often gave the undesirable parts of the animals such as pigs feet and intestines, vegetables such as kale, collards, cress, mustard and pokeweed as well as the tops of beets and turnips. Some slaves also had the opportunity to supplement their diets with small vegetable gardens and by fishing and hunting wild game out in the woods. Finally, the Native American tribes local to the area, such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw contributed crops and other foods, the most important item being corn.
Because it was illegal in many areas in the south for slaves to be literate, the methods and recipes of many soul food dishes were passed down orally between generations until after the Emancipation proclamation was declared. In 1881, the first book on Soul Food was published by Abby Fisher titled What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking. In 1911, another book Good Things To Eat was published by Rufus Estes, a former slave owned by a railway company. The two aforementioned books are acknowledged to be the first books on the topic of Soul food published.
When would have it arrived in California?
Many African Americans arrived in California during what is known as the Second Great Migration, starting in World War II when skilled manpower was needed to manufacture ships and other material for the war effort. Many settled in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and Richmond; even today, some of these cities still have a sizable African American population within their city limits. Today, especially in the major cities, it’s not hard to find at least one soul food place within the city.
Soul Food is just one aspect of the African American journey in America. It started out in adversity, necessity and hardship, then refined by each generation as the slow pace of progress moved forward. It’s a story told at the dinner table, both as a reminder of the past that should never be forgotten, and a future that needs to be fought for everyday.
African American Registry