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Feb 10, 2007 12:09 PM

Questions on Soul Food

I've notice over the past twenty years or so a reluctance within some Soul Food cooking (and eating) circles in utilizing (or eating) pork products. I recall as a child my mother (and Grandmother, Aunts, etc) using ham hocks to season string beans, greens, black eyed peas, etc. Today, many who prepare Soul Food instead use smoked turkey necks to season the aforementioned food items. And amongst Soul Food diners there's an ever present anxiety around pork that I've noticed. I've asked folks about this who ascribe to this trend and they all mention the health benefits of avoiding pork. But if Soul Food is anything it's not "healthy" eating when you consider heavy use of frying and emphasis on starches. So what gives on the pork?

Another question that I had was regarding an apparent truncation of the Soul Food menu particularly within home cooking. Whenever I'm invited for dinner or other gatherings where Soul Food is featured the following 4 items are almost always there:

1) Collard Greens
2) Candied Yams
3) Mac&Cheese
4) Fried Chicken

In addition to this there's the occasssional Baked Chicken or Fried Fish. But again I recall having Chicken and Dumplings, Liver and Onions, Black Eyed Peas, Rice, Okra & Tomatoes, Lima Bean Stew, and a galaxy of other foods as a child and young adult. Again, what gives?

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  1. A lot of pork products, such as ham hocks, are cured with salt and people were advised to avoid them because of hypertension which is more prevalent among blacks. Additionally there is an increase in conversion to Islam in some areas, particularly in cities. Smoked turkey (legs, wings, necks) is often less expensive. It was easier for a lot of restaurants, families and groups cooking for churches and picnics just to switch to be acceptable to the broadest range of eaters.
    When you are invited to a Soul Food meal, you're served "company food," not the everyday fare. The foodstuffs you mention barely scratch the surface of the things that would have been on everyday tables in rural poor households. Soul food had its origins among people who made do with what they had or could raise in simple gardens. They relied on canned goods and staples.
    Even the foods eaten by Southern whites had a much broader range than the ones you mention, often prepared by black family cooks, and would be included in the Soul Food list. I could easily name over a hundred types of vegetables, starches, breads, desserts and varieties of fish and game that were regular foods in homes black and white, rich and poor, that would qualify as Soul Food that just don't make it to company meals, church suppers or restaurants. Turnip greens, oyster fritters, scrapple, chicken gizzards, hog maw, butterfish, carp, pigs feet, tripe, squirrel, and chittlins aren't exactly restaurant fare.
    Some of this wonderful food even came out of cans or was made from humble raw materials. Using high quality ingredients and fancy presentations somehow seems like an insult to the roots and traditions from which a proud cuisine was born.
    We cook it at home. I don't serve it at dinner parties.

    9 Replies
    1. re: MakingSense

      "Even the foods eaten by Southern whites"

      I believe that if you were given dishes prepared in a rural Southern kitchen, you could not tell if the cook and homeowner was black or white. But not everyone agrees, and there's been a lot of discussion. Here's an account of a symposium of professors that debated this very question.

      And yes EVERYBODY uses lard!

      1. re: Brian S

        I agree. I am very white, and "soul food" and "southern food" are one and the same.


      2. re: MakingSense

        "Turnip greens, chicken gizzards, hog maw, butterfish, carp, pigs feet, tripe, and chittlins aren't exactly restaurant fare" ? You can find more than a few restaurants in and around Nashville that have these things - they won't be fine-dining establishments, more usually with cafeteria service, but you'll find most of what you mentioned. A restaurant is the *only* place I've ever had chit'lins!

        In addition to the concerns about salt, I think there was also a big push some years back to get people to eat less pig and more bird, under the assumption that smoked turkey was better for you than smoked ham hocks. This was 'way overblown, I believe, though I bought into it at the time myself. Since then I've gone back to using smoked meats as they're best used, as a condiment in cooking - I gladly serve green beans cooked with smoked meat, onion and red pepper pods to my dinner guests, and they happily consume them. I've also served chicken and dumplings (both fluffy and noodley), and the New Year's table always has blackeyes, as in Hoppin' John.

        And don't get all high-hat with pig's feet and tripe, either - I ate both in France, and not for cheap, either!

        1. re: Will Owen

          I eat and cook like a true daughter of the South. I grew up in New Orleans and Daddy was Cajun so I'll eat about anything that will hold still. I've eaten the same pig parts in France and China that you have, Will, but realistically, the average American lives on boneless, skinless, inoffensive filets of things that they would rather not think about.
          That's why a cuisine of the rural poor doesn't translate to trendy restaurants. It's "roots" food, tradition, almost like a history lesson. Doesn't change with the fashion. There are places in Nashville. There are some in sections of DC, where I live now, but not the sort that are treated kindly on our local CH board. Someone complained that the greenbeans were overcooked. The cornbread wasn't sweet. Food wasn't prepared to order - of course not when it takes a couple of hours to smother the greens!
          The article that BrianS linked from Southern Foodways is terrific. Who knows what's black food and white food? Why argue? It's amazing what gets done when you don't care who gets the credit. Nobody in the South had anything but the same humble raw ingredients. And they turned out great food which they keep doing to this day. The whole is far better than the sum of the parts.

          1. re: MakingSense

            "Who knows what's black food and white food? Why argue? It's amazing what gets done when you don't care who gets the credit."

            Amen to that. I've always thought that one of the beauties of southern food is how the various influences blend so seamlessly. Trying to break down who should get the most credit for a particular dish may be sort of an interesting debate, but it ultimately seems beside the point to me. Sure, there are some southern staples that are obviously of African origin, like red rice here in the Low Country, and others that are clearly of European origin, like slaw. But arguing that one is "black" and one is "white" seems absurd to me.

            To speak to the original poster's question, it is interesting to observe that even in the South, you can observe a narrowing, or "dumbing down," of southern food at many restaurants. I think part of it has to do with the fact that the practice of southern home cooking is fading in actual southern homes. People go to "soul food" or "country cooking" restaurants to get food like their grandmas made, not food like they make themselves, except maybe a few dishes on special occasions. When grandma was still alive, well, first of all, she probably wouldn't have seen much point in going to such restaurants, but if she did, she would expect to see the same quality and range of dishes as what she could produce herself at home. In other words, as southerners have lost touch with their rural roots, the bar has been lowered when it comes to authentic southern food.

            That being said, the good news is there are still many places in the South where you can find authentic food. And perhaps even more important, there are a lot young chefs (does that word sound too high-falutin' in this context?) who are dedicated to to preserving southern foodways, even to the point of resurrecting old recipes that otherwise have fallen by the wayside, and also bringing innovation to southern cooking so that our cuisine continues to evolve. I think great cuisines typically do both those things--look to the past and the future. And I would argue southern cuisine is a great cuisine.

            1. re: Low Country Jon

              I agree that arguing over who gets the credit just muddies the waters, and ruins a good meal. One of my family's most loved desserts is a caramel cake that I started making after leaving the South, and marrying into a nice Jewish family in Southern California. I first tasted a version made by my great aunt's housekeeper, when I was about 6 years old. My mother gave me the recipe that she had, but didn't make much. Growing up in the South in the late '60's and early '70's, I observed that people in my (white) family generally agreed with black people about one thing only, and that was what to make for dinner. I use lard (not a kosher household!), and am lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with lots of African Americans. I can get fresh turnip greens year round in the grocery store.

              The comment about Southern restaurants is interesting. In my town, Long Beach, there are a couple of Southern places. The one owned by black people is fabulous, and serves liver and onions, chit'lins, okra (yum), and decent cornbread. The one owned by white people is far inferior. I'm actually happiest when I make my own Southern food. It's better. And my Mexican son in law loves it.

        2. re: MakingSense

          It simply makes no sense to me why one would not serve at dinner parties the gamut of foods from a "proud cuisine". Why in your opinion is there this insistence to serve "company food" to the exclusion of all else?
          I personally make it a point to never (or rarely) serve the mac&cheese, yams, greens and fried chicken to guests at home because I figure it can become very predictable and boring IMHO. I insist on featuring the foods that I mentioned above (see OP) and others to my guests.

          1. re: Chinon00

            While I see your point, I cannot help but think how delighted I would be to find that menu at the home of someone who actually knew how to cook that stuff! We had dinner at a friend's a few months ago and she had gone on and on about her fried chicken and mac & cheese. And as Roscoe Darling on thet Andy Griffith show once said... They really twang my buds. Well, the chicken never even saw lard or oil or butter for that matter. It was coated in mayo and dredged in cornflake crumbs. It sucked. And the mac and cheese? How can wax poetic about Kraft dinner cleverly disguised by a thick topping of supermareket cheddar?

          2. re: MakingSense

            If what you say is true that there has been this broad and universal shift in Soul Food cooking away from pork I think it is unfortunate if its basis is health and/or religion alone. As you say Soul Food is a proud cuisine so to have it diminished (in this fashion) is again unfortunate. Turkey bacon, turkey sausage, turkey ham, turkey scrapple just don't taste as good as real bacon, sausage, ham or scrapple IMHO. Greens, beans, etc, prepared using smoked turkey necks just don't taste as good as when prepared uses ham hocks (again IMHO).
            Could any of us imagine Italian cooking broadly shifting toward the use of turkey salami, turkey capocolla, turkey prosciutto, turkey pancetta or French cooking broadly shifting toward pork "substitutes" for making Lardon Salade, or Cassoulet or Rillettes? Unthinkable!
            So where I'm sensitive to both health and religious practices I don't think that it should be at the expense of traditional Soul Food cooking.

          3. I agree with you, Chinon00. I like to weave Southern foods into my regular menus. We eat greens, okra and sweet potatoes as regular vegetables. My family has always prefered long-cooked green beans but thinks of the lightly steamed ones as a completely different species. Crowder peas, butter beans, limas, shelleys, purple hulls, black eyes, are all happy additions, especially if I'm lucky enough to find them fresh at the market. Grits, red and dirty rice are regular carbs. We always have gravy.
            Mac/cheese was actually a fairly late addition to the Southern repertoire. Cheese was expensive and not widely available prior to WWII and then after, it was part of government commodities programs which is why it appeared it in so much of the cooking of the poor and in rural areas. After the Food Stamps program started, cheap processed products like Velveeta found their way into common use.
            Fried chicken was pretty rare actually. My father was the youngest of 14 kids. They couldn't afford to kill that many young chickens and usually executed an old laying hen past her prime for a chicken sauce picante or stew.
            I think we forget today how hard life could be without supermarkets and with so many mouths to feed. My grandmother cooked for those 14 kids and frequent guests on a woodstove in a house with no indoor plumbing or running water. She had to can food from the summer garden to get them through the winter. All of it was wonderful. I'm glad I don't have to do that today but I can still revere the roots of that cuisine.

            1 Reply
            1. re: MakingSense

              My grandgather grew up poor, and they ate fried chicken every Sunday. Chickens mature very, very quickly, and a sizeable chicken coop can feed a lot of family...

            2. This is why I love this website and all the Chowhounds. It's an education for all of us and I thank you all for your participation. Just underscores how important food is to culture. How many distinctive foods are manna to some and poison to others!!!

              Keep writin' ya'll.

              1. I prefer my colards (and other greens) without the ham hock. Just salt, pepper, and some vinegar, and they are perfect. I like to actually taste the greens.

                My take on the ham hock in the veggies is that it dates from a time when that might be the only meat protein on the table. Throwing it in with the greens was a "stretcher", a way of making the most of it.

                1. Ok, so I went for some more Geechie Girl in Mount Airy tonight. Had the Smothered Chicken Leg, Gumbo, and the Shrimp and Grits (again). Everything was wonderful. We got the "house" rice (Carolina gold) for both the Chicken and the Gumbo; tiny and delicious little grains (great!) I noticed too that they had bacon with certain sides on menu. So I asked the hostess "do you guys serve actual bacon?" She responded "Well yes." I wanted to hug her and give her a kiss on the cheek.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Chinon00

                    I've had a fair amount of Southern-style food, both in the South Bronx, NYC, home to a lot of immigrants from the South, and in Tulsa. Thank goodness I have never encountered the trend you mention. In both places, pork is king. In Tulsa, they brush hamburgers with lard, throw lard in the chili, and fry steaks in lard too.