Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Soul Food

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan soul food with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Kurdish cuisine, here to read her column about Levantine cuisine, and here to read her column about Uzbek cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Soul Food

Soul food is a cuisine developed and enjoyed by African Americans, mainly in southern parts of the United States of America. It is a product of taking the worst of a situation and turning it into something great. More specifically, soul food was developed as a result of slavery. During the period when the enslavement of West Africans was still legal, enslaved people were typically given scraps or unwanted foods. These were foods or parts of foods that the slave masters, and their supporters, did not want or would otherwise discard. Amongst the more generally useable ingredients, the enslaved people, who often worked on plantations, also had access to a limited amount of cornmeal, sweet potatoes, and greens, such as collard greens, kale, and beet greens as well as a few other ingredients.

sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes. Image credit: @sweetpotatosoul. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Due to the intense physical workload and activities the enslaved people had to endure daily, high-calorie meals were important to sustain them. This led to cooking methods aimed at increasing the calorific value of dishes. Such methods include deep frying foods, mixing high-calorie ingredients with lower-calorie ones to bulk up the meal, breading foods, and using most or all of each ingredient regardless of if certain parts are considered to be less pleasurable to cook or eat from their appearance, or texture, prior to cooking. These include the stems and skins of some foods which are often discarded in a number of cuisines.

Created as a result of slavery, soul food is a symbol of taking the worst of a situation and turning it into something great.

In more modern times, soul food (or distinct elements of the cuisine) is generally associated with the South and is considered to be the familiar or preferred cuisine of non-Black people in the region. However, its roots remain linked to the enslavement of Black people. This is as a result of enslaved people with cooking skills being forced to cook meals for their slave masters and their companions, or guests and, later, after the emancipation of enslaved people, the African Americans being employed as cooks for prominent white figures, such as presidents, making soul food an even more popularly known and sought cuisine amongst non-Black people. (Please note that this does not mean that non-Black people are racist for consuming foods considered as soul food or seeing them, or elements of them, as part of their culture)

vegan soul food
Vegan cheese grits. Image credit: @likklevegantings. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Influences

Soul food is greatly influenced by the general cuisine of West Africa as well as some influences from the Native Americans. As the original developers of soul food were abducted from West Africa, those who could cook arrived on Turtle Island (the United States of America) with skills and cooking styles associated with their cultures. These cooking styles were used in their processes of creating the dishes which make up soul food.

As the food the people were making was based on ingredients accessible to them in their new location, the cuisine is also influenced by the general Native American cuisine. Methods of processing some of their ingredients were also adopted from the Native Americans. These include the various ways Native Americans process corn as well as some of their cooking methods for it.

Soul food has more intense and complex flavors when compared to the more general Southern cuisine due to the Native American and West African influences on the former.

The Native American influences brought about dishes such as cornbread, grits, boiled beans, hush puppies, and hoecakes. On the other hand, the West African influences brought about smoked dishes (also common in Native American cuisines) as well as spicy (hot) dishes, green leafy vegetable dense foods, rice dishes, stewed bean dishes, okra dishes, sweet potato dishes (as sweet potatoes are used similarly to how West Africans cook yams) and dishes flavored with nuts, aromatic root vegetables, herbs, spices, and/or flavorsome fats and oils giving them more intense and complex flavors when compared to the more general Southern cuisine.

vegan soul food
Vegan soul food at The Land of Kush bistro. Image credit: Jada C., The Land of Kush on Yelp⁠ (via @thelandofkush Instagram). Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Vegan Soul Food

Modern-day soul food is mostly not vegan despite the common vegetarian and vegan cultural eating habits of some of the enslaved people prior to arriving in the United States. Due to having to use animal products and by-products to increase the calories in meals, as well as to form a meal from the very limited food they had access to, the cuisine evolved into a rather non-vegan one. However, black people have created vegan soul food for health reasons as well as to stay in touch with their culture, be it religious culture, or what they perceive to be the original culinary culture of the parts of Africa their family originated from.

vegan soul food
Vegan wings. Image credit: @soulveg. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Vegan soul food has been achieved through the use of meat substitutes such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, mushrooms, and even cauliflower. These are marinated or breaded similarly to the way those processes are carried out on meats. Vegans wanting to stay as true to the soul food cuisine as possible might go on to deep fry the food while those who are trying to eat as healthily as possible while still enjoying the foods they grew up on might opt to follow other cooking methods such as air frying, shallow frying or roasting.

Typical Soul Food Meals

Typical soul food meals consist of a range of sides, fried and/or roasted meat (substitutes), cornbread, and sweet desserts. The most common sides are macaroni and cheese, collard greens or kale, candied sweet potatoes, and a black-eyed pea or bean dish. The desserts often sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, banana pudding, or a pound cake. The least globally popular of these are cornbread and sweet potato pie.

vegan soul food
Vegan cornbread. Image credit: @icanyoucanvegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Cornbread is bread made from cornmeal. Traditionally, southern (soul food) cornbread is savory. However, African Americans in the northern regions of the United States (whose families migrated north after escaping slavery or being emancipated) tend to make sweeter cornbreads. It can be baked or fried and baked. When cooked using the latter method, the cornbread is made by pouring its batter into a cast-iron skillet containing hot oil then returning the skillet to the oven for the bread to bake. This results in a dense, moist, somewhat crumbly cornbread with a crunchy crust at the bottom. Variations of cornbread can be made with the addition of jalapeno slices or smoky meat substitutes.

Sweet potato pie is an open pie (crustless top) made predominantly from pureed sweet potatoes. In the 18th century, sweet potato pie was considered to be a savory dish due to sweet potatoes being a root vegetable. However, by the 19th century, the sweet dish was classified as a dessert as opposed to a savory meal.

vegan soul food

Recipes – Vegan Mac and Cheese, Smoky Collard Greens and Sweet Potato Salad

In this video, Jenné Claiborne (@sweetpotatosoul on Instagram) shares three of her veganised soul food dishes that are perfect delicious homecooked meals and meals you can make to entertain guests. Each recipe is easy to follow with clear instructions on how to make important elements, such as a creamy vegan cheese sauce, from scratch.

Easy Vegan Soul Food Recipes by Jenné Claiborne (Sweet Potato Soul)

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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