The story begins in the plantation kitchen. English recipes, influenced by French techniques, with Native American ingredients, all prepared with an African sensibility by African hands.
These same hands took the leftovers from those kitchens along with inferior cuts of meat, vegetables grown in small gardens and fresh fish, possum, rabbit and squirrel — the only quarry available to hunters during the evening after a long day's work — and created magic.
The tale continues with the mass migration of Southern Blacks along with their culinary traditions from the rural South to the urban cities (Detroit, Chicago, New York) of the North following World War I. Platters of greens, ham hocks, fried fish, hushpuppies, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, corn bread and fruit pies reminded Black workers of home.
It is the story of the modern civil rights era when the food that soul brothers and sisters ate — food begun in plantation kitchens and slave quarters — became known as soul food.
Cookbook author John Egerton notes, "The Southern kitchen was one of the few places during slavery where the creative talents of Blacks could run free … . From the elegant breads and meats and sweets of plantation cookery to the inventive genius of Creole cuisine, from beaten biscuits to bouillabaisse, their legacy of culinary excellence is all the more impressive, considering the extremely adverse conditions under which it was compiled."
Most importantly, perhaps, soul food is the story of family and friendship. It is about tradition and passing on an essential part of our heritage to the next generation. It is Sunday afternoon gatherings. It is men telling tall tales, the sound of women's laughter and the squeals of children. It is popping your fingers to some Al Green and singing along with the Isley Brothers. It is about generations of families coming together to give thanks and to share quiet talk over coffee and peach cobbler. Soul food is — and has always been — about sustenance, safety and love.
Perhaps it is no coincidence we honor fathers the same month we celebrate soul food. I think I may have died and gone to heaven.
This week I am going to prepare a large meal, make a big pitcher of sweet lemonade and invite some good friends to the house. Another wonderful thing about this uniquely American cuisine is that where there is soul food there is a reason for a party.
Joseph C. Phillips is an actor/writer based in Los Angeles.