‘In what we choose to eat, we express who we are and where we came from,’ says Anne Trapido in Hunger for Freedom, her book about the story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela, loaned to me by a South African friend.
I totally agree with her. Food is more than fuel – universally, it’s part of our history, our memory, our identity and our survival.
The term ‘soul’ in SOUL FOOD was used by African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement – as a reference to their roots in Africa. The creation of Soul Food as a staple, and then a cuisine is a direct result of slavery – the soul-less kidnapping of Africans who were transported to the Americas to work as forced labour to build the American economy.
SOUL FOOD is a combination of ingredients and cooking styles that originated in Africa, recreated using what was available in America. Cooking styles originating from Africa became African ‘slave food’ which became ‘soul food’. From the African continent came foods new to America, including okra, watermelon, eggplants, peanuts, bananas, rice, and garlic.
In America, sweet potatoes replaced African yams, and ‘new’ plants like collards, kale, cress, and pokeweed were added to African cooking pots to create new flavours.
Without the ingredients from their homeland to cook and eat, African slaves had to improvise using what they were given, and what could be hunted in the wild, including raccoon, possum, turtle, rabbit and squirrel.
Soul food recipes and cooking techniques were passed on orally. Few of these recipes were written down, because until after Emancipation it was illegal in many American states for enslaved Africans to learn to read or write.
After working long hours, the evening meal was a time for families to share stories, get together, and to eat together. In this context, Soul Food was also known as Good Times Food.
Slave owners fed their captive workers as cheaply as possible, so the recipes of Soul Food grew from surviving on cheaper cuts of meat – particularly pork. The expression ‘high on the hog’ describes the choice cuts of meat from the top of the hog that were taken for the slave owner and his family. Slaves had to make do with what was left – the intestines, organs, feet, head and ears.
With ingenuity and creativity, nothing was ever wasted in the soul food kitchen: Hog maws (pig’s stomach lining), chitlins’ (hog intestines), livermush (made from pigs liver), pork brains, pork fat, pigs’ feet, tails and even pigs’ ears.
Soul Food – and its African origins – became a vital and uniquely African American cuisine that profoundly influenced American cooking and continues to be a huge part of contemporary African American and American culture. Chitterlings – or chittlins’ – are still on the menu at many Soul Food kitchens, cafes and restaurants. And if the mood takes you, a Pig’s Ear Sandwich will cost you just one dollar, including salad.
These are cooked on a pan not in a fireplace, unless you feel like a challenge! Moisten salted corn meal with scalding water or milk. Allow it to stand for an hour. Put 2 or 3 teaspoons of this of this on a hot greased griddle. Smooth it out to make cakes around 2cm thick and let it cook. When one side is cooked, turn over and brown the other. Serve hot for breakfast with sausages, or stewed fruit.
BOILED PIGS FEET
6-8 pigs’ feet / 2 onions, sliced / 4 sticks of celery cut in thirds / Salt and pepper
Place a piece of aluminium foil in the bottom of a large pot to stop the feet sticking. Wash pigs’ feet thoroughly and place in pot. Cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer, covered about an hour. Add onion and celery, salt and pepper. Keep the water at least 1” (3cm) above the ingredients. Keep cooking, covered, until the meat is tender and almost falling off the bone – 2 to 2.5hrs.
Photo credits: Pigs Ear Sandwich by Michael Stern