For many African Americans, soul food means more than just a popular American cuisine. It represents resourcefulness, struggle, triumph, and tradition.
Originating in the South during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, soul food is what enslaved African people and their descendants made out of the meager foods they were given or, found or grew themselves. Some of the plants central to the American palate like okra and black- eyed peas came from Africa too and became part of great soul food dishes such as gumbo and Hoppin’ John ( a dish made with black-eyed peas that symbolizes good luck on New Year’s).
Post-slavery, African Americans went on to create legendary culinary traditions that would evolve following the emancipation as they gained access to salt, sugar, and a wider selection of meats. What was once a simple pot of rice evolved into gumbo, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. The Reconstruction Era, when Blacks could raise and slaughter their own livestock, brought on smothered pork chops, fried chicken. Eventually the soul food menu would include humble dishes like neck-bones and stewed collard greens, as well as dishes made possible by the access to more sugar, starches, and fats like candied yams, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. Today that deluxe feast would be paired with a nice cold glass of sweet tea or Kool-Aid.
This kind of good eating now happens more often in many black households, but at a cost. According to a 2018 study by The Journal of the American Medical Association, these culinary staples are high in sodium, sugar, fat and are linked to health issues among African Americans such as the highest rates of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. In more recent news, African Americans have been dying at an alarming rate from COVID-19. In Louisiana, black people represent 70% of COVID-19 deaths but are 1/3 of the state’s population. In Michigan, black people represent 35% of infected but 40% of the deaths. An infographic by FamiliesUSA shows that African-Americans are 72% more likely to have diabetes than whites, 25% more likely to have heart disease, and 25% more likely to have asthma. Although the situation with COVID-19 is still unfolding, medical professionals have said it appears that the lack of access to healthcare and these pre-existing health conditions all factor into African Americans’ higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
However, a love of soul food doesn’t have to be fatal. There are many African American nutritionists and cooks who are dedicated to promoting healthier changes in black communities’ diets while keeping soul food traditions alive. Still, whether the black community will be open to trading pulled pork for pulled jackfruit or fried chicken for fried tofu remains an open question.
Tracey McQuirter is one of America’s leading Black vegan cookbook authors and nutritional educators. But like many Black vegans, she converted to a plant-based diet.
During McQuirter’s sophomore year at Amherst University in 1986, the Black Student Union invited Civil Rights Movement activist and comedian Dick Gregory to speak about the state of Black America, but instead, he decided to talk about the plate of Black America. At the time, Gregory had been vegan for 20 years. “He traced the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm, to the slaughterhouse, to a fast-food restaurant, to a clogged artery, to a heart attack, and it completely rocked my world,” said McQuirter. Gregory’s lecture inspired McQuirter, her mom and sister to go vegetarian. The following year she went completely vegan.
Veganism is a plant-based diet that excludes all animal products as well as avoiding animal-derived materials. There are quite a few famous black vegans in addition to Gregory and McQuirter, like Colin Kaepernick, Ava DuVernay, Taraji P. Henson, Erykah Badu, and Kyrie Irving.
After graduating from Amherst, McQuirter spent her free time giving vegan cooking demos and speaking at public, educational, and community organizations throughout the DC area. In 1997 a McQuirter and, her sister, Marya, created one of the earliest vegan websites, and the first vegan website by and for African Americans, called blackvegeterians.com. She says, “ I loved the vegan work so much that I decided to change careers, get a master’s degree in public health nutrition, and teach people how and why to go vegan, which I’ve been doing as an educator, author, and entrepreneur for the past 30 years.”
In 2010 McQuirter published “Any Greens Necessary”, a vegan diet book specifically for African American women. The New York Times cited the book as a key reason for the rise in veganism among African Americans in the past 10 years. In 2015 she created a free African American Vegan Starter Guide, and since then people have ordered more than half-a-million copies.
McQuirter, who is a trained nutritionist, finds that informing the community about the dangers of an unhealthy diet and showing them how to make plant-based foods healthy, delicious, affordable, and convenient helps encourage people to choose healthier food options. And for those who are reluctant to giving up barbecued and fried meats and other animal-based soul food dishes?
“I don’t try to convince them otherwise. I just say that there are healthier ways to cook it and that the oil, flour, and spices they use to season them are the same because they’re already plant based. When we know better, we can do better.”
McQuirter believes that with time changes happens. “Traditions are always evolving. It used to be taboo for women to wear pants to church, but that has changed, and that hasn’t diminished the fellowship and enjoyment people find in going to church. Eating healthier and delicious versions of soul food doesn’t have to diminish the fellowship and enjoyment people find in their occasions and celebrations.”
Veganism is often associated with wealthy white people in Hollywood who promote cruelty-free living in their three-story mansions. However, the narrative that veganism is only for the rich is misconstrued; you don’t need to have a lot of money to eat a healthier diet.
Rachael Bolden Kramer, a Bay-Area native, created healthier and cheap alternatives to soul food specifically for low-income communities when she authored My Food Stamps Cookbook. “During nutrition school, I learned that the longer a person receives food stamps, the greater they are at risk for poor health “, Kramer says. “I had to change that.” Kramer, who has been on food stamps herself, is dedicated to teaching low-income communities or anyone who is struggling with the importance of healthy habits. She has taught cooking and nutrition classes at centers like the YMCA for their youth programs.
Kramer encourages people to seek healthier habits simply by making it delicious! She suggests using liquid smoke to give plant proteins a smoky and meaty taste and replacing chicken or pork with jackfruit, which has a similar texture when cooked. For those who need a word of encouragement in their transition to a healthier diet, Kramer says, “Book a consultation with me. I can make it easier and enjoyable. Don’t do it alone.”
There are also health publications that offer free cookbooks for healthier options to soul food. The Association of Black Women Physicians created Healthier Traditions Cookbook: Soul Food for their patients and Black communities. The cookbook uses techniques like baking and searing instead of frying to eliminate fat. The recipes call for ingredients like spices, whole grain flour, low sodium broth, and starchy vegetables.
There are many chefs and cookbooks authors and black health publications promoting delicious and healthier ways to cook soul food. However, the question remains, would the black community be open to adjusting long beloved traditions for health’s sake?
Southern cookbook author, Danni Rose who strongly disagrees with changing traditional recipes says, “I understand the effort of how we can take significant dishes, change the ingredients and say its soul food, but it just won’t taste the same. It’s not going to be the same. It’ll give you the essence of soul food but not the full-fledge comforting food that we just love.”
Rose was born and raised in Alabama. She spent her childhood on her family’s farm, where she learned to chase down hogs, slaughter them, and cook them in the ground. Her father owned a juke joint; a hang-spot for black people during segregation, and her mom was a Sunday school teacher. Rose’s love for cooking soul food stemmed from life at home. Growing up, her dad and her mom, cooked a lot of southern classics between the juke joint and family dinners, like fried pork chops, fish and grits, and her favorite, potato salad. On Fridays, her parents would always have a fish fry, a tradition her mother still keeps alive. “My dad would always go fishing with my uncles. We would get the fish, skill it, cut it, batter it and fry it. My mom keeps that same tradition going, every Friday she fries fish still!
Rose, who has consistently gone viral on social media, is known for her cookbooks Sweet Kitchen Kisses, Bread, Butter & Wine and Haywood’s Place: Juke Joint Comfort Food. Her You-Tube channel, Stove Top Kisses, has over half-a-million subscribers and 100 scrumptious video recipes for classic soul food dishes like smothered chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, and candied yams.
When asked if she considered vegan soul food to be authentic, Rose said, “No absolutely not. A waste of time. That was a simple answer. I don’t get it. I don’t even put lettuce on my hamburger, I didn’t order a salad, I got a hamburger for a reason.” Rose believes that there are other ways to remain healthy without sacrificing southern culinary traditions.
Rose, who is a fitness enthusiast, lost 100lbs following the program in her weight loss book, Carbs into Curves. Rose believes that health is all about your relationship with the food that you eat. Rose suggests fasting, working out, and tracking your meal portions are ways to eat what you want and remain fit. “There is no such thing as bad food just bad relations with food. I know people who are overweight and vegan; vegan doesn’t mean healthy,” Rose says.
Although some are reluctant to changing, younger African Americans who are attuned with their health seem to be more open to vegan soul food. Elonte Porter, program assistant for USF’S Critical Diversity Studies programs, was raised in Georgia and mostly ate soul food growing up. “Back home, my family made mostly soul food and other standard American dishes. My favorite dish to eat growing up was Mac and Cheese, and is still my favorite food, even though I am a vegan. I also ate at my god mother’s bakery/restaurant that focused mostly on brunch foods. Many of my interests revolve around food and cultures, as I enjoy making new cuisines, learning new languages, and learning about new cultures,” he said.
Porter, who is a fan of African American culinary historian Michael Twitty, has been vegan for three years. “I honestly just decided that I wanted to go vegan to see how my body would feel, and to learn about alternatives to meat heavy dishes,” Porter said. “I did gain inspiration from learning about my family’s history and knowing that many of them were farmers. They ate lots of vegetables, and other things they grew on the farm, so I wanted to expand my palate and my own recipe book.”
He believes that educating the community on health benefits could spark a greater change. “I think that the black community would be open to the change especially if it tasted similar to pork and had the meaty texture. I’ve noticed that there has been a good amount of black people trying more vegan meals. Also, there are many vegan soul food restaurants that have been in black communities for years such as Original Soul Vegetarian that has been open in Chicago for 33 years,” he said.
Moriah Marie, a radio host based in Dallas, Texas, says that in the South, soul food is the norm and is eaten frequently, especially on Sundays. Marie, a Texas native, spends every Sunday with family at her grandmother’s house to share some of her favorite soul food dishes like fried chicken, macaroni cheese, sweet potatoes, and cornbread.
“Soul food to me is a wholehearted meal lacking in no areas. Soul food comes in large portions with the perfect amount of spices and seasonings to make for a flavorful experience. Soul food is usually served as lunch or dinner but it’s a meal prepared with love and to be shared amongst loved ones,” she says.
Marie, who recently started incorporating a vegan diet into her lifestyle also believes that vegan or healthier alternatives to soul food are can be authentic. “I have had vegan soul food where I couldn’t even taste the difference. It tasted exactly like the soul food that my mom or my grandmother would make.”
Marie believes that if healthier alternatives to soul food taste great, then the black community would be more open to change.
Porter, who is about to leave the Bay Area and return to Atlanta for graduate school, would agree. He says, “Encouragement can come from educating people on how most of the soul food that is eaten can be healthier options.”
Despite the different views on whether salt and fat and meat and sugar are essential to soul food, there’s one thing that everyone interviewed for this story agrees on: soul food must always be made with love and care. Porter says, When I think of soul food, I think about food that is made by my mom, or a grandparent who put lots of love into the cooking.
Soul food isn’t food that you just throw together like a quick meal, it is food that takes time, so that all the seasonings/flavors really seep into the food. Also, many of the soul food dishes are passed down through family.”
Time, seasonings, family and love — that’s soul food.
Artwork by Elizabeth Oswalt