By Michelle Lawrence
As Mother Nature has shifted her aura to accommodate the cool, crisp shades of winter, I am reminded that the season of harvest has passed and now is the time for thoughtful reflection, thanksgiving, festivity, and celebration. While watching the withered and snow-dusted leaves dance across the landscape of my back yard, memory took me to an experience in 2008 when I was privy to dialogue among a group of African American elders about culture and cooking.
During the dialogue, which flowed like a potluck dinner, the elders dished up stories about the techniques used by their ancestors to transform throwaway scraps into sumptuous delights — techniques that allowed them to transform food once considered garbage into food considered “soul.”
Entranced by the rhythm of the dancing leaves, I suddenly experienced a flash of insight, an epiphany: Seeds planted in my mind three years earlier by that group of elders were coming into fruition as a personal harvest. At that instant, one solid question emerged in my mind: Why is the term “soul food” unique to African American people?
The elders had answered the question that day. Like Black American music, soul food is an expression of the Black soul — an expression of the cultural way of being among Black people in America. Soul food has soul because it is the nature (ontology) of Black Americans to express soulfulness.
As the epiphany unfolded, what I understood was that the elders had not merely been discussing cultural recipes around soul food staples like fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread; they had imparted knowledge on why and how food becomes soulful.
They had imparted knowledge on transformation, on alchemy, the turning of metal into gold. So, it is in the spirit of transformation that this essay has been written, as the concept itself represents a fundamental expression among Black folks.
Food, just like music, is a vehicle for expressing the power of the Black soul to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the profound. The creation of soul food, or food containing soul, means that we have the power to use food to transform ourselves, our lives, and our relationships with each other.
The creation of soul food by our ancestors reminds us that we are a people who know how to create food that nourishes the soul, even under the harshest and most painful of circumstances and times.
How to put soul into food
Growing up during segregation in the Tie Plant community of Grenada, Mississippi, Glenda Smith, 55, has vivid memories of her mother’s cooking.
“My mom knew how knew how to make your mouth happy. She knew how to make all food flavorful, and I will never experience that sort of deliciousness again,” she says.
According to Smith, everyday smells and aromas came from the kitchen of her childhood home where her mother’s skillful hands and culinary imagination produced soulful delights that not only made the mouth happy, they also made the soul sing with glee. “Everyone in the neighborhood knew that my mom was an excellent cook, and they swore it was because she had magic in her hands,” Smith says.
Like many other African American women in the segregated South, Smith’s mother worked as a domestic. Financial resources were few, but nightly meals were abundant and hearty.
“After school, we would just wait for my mom to get home and cook. We never knew what we were going to have, but we always knew whatever she made would be good,” Smith says. She admits that while she did not inherit her mother’s talent with food, that talent was as much spiritual as it was practical.
“My mother liked cooking and creating new recipes and learning how to improve her existing ones. She used spices that few others were using, like sugar in turnip greens to give things extra or unique flavor. When those flavors came together they excited the mouth and they spoke to the soul.
“So, it wasn’t just the spices, it was what she did with them, how she worked with them to create delicacies out of inexpensive foods,” Smith continues. “It was spiritual because it came from her essence, her creativity.”
As trends and preferences within the multi-billion dollar food industry shift toward heart-based cooking rather than head-based cooking, a unique opportunity confronts African American people — an opportunity to reclaim, name and own their knowledge of soulful cooking, of the transformation of food into soul.
Michelle Lawrence, MA, MPH, specializes in cooking African-based dishes and relationship-enhancing dining experiences for families and couples. She can be reached at 612-251-9516.