Soul, Black Women, and Food
MARVALENE H. HUGHES
Women's search for personal identities has probably never been pursued so actively i l l
the United States as during the escalation of the Women's Liberation movement. At the,
same time the sex revolution is in progress, the collective consciousness of personkintl
seems to be gravitating back into the history of time in search of roots. Alex Haley',
Roots and the televised saga of Roots highlighted in me, and I believe many people, thc
quest for ancestral cultures and genetic origins. This is indeed a century when history
must record the presence of a collective consciousness that presents a mental mirror
reflecting back into the ages of time. In these reflections each of us hopes to find missing pieces of our life's puzzles. As a Black woman, some pieces of my puzzle will relate
to my African ancestry; some pieces will relate to the Black struggle in U.S. history; and
other pieces will relate to my female identity.
One of the most symbolic tools that may be used by Black Americans in our search
for roots in food-soul food. The essence of Black culture has been handed down through
oral history, generation after generation in the African tradition, through the selection
and preparation of soul food. The dominant figure in the cultural translation through
food is the Black woman. Her expressions of love, nurturance, creativity, sharing, patience,
economic frustration, survival, and the very core of her African heritage are embodied
in her meal preparation. In addition, the effects of Euro-American traditions on her African
culture may also be transmitted through her cooking traditions.
The roots of plants are basic to the meaning of soul food. Roots represent the state
of being grounded and the state of stabilization. The choice of roots as a basic Black
food can be traced to the African tradition. "Yams and sweet potatoes have provided
an unbroken link in the Black man's diet from sixteenth-century Africa to twentiethcentury America."' Accessibility to the roots of plants is preserved by possession of seeds.
Forced to leave their native land, their home, family, and African tribes, many slaves
brought seeds with them. The watermelon seed, for example, now a symbol of the Amer.~
ican South, was introduced to this country by enslaved A f r i ~ a n sSimilarly,
okra, which later became a key ingredient for the preparation of gumbo, a New Orleans,
Blacks use okra as a special seasoning supplement to "greens,"
French-related d ~ s hSouthern
a term used to describe leaf vegetables like collards and turnips.
The determination to hold on to native foods by bringing seeds into this country may
Soul, Black Women, and Food
be symbolic of the ever-present determination to preserve the African culture through
food. Black-eyed peas were introduced to this country in 16744 and other seeds,.such
as the sesame seed, followed. In clinging to the seed, Blacks proclaimed internally (to
themselves) and externally (to the world) that they would maintain an African ethnic
identity through food. Blacks have sought many avenues to the maintenance of Black
identity in U.S. cultures; soul food became one preserver of Black culture.
Food remains one of the Black woman's self-concept expressions. Through her mysterious, spiritual self-confidence and through her arrogance in food preparation; the Black
woman gains a sense of pride.as she watches her extended family-her man, her children, and maybe her grandparents, sisters, nieces and friends--enjoy the soulful tastes
and textures prepared by her skillful hands. Even when she prepares meals as a way of
making a living, she takes pride in watching her consumers literally gorge themselves
until the fatty tissue forms and finds a permanent resting and growing place. Plumpness
is s symbol of the wonderful job which she is performing. Even when her job occupation is food preparation for White America, her success symbol is plumpness. A big
body to the Black woman represents health and prosperity. The interrelatedness of the
concepts "big" and "beautiful" is 'African. Bigness represents health and prosperity, but
in America thinnessis beautiful. Having learned these Americanvalues, could it be that
the Black woman (and Black man) enjoy making White America fat and "ugly" by its
e many people, the
ts a mental mirror
lopes to find missY pi
' will relate
n U.3. history; and
cans in our search
:age are embodied
ons on her African
,epresent the state
:ica to twentieth)ssession of seeds.
My mom receives a lot of praise from her nine children and her grandchildren when
is cooking. Like many Black woman of her generation, giving birth to nine children
a p1anned;pleasant accomplishment. In giving birth to many children, the Black
ody. . . . this is my only opportunity to experience the feeling of plen
en I have-the opportunity to -visitmy mom, she seldom spendstimehaving-long
hen there.-arebig family gatherings, Iletirn a lot about my roots as I listen to-accounts
presentedrorally by al1:of .the family members. Seldom-does my mom.talk ,about the
meaning of,getting fat and:enjoying food,-.~et
almost all of her day is devoted .to.the
kitchen. She is happiest when she satisfies our oral-cravings.It is obvious as she mixes
together a."handful" of, a "pinch" of, a "dash" of, that her culinary creativity is much
like other Black women who defythe rules of measurement and.scientific.cookingprecision, Many Black .peopleof her generationnever used recipes or measuring instruments.
In fact,Hessand Hess5 note that the.deliberate illiteracy that slavery perpetuated made
it necessaryfor many:Black cooks to have recipes i-eadlto-them.Slaves were accustomed
to their African cultural cooking, and they have to learn European techniques in order
t o become -"goody',kitchen.maids' as prescribed by Western traditiow6 The European
cooking techniques underwent many adaptations as theB1ac.kwoman added her African
touch and -her soulful intucprogress .in food in favor of :her -basic
believe that whether we live in the suburbs or the ghettos, there-is a bond among Black
folks-Black food'culture is one of the connecting links which transcends geography.
At a typical Black potluck dinner, whether in the suburbs or the ghettos, there are ham
hocks, pigs feet, neck bones, pigs tails, potato salad, sweet-potato pie, and the "escargot of soul food," chitterlings.
Soul food is an expression of the central core of Black culture. Black recipes, like the
Black culture, are handed down from generation to generation by oral African history.
Black culture itself has survived through oral history. Theword "soul" is a part of Black
history that represents a cultural ComDactness. "Is she soulful?" "Can he dancesoulfully?" "Does she make soulful music?" "Can she make good soul food? "Would you
believe that he knows how to make soul food?" I have heard all those questions repeatedly, and I have never felt that they were clichks. Having soul is knowing that when the
human layers are peeled away there is a hidden, impenetrable gem, the sapphire.
Soul, Black Women, and Food
vantage, especially in
eion and food preserd not concern myself
my mom, for exam, among the Blacks, I
ritual of home cooklquent among Blacks
he vegetable trays in
en we can find at the
~bleswhen we Blacks
us to the suburb, we
:ation of Black folks'
my garden was dif:quash, watermelon,
ts, green peas ("Engith me their curiosity
my vegetables. Sec:ceived in producing
nd took me back to
ng r- -1lts of my culrod .on, I became
a1 sense. My garden
that allowed me to
African respect for
have a scanty, occar seen pigs feet, pigs
ely, my Black friends
In that middle-class
he suburbs. I firmly
bond among Black
:nos, there are ham
pie, and the "escarack recipes, like the
iral African history.
I" is a part of Black
:an he dance soulfood? "Would you
;e questions repeatwing that when the
The "human layers" in the Westernized American culture are thick. They embrace a
set of values that are filled with contradictions and confusions for Blacks; they signify
the polarities of a Western society with an abundance of labels: good versus bad, power
versus powerlessness, beauty versus ugliness, Black versus White, smart versus dumb,
advantaged versus disadvantaged, educated versus undereducated, privileged versus underprivileged, thinness versus fatness, soul food versus European foods, poverty versus wealth.
The word "versus" in the American culture portrays an extremely low tolerance level
for differences and pluralisms. It is, therefore, difficult to perceive the true meaning of
"melting pot" since the American melting pot is not fluid. Instead of blending cultures,
it superimposes the Euro-white-American cultures over other non-Euro-white cultures.
In so doing, it tends to place positive, ruling powers on the Euro-American groups and
negative, nonruling powers on peoples of color and Judeo identities. While Jewish people have gained power by mastering skills of economic rulership, peoples of color-Blacks
and Browns-have not gained equal economic access.
When Blacks accept the labels of Western polarities, I am concerned. I am concerned
about how Black people adopt many of the same Western cultural concepts that are
used to perpetuate hierarchical social-class structures, and thus, Black oppression. As
Black people, we recognize the institutionalization of labels, and we commonly accept
that power is rationalized and, indeed, perpetuated through labeling. (By power I mean
legislative power, money, educational access, institutional access, and "success" access.)
Yet, some Blacks use those same power strategies on each other. A beautiful word, like
"soul," for example, is a victim of this culture's labeling. "Is she soulful?" presupposes
that there are deselection criteria, or that on a scale of one to ten, you can measure her
soulfulness. Black sisters and brothers are all soulful; that, for me, is the real essence of
the word "soul."
Black food is all soulful, too. All black-eyed peas are soulful whether prepared in a
Black person's kitchen, a white kitchen, or a Jewish kitchen. Just as Blacks have adopted
Western behaviors, many aspects of the Black culture have been adopted by non-Blacks.
One of my white friends prepares black-eyed peas and ham hocks for the New Year's
Day party. I once asked him where he learned how to do that. "I am from the deep
South," he replied. The Southern Black Belt, where slavery in this country was concentrated, provided a vast cooking (and therefore, cultural) repertoire through the Black
woman's domination of the white kitchen. There was and is today an informal Black
kitchen network that subtly penetrates white America.
Reflecting the mobility of contemporary society, Blacks today are scattered throughout most of mainland U.S.A. Despite affirmative action legislation, the professional upward
mobility of Blacks in the United States has not changed significantly. In fact, the gap
between Black and white professional advancement has widened. There remains a heavy
domestic professional concentration of Black women (and Black men) either in family
kitchens or in commercial food preparation. We cannot dismiss the fact that this domestic cooking role of Black women is a historically acquired role definition assigned her
by slave masters. Cooking, professionally, is a position of servitude both economically
and politically. Politically, the message the Black cook receives is that it is her duty to
nurture white Americans by cooking their meals, taking care of their children, cleaning
their homes, and doing the laundry. The kitchen-bound/domestic-boundBlack woman
is still in slavery. Her economic plight is still destined for poverty.
Marvalene H. Hughes
Economics dictate the lund of food a family can purchase. The Black wornall 11.1..
demonstrated that economics cannot control her soulful creativity in the prepararlllll
of foods. Consider some of the classic foods that are labeled soul food: pigs feet, I ~ ; I I I I
hocks, chitterlings, pigs ears, hog jowl, tripe, cracklings, chicken backs, giblets, chiclir.~~
wings, and oxtails. All of those were initially leftovers or "throw-aways" given to Blnc.l,,,
who wanted to believe they were in a land of plenty. For Blacks in this country, life 11.1..
been a perpetual process of leftovers: leftover food, leftover jobs, 1ef;over houses, Icll
over textbooks, leftover schools, leftover big cars, leftover communities, leftover everythi~l,:.
Denied educational and economic opportunities, the Black woman (and the Black rn;irl I
stood in line for leftovers.
The survival-oriented Black woman trusts her creative skills to "make something 0111
of nothing." She acquired the unique survival ability to cook (and therefore use) all par[\
of everything. She cooked the portions of a hog that the master (and white Americ;~)
discarded; she cooked the roots and leaves of plants; she cooked leftovers. Blacks 1ear11
to enjoy the leftovers and turn them into special treats. When the Black woman demo11
strated how good the leftovers could be, "leftover foods" became a household word i l l
It is now common practice for food manufacturers to package many of these leftovers-ham hocks, oxtails, and chitterlings-and deliver them to some of the most economically
elite communities in America. Eldridge Cleaver refers to this trend as white America':.
"going slumming" a t t i t ~ d eH
. ~e cautions us to remain alert to the economic and political realities that not withstanding the fact that the white culture eats chitterlings, thc
ghetto person wants steak. Eating soul food for white America represents a food cultural plunge, and it epitomizes the acculturation of white America through Black foocl
Soul food represents a Black spiritual ritual deeply embedded in the culture of AfroAmericans. Black people discovered centuries ago that a spiritual core is vital to survival,
and that the development of Black ego and pride-building can take place most forcefully in the Black religious institution. Used to maintaining a personal balance in times
of struggles, the Negro spiritual portrays the message throughout history that life will
become brighter, happier-someday.
"Swing low, sweet Chariot,
Cumin' for to carry me home."
The relationship of Black religion to food practices is not parallel to other religion's
practices with food. Catholics, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Seventh-Day Adventists, and
other religious groups practice food doctrines which set apart certain foods. Generally,
"unacceptable" religious foods may also dictate special days when foods may or may
not be served, or when food preparation is prohibited altogether. Although some Black
people in the United States are now affiliated with religious groups that adhere to food
selection and food-scheduling principles, in the mainstream of Black religious cultures,
this food norm is not practiced.
Eating during a spiritual, religious ritual connotes a special celebration for Blacks.
When a pastor is ordained, when there are baptisms, when there are "footwashings"
at the Primitive Baptist Church, when special holidays approach, Black church yards
are replete with spreads of soul food. Soul food a t Alack church meetings c o n v c r t thc
Soul, Black Women, and Food
B I ~ goman has
in the preparation
)od: pigs feet, ham
ks, giblets, chicken
ys" given to Blacks
]is country, life has
hover houses, leftleftover everything.
~ n tdhe Black man)
lake something out
refore use) all parts
nd white America)
overs. Blacks learn
ck woman demonhousehold word in
nany of these lefte most economically
3s white America's
:onomic and polit~ t cshitterlings, the
resents a food culhro
he culture of Afro:is vital to survival,
: place most forcea1 balance in times
istory that life will
to other religion's
xy Adventists, and
I foods. Generally,
foods may or may
hough some Black
hat adhere to food
)ration for Blacks.
black church yards
:eti~lc-c onvert the
religious, spiritual festivity into a communal Black gathering. The Black preacher, the
symbol of oral traditionalism, has the privilege of receiving the choice foods, such as
chicken thighs and legs. For Black people the dark pieces of the chicken are the "choice"
parts. Whether on the church ground or in the Black home, the Black preacher is the
first to choose his food, and other Blacks yield to his sacred position of spiritual religious wisdom and cultural power.
Perhaps more than any other personality, the Black preacher transmits the oral African
history. He has learned the art of translating history orally, and the ring of his voice provides appropriate intonations to connect with the spiritual souls of sisters and brothers
in the congregation. In addition, the content of his presentation will have significance,
The Black cultural heritage represents a deep inner spirit to share. Blacks have a unique
cultural heritage of communal festivities that abound in food sharings at churches, parties, and funerals. Until the mid-60s, Black people had to pack food whenever they expected
not to be at home for meals, as Blacks did not have hotel and restaurant privileges in
many geographical areas in America. They became accustomed to sharing with other
Blacks, even if they were strangers.
At the central core of Black food celebrations is the intent of sharing. When there is
a hog killing (usually during fall or winter), the neighbors and friends are included. Women
play special assisting roles at hog killings; they usually clean the meat, do the trimmings
(shave off the fat), cook some samples, give portions to neighbors, and prepare the meat
for storage. Men assume the "masculine" chores like slaughtering the beast, removing
the hairy covering, and cutting it into major parts, such as hams and shoulders. The
hog-killing ritual is one of the few clearly delineated sex-role activities for Black men
and Black women.
The role definition around hog killings relates to the African hunting tradition. African
men were hunters and providers; women were nurturing souls for the children, men,
and elders. With "mankind," this phenomenon has been basically universal. However,
the institution of "mankind" tends to break down in oppressed ethic cultures where
preoccupations are with basic survival. Preoccupied with her individual survival and
the survival of her children, the Black woman lost her "female" role identity in this culture. By default, her need to attain economic independence endowed her with the role-freeing
experience of androgyny. Basic survival (self-preservation) transcends powers of loyalty
attributed to sex gender. Self-preservation does not transcend the power of motherhood,
however. Motherhood is a spiritual linking bond that connects the Black woman with
her child in much the same manner that she is connected with earth. Given the choice
of her own survival and the survival of her child, the child often becomes the surviving
recipient. Cooking as a function of sex role is less sex stereotyping (more androgynous)
among Blacks because of the Black person's frequent occupational involvement with
cooking outside the home.
Economic factors and oppressive conditioning have contributed to the androgynous
state of Black women. Ladner refers to the absence of protectiveness received by Black
women.9 Instead, there was a n implicit message for her to gain independence and autonomy. Using her masculine powers to aspire for personal autonomy, the Black woman
always knew that she would not marry an ambitious, business executive or a wealthy
heir who would "rescue" her. Whether a domestic worker or teacher, she always thought
of herself as a career woman who would contribute to the economic support of the family. Despite her major economic role in the Black family, she would maintain dominance
Marvalene H. Hughes
over the Black kitchen and allow the Black man to assume the dominant role in
household. This is in contradiction to the sociological myth of Black family matriarc
Dominance over her kitchen was her opportunity to reign over the oral, nurturing t
ritory of the household; it was, and still is, her chance to demonstrate to her man
her family that she is endowed with a special gift of culinary creativity.
When the Black man asks, "What's for dinner, Momma?" he is payingher the
est possible compliment. Black men frequently address their partners as "momma,
the psychological connotation is void of a negative psychoanalyticphilosophy. The t
"momma" means "I really dig you." It is fondly used when the Black woman's fo
has "stuck to the ribs" or passed the soul food test. Black men use "momma" to ex
to their women that there is a connecting soulful linkage. Translated, it means, "
African soul meets mine on a deeper-than-surface human level-You are treatin
good-You are nurturing me."
In a typical Black kitchen three solid meals are prepared daily: breakfast, dinner, and
supper. Breakfast most often consists of grits, homemade biscuits, ham or bacon, mola
or canned preserves, fresh milk, and fresh eggs. Although bacon and ham are traditionall
used for breakfast, it is not unusual to have country-smothered steak, fried chicken,
fruits, cut up in creamy milk, biscuits, ice cream, fried chicken, or creamed potatoe
Fresh buttermilk is regularly .available to farm families; it is generally served as a di
ner or supper drink. (For snacks between meals, I remember how in Alabama we enjoye
cornbread mashed up in bowls of butter milk; I also remember baked corn.and fres
plums and peaches.) In retrospect, I realize that most of these meals were nutritio
although it appeared-tobe an economic selection at the time.
Throughout the world food has always been related to culture and economics. Recent1
attention is devoted more and more to nutrition and "health foods." Many consume
purchases are made because health foods are "in." But many of the so-called healthfood diets are nutritionally questionable, and they are chosen more often than not for
their faddish cultural connotations. During slavery, however; nutrition was give
consideration. Masters wanted slaves to be healthy and live longer in order to g
irnum work from them.
. . . Negroes fed on three-quarters of a pound of bread and bacon are more prone to disease than if with-lessmeat but with vegetables.1°
The pro-vegetable attitudes (mess of greens) culturally inherited from Africa and reinforced by the masters still prevail among Blacks.. In earlier history, the masters
maintained a largely hedonistic attitude towards their own eating.
A casual relationship has been frequently hy~othesizedhetween the nutrition of Hack
Soul, Black Women, and Food
~ m h..A
. role in the
oral, nurturing ter.ate to her man and
hilosophy. The term
,lack woman's food
nomma" to express
:d, it means, "Your
ZOU are treating me
se me to question the social malignancies that cause hypertension (stress due to ecoic and personal oppression, job deprivation, externally caused depression). It is well
note that diet may play a less significant role in killing Blacks than the oppressive
ditions in American culture.
eigh 120, and I am a middle-aged woman. She asks me often, "Are you eating properly these days?" Maintaining my weight at 120 pounds is hard for me, because I was
taught to enjoy eating and preparing food. If I ate the kind of food my mom prepares
lam are traditiona
:s that she or he ha
le so-called health:often than.not-for
on was given prime
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