This June sees the advent of Soul Food Month, a term to describe American home-cooking which first started being used in the 1960s. When the term ‘soul food’ was first coined, it was intended to celebrate the way slave cooks resourcefully created comforting dishes out of unwanted ingredients discarded by their owners.
The plantation owners wanted to feed their captive slaves as cheaply as possible, so they would give them only the waste or leftover foods from the plantation. Slave cooks of the time would have to be incredibly resourceful, making do with the ingredients at hand, which were usually things like the tops of root vegetables like turnips and beetroot, and discarded cuts of meat like offal and tripe. Some were able to also grow their own vegetables, adding onions, garlic, thyme and bay leaf for flavour.
In 1881, the first Soul Food Cookbook was published, called ‘What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking’. After that, a string of other cookbooks were written, combining ingredients from the deep South with native American styles using corn and maize to make flour for cornbread and cornmeal pancakes. Soul Food today is known for its high calorie and carbohydrate content and it’s still the ultimate comfort food for many people.
Today’s soul food restaurants serve up classics like fried chicken or fish, smoked ham hocks, oxtail and pork ribs. Vegetables like collard greens, mustard leaves and okra are staples, as well as sweet potato and black eyed beans. For those who are brave enough, the most traditional soul food dishes also include offal based recipes, including ‘chitlins’ which are slow cooked pig intestines – not for the faint hearted! Desserts are homely and comforting – from pecan pie to peach fruit cobbler.
The most authentic place to try soul food in the USA is in the deep south, in places like Jackson, Mississippi, although a string of fabulous soul food restaurants have recently opened up all over the country, celebrating this type of cooking and serving up soul food classics to discerning diners. Our favourites include Florida Avenue Grill in Washington DC, and Morrison’s Restaurant in Chicago.
The islands in the Caribbean also serve up their own similar versions of homely, heart-warming dishes, using the best of local ingredients. In the Bahamas, you’ll find fabulous places dishing out delicious fish and conch stews, lobster and crab salad, and traditional chicken souse. Top pick for us was Bertha’s Go Go Ribs in Nassau.
In St Lucia, we loved the Friday night Fish Fry – head to Anse La Raye for lively dining at communal tables. In Bermuda, expect a strong West African influence with seafood, tuna, shark and rock fish being made into stews, chowders, fritters and hashes. These are served up with sweet potato pudding and cassava pie. The Soul Food Grill (53 Court Street, Hamilton, Bermuda).