In Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, Adrian Miller delves into the influences, ingredients, and innovations that make up the soul food tradition. Focusing each chapter on the culinary and social history of one dish—such as fried chicken, chitlins, yams, greens, and “red drinks”—Miller uncovers how it got on the soul food plate and what it means for African American culture and identity.
In the following interview, Miller discusses the southern tradition of Soul Food.
Q: You aim to explore “where Southern food ends and soul food begins.” What’s the difference between the two?
A: Inside the South, the distinctions between the two are so subtle that it almost seems meaningless. In my experience, black Southerners are just as quick to call soul food “home cooking” or “country cooking.” I found that the Southern diet, particularly after the Civil War, is demarcated more by class than race. In other words, blacks and whites of a similar socioeconomic background pretty much eat the same foods. That said, I find that soul food dishes tend to have more intensity than their counterparts in Southern cuisine. They’re sweeter, more highly spiced and tend to have a higher fat content—all the things that one would expect from a cuisine using a lot of bland starches and lesser cuts of meat. Then there are the differences in preparation. Soul food joints and home cooks tend to have more bone-in meat selections (neckbones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) and hardcore offerings like chitlins.
Q: Soul food has developed something of a bad reputation. Why?
A: Soul food has sustained a number of one-two punches over several decades. One punch is psychological. Some soul food critics argue that diners are internalizing white superiority by celebrating and eating soul food since it is the “master’s leftovers.” The other, more dominant critique is the health consequences of eating a sustained diet of sugary and fatty foods. Exhibit A for the latter argument is the high incidence of chronic diseases among African Americans. Though many of these diseases are diet-related, I don’t think that there’s been much critical thinking about whether or not traditional soul food is the main culprit. Look, there may be a strong causal link between soul food and chronic diseases, but I think the increased eating of fast food and processed food by African Americans is a key part of the story.
Q: How well-known is soul food outside the United States?
A: I don’t think that soul food is as well-known as other aspects of African American culture. It’s a curious thing because the way that black people dance, dress, entertain, play sports, preach, sing, and talk has gone global, but our food hasn’t. I think it’s because black cultural tastemakers, particularly hip hop artists, don’t spend a lot of time talking about soul food. Though some corporate conglomerates have put fried chicken on the international map, soul food is not a widely recognized cuisine. Interestingly, the strongest ambassadors of soul food have been black veterans who have opened up soul food places near military bases overseas.
Q: You’ve structured your book around the dishes that might be found in a typical soul food meal. Was it difficult to select what to include?
A: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard, especially after I did my national soul food tour. Once one gets out of the American South, the soul food offerings at restaurants are pretty uniform. I thought long and hard about okra. It’s such an iconic food item, but I just didn’t see it on many soul food menus in the North and West even though fried okra is popping up at many more mainstream restaurants as a standard appetizer.
It’s been more challenging to tell people what makes up my representative meal. As much as I say that I endeavored to describe a general meal that a soul foodie might eat at any time and at any place in the world, they think I’m whacked because I didn’t include their family favorite. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see a trail of smothered neckbones across the country.
Q: How did you research this book?
A: This book is a decade in the making! For much of that time, I felt like a graduate student spending every moment I could outside of work collecting and reading hundreds of cookbooks of all types, looking through digitized newspapers, periodicals and other electronic sources. I crowd-sourced information through social media, read through thousands of reminiscences of slavery, conducted interviews of current soul food practitioners, and talked to and asked questions of anyone who would indulge me.
Q: You dedicate Soul Food to your parents, and thank them for “all those years of soul in the suburbs.” Can you talk a bit about this?
A: When I was a kid, we moved from a predominantly black neighborhood in Denver to a predominantly white neighborhood in a Denver suburb called Aurora. In that new context, “diversity” meant seeing different types of white people. I’ve heard stories of African Americans who made a similar transition and left visible expressions of their black identity behind figuring it might be a barrier to assimilation. Not so with my family. We maintained a strong connection to our black church by trekking there several times a week and listening to black music. We had politically and socially conscious conversations at the dinner table while frequently grubbing on soul food. I wanted to acknowledge the choice my parents made so that their kids wouldn’t completely lose their heritage.
Q: What’s the link between “soul food” and the Black Power movement?
A: The two are inextricably linked for whites because the Black Power movement leaders were the first ones to give this pre-existing, shared regional cuisine a racial edge that completely excluded Southern whites. Soul food the cuisine had been around for a century, and “soul food” the coined term had been around for a least a decade before the Black Power movement began. Yet, the Black Power movement was so heavily scrutinized by whites that things that once dwelled in obscurity within black subculture came into a very public spotlight. Whites didn’t seem to really care about or value what blacks ate until the Black Power movement presented them with a very politicized, racialized, and marketable buzzword. For African Americans, the link is less strong because soul food is more associated with longtime family and community traditions.
Q: Who are two or three of the most important figures associated with soul food?
A: If you’re expecting me to name a famous chef or TV personality, it’s a no-go with soul food. There really isn’t a Julia Child for soul food. I’m tempted to say Edna Lewis, but she was adamant that her cooking was Southern and not soul food. There are some notable figures out of New Orleans like Leah Chase and Austin Leslie, but I think Creole cuisine is different than soul food. The only person who comes close to being a soul food icon is the recently departed Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Thanks to her business savvy, New Yorkers and tourists from around the world have made her cooking synonymous with soul. Otherwise, soul food’s most important figures are the cooks who carried on culinary traditions by making Sunday dinner and holiday meals for their loved ones time and time again.
Q: Soul Food includes 22 recipes for such iconic dishes as “Deep-Fried Chitlins,” “Black-Eyed Peas,” “Mac ‘n’ Cheese,” “Candied Yams,” and “Banana Pudding.” What were some of your sources for the recipes, and is there a soul food dish that you make most often?
A: To get a good picture of my recipe contributors, imagine a big banquet table with Johnetta Miller, my mother and strongest culinary influence, other family members, some of the great cooks at Campbell Chapel A.M.E. Church in Denver, Colorado, my foodie and chef friends, restaurant owners I met on my national soul food tour, and some celebrity chefs whom I had never met. Thankfully, they were in a sharing mood even after a cold call.
The remaining recipes were from some historical sources that recipe tester Sheri Castle helped me update for the modern kitchen. I also relied on the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for some of the health-conscious recipes. My favorite soul food dish to make and eat is greens, with black-eyed peas being a close second.
Q: Why are red drinks such an important component of a soul food meal?
A: Throughout our history, African Americans have made red drinks the beverage of choice for social occasions, especially big communal gatherings. There are some popular red drinks in West Africa such as bissap (known as hibiscus tea and agua de Jamaica in the U.S.), and some in the United States such as red lemonade and red soda pop. In present times, it’s hard to imagine a soul food meal without a red drink, whether it be a powdered drink, a punch, or a carbonated beverage. Walk into any soul food joint or fast food place with a primarily black clientele and you’re going to get offered a red drink. I know this is controversial, but I think that red Kool-Aid is soul food’s official drink.
Q: Soul Food dispels a number of myths. What one fact do you most hope readers will take away from the book?
A: After reading my book, the reader should have a deeper appreciation for soul food’s complexity and a deeper understanding of what soul food actually is. Soul food has its unhealthy aspects, but so do most cuisines. The deep-fried delights, the rich repasts, and the sugary triumphs fall in line with the time-immemorial tendency to show off one’s best dishes to those outside one’s group. That celebration food is not meant to be the sum of the cuisine. Soul food has a strong tradition of making delectable dishes featuring vegetables and unprocessed ingredients. In fact, many of the celebrated and faddish “superfoods” that are good for your body—dark, leafy green vegetables and sweet potatoes, for example—have been soul food staples for centuries. This is the exact opposite of the current conventional wisdom on soul food.
Q: Are you optimistic about soul food’s future—both among home cooks and as a chef-driven cuisine?
A: I am optimistic! There’s so much interest in food now. I know a lot of people who are into watching cooking shows on television even though they will never actually cook. What’s gratifying is that more and more people are in search of and eager to explore bizarre foods, comfort foods, healthy foods, regional foods, unusual foods, and vintage foods. Soul food has all of those elements! I think this interest will move people to cooking instead of just watching TV and visiting a restaurant. The irony is that unless soul food’s stigma can be mitigated, culinary adventurers of all types may end up discovering more about what soul food has to offer than African Americans.