Photography by Philip Pietri

A brief history on the iconic cuisine and an inside look at a local spot serving  up some favorite soul food dishes

Soul food is a term that has come to be associated with Southern foods cooked and prepared in the ethnic traditions of African American families. Because of the impact and success of the ’90s releases of hip-hop album Soul Food by Goodie Mob and the movie Soul Food, the phrase made its way to American Pop Culture. 

However, the phrase soul food seemed to first gain traction in African American culture during the 1960s. With the vibrant changes occurring in the ’60s from the Vietnam War — legislative changes in education, voting, and civil rights — the terminology of “soul” became pervasive throughout the African American community. It applied to several areas of the African American culture whether it be music, fashion, and even our food. Yet, to find the true roots of soul food, one must go back 400-plus years to the coast of West Africa. 

The year 2019 marks a unique moment in American/African American history, for it was 400 years ago (1619) that the first African slave set foot on American soil. This is important in the conversation about soul food because many of the staple foods featured in soul food were not even present in the New World at that point. As Africans were brought to the New World and the African Diaspora was expanded to the West Indies and the 13 British Colonies, so came foods like rice, okra, yams, and legumes (or black-eyed peas): three staple items found in soul food today. The slave traders would bring the items into the ship to keep the captured slaves alive throughout the voyage through the middle passage. Some slaves would hide seeds of plants in their hair to plant when they landed in a strange new land to have a sense of home. Outside of these three staples mentioned, there are many more foods that are indigenous to West Africa. Not only did the Africans bring with them some of their foods, but also the processes in which some soul foods are cooked, such as the boiling of leafy greens, the seasoning of meats, etc. The use of okra to thicken the broth of a soup or to create gumbo is a technique influenced by the Bantu tribes of Southern Africa. 

“It is the type of food that has the power to impact us on a level deeper than just our physical well-being. We will always have a connection to our roots through preparing and eating these types of meals, which makes it so unique.” 

– Shay Marsh

Once the African slaves were placed on various plantations throughout the land, they were subjected to harsh conditions and given only the leftovers and “less desirable” cuts of meat, while slave owners ate the finer cuts. These were not only less appealing, but they were also low on nutrients. However, through the creative and ingenious human spirit, they produced meals that are still prepared today. Among these foods are: chitterlings, fried chicken (wings specifically at that time), ribs (African slaves developed many of the techniques used to cure meat to this day), oxtails, gumbo, jambalaya (and other rice dishes), collard greens with smoked meats, and black-eyed peas with okra.

Soul food is to American cuisine as gospel, blues, jazz, rock and roll, R&B, funk, and hip hop is to American popular music. As seen throughout American history, African Americans creatively took what was meant to be cruel and created a unique expression of culture that has further advanced the greater American experience. As quoted from The Humble History of Soul Food, soul food is a “food genre, now associated with comfort … was born out of struggle and survival.” As African Americans, we are grateful for their resilient and creative spirit that was displayed before us, for it still drives us today. 

The Lakelander took time to catch up with one of Lakeland’s soul food chefs/connoisseurs to get their take on the soul food scene today.

Q&A WITH SHAY MARSH, CHEF AT THE KITCHEN

The Lakelander: What is your favorite childhood memory about soul food?

Shay Marsh: I’d have to say spending quality time with my family. Enjoying a good home-cooked, Southern meal every Sunday brought us all together.

TL: What motivated you to prepare and offer soul food at your restaurant?

SM: The joy that I feel in my soul when I get feedback on how much someone enjoyed my cooking gives me so much inspiration. 

TL: What mood are you in when you prepare food?

SM: I am in a zone of my own that no one can take me out of when I’m cooking for others.             

TL: How do you define soul food?

SM: Soul food to me is a good Southern meal that makes you forget about your worries and think of the good things in life. It’s about tradition and African American culture.

TL: What makes soul food unique?

SM: Soul food is unique for many different reasons because there are so many traditional recipes in which a lot of us still follow and enjoy. It is the type of food that has the power to impact us on a level deeper than just our physical well-being. We will always have a connection to our roots through preparing and eating these types of meals, which makes it so unique.

 

As seen throughout American history, African Americans creatively took what was meant to be cruel and created a unique expression of culture that has further advanced the greater American experience.

 TL: Why is soul food so popular?

SM: Because there’s so much love behind these types of dishes. When consuming, it takes you back to a place in your life where the good memories will forever live on. You can taste the love and passion behind a good Soul Food meal.       

The Kitchen  |  836 West Main Street, Lakeland, FL 33815  |  863.308.4686

TL: What do you believe makes a good recipe?

SM: I’d say a complicated one for myself, only because I love to be challenged in the kitchen.

TL: What is your best-selling / most-popular soul food item?

SM: Smothered pork chop is our number-one seller.

TL: What should guests expect when they visit your establishment?

SM: Our guests should expect to receive authentic Southern food made with love. Quality and great service is always our number-one priority.