With its roots in slavery, soul food has deep historical meaning for many African-Americans. But the call to honor a rich heritage is at odds with the need to reduce the excess fat and sugar found in the standard “down-home” diet. A new generation of black chefs and nutritionists has learned how to do just that—while keeping that rich, deeply satisfying flavor.
For much of his life, Lindsey Williams was caught in a familiar cycle of weight gains and losses. The grandson of Sylvia Woods, the Harlem soul food restaurateur, Williams weighed 250 pounds at age 13. He lost weight twice before ballooning to 300 pounds by 18. “I ate over anxiety. I ate over depression. I ate over excitement. I ate over joy. I ate over everything,” Williams recalls. “I loved the mac and cheese, and the yams. Yams were my favorite because they were very sweet.”
Williams broke the dangerous pattern when he began to dissociate food from his emotions and treat his obesity like an addiction. After tipping the scale at his peak weight of 400 pounds about 10 years ago, Williams swore off the ingredients that were most alluring in his obesity: flour, sugar, and the saturated grease that coagulates them. He ate more protein and downsized his portions. Now 42, Williams has largely maintained a healthier 190 pounds for much of the past decade.
Williams’ recovery from obesity coincided with his efforts to put a healthy spin on his grandmother’s lucrative soul food specialty. With the expertise he gleaned from growing up in Grandma Sylvia’s kitchen, Williams started a catering service offering nourishing soul food renditions and wrote the recipe book Neo Soul: Taking Soul Food to a Whole ’Nutha Level (Avery).
With its ham hocks, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato pie, soul food has helped put countless people on the fast track to heart disease. But Williams is part of a growing culinary movement swapping out soul food’s fat, cholesterol, sodium and excess sugar for healthy ingredients, all while recognizing soul food—which rose from slavery—as an important link in black history.
‘Badge of Honor’
“Soul food is a badge of honor, and I wear it,” says Roniece A. Weaver, MS, RD, LD, executive director of Hebni (pronounced “ebony”) Nutrition Consultants in Orlando, Florida. “I’ve really grown tired of soul food getting such a bad rap. But as a registered dietician, and an African-American one at that, I’m trying to teach people to eat soul food in a heart-healthy way.”
The term “soul food” was coined as black pride surfaced during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. That connection, plus the diet’s firm historical roots in slavery—when the food was known more generically as “country” or “down- home” cooking—help explain the African-American reluctance to shed the diet entirely. Soul food symbolizes the fortitude of blacks who toiled on the plantations. “Collard greens, turnip greens, ham hocks and chitlins were things our forefathers ate because they picked cotton and worked in the fields all day long,” says Weaver, co-author of The Family Style Soul Food Diabetes Cookbook (American Diabetes Association). “Food had to hold you all day long. Salad wasn’t going to. You needed high-calorie foods for energy to carry you through the day.”
Lard and pork were widely used, as the meaty hogs were plentiful. But the best cuts went to the slave owners. Plantation owners and their families fed on ribs and roasts, and slaves were tossed leftovers: hog ears, snouts, neck bones and feet; “chitlins” is short for chitterlings, or the small intestines.
Similarly, slave owners kept turnip roots, leaving the turnip greens for the slaves. To cope with the limited supplies, slaves relied on their ingenuity, says Wilbert Jones, author of The New Soul Food Cookbook: Healthier Recipes for Traditional Favorites (Citadel Press). “Simple ingredients were put to service in creating wonderfully complex flavors,” Jones says, adding that slaves created new tastes by combining the bitter and the bland, mixing turnip greens, mustard greens and spinach.
By many accounts, the slaves readily adapted to vegetables like turnip greens because they were similar to greens in the heavily vegetarian West African diet to which they had been accustomed.
Other vegetables and legumes with African roots crossed the Atlantic and influence soul food and Southern cooking to this day. Among these are okra, black-eyed peas and red peas. The high-antioxidant grain sorghum is also rooted in Africa. Chow-chow, a spicy, homemade pickle relish made with okra, corn, cabbage, green tomatoes and other vegetables, is used today to top black-eyed peas or as a condiment or side dish.
Other vegetables were more common on the plantations. Because cymlings, or pattypan squash, are hard to come by, an updated recipe for okra gumbo served at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home suggests substitutions of mature yellow crookneck squash and yellow zucchini. The recipe appears in Dining at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson Foundation), edited by Southern cuisine expert Damon Lee Fowler.
“The traditional African diet and African-American diet are essentially vegetarian, certainly a majority vegetarian,” says food historian Jessica Harris. “A lot of the issues that are accumulating around soul food…were related to enslavement and emancipation. When you have not had enough meat, you may err on the other side when freed. What had once been a flavoring piece of meat had become the whole ham.”
George Washington Carver, the botanist, took issue with the pork fat in the diets of black sharecroppers. He offered recipes with dandelion leaves, alfalfa and other flowers and greens, teaching the sharecroppers how to replenish their soil.
Early evidence that animal fat flowed freely in the day can be found in What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (Applewood Books). Published in 1881, the book is believed to be the first African-American cookbook. Its author, Abby Fisher, a former slave, dictated the book because educating slaves was prohibited. Her recipes for biscuits, chicken croquettes and apple rolls, among others, employ lard, while chopped ham makes its way into her stuffed tomatoes and eggplant.
Mrs. Fisher’s naturalist belief in the health benefits of the garden’s yield is also evident among her 160 recipes. Included in her remedies is cinnamon, which contains manganese, iron, calcium and fiber, for diarrhea. She employed flavonoid-rich blackberries for dysentery in children. And she used cardamom seed in a “tonic bitters” recipe she called a “Southern remedy for invalids.” Although the ingredients are not proven for the ailments Mrs. Fisher cited, modern natural health books point to them frequently for other benefits.
George Washington Carver, the botanist, took issue with the pork fat in the diets of black sharecroppers. He offered recipes with dandelion leaves, alfalfa and other flowers and greens, teaching the sharecroppers how to replenish their soil, according to The African American Heritage Cookbook (Citadel Press) by Carolyn Quick Tillery.
Swapping Out the Unhealthy
Today, nutritionists and health advocates are picking up Carver’s baton. Weaver and her co-authors of The Family Style Soul Food Diabetes Cookbook propose using smoked turkey instead of ham, low-sodium bouillon for bacon fat drippings and grilled or sautéed, rather than deep fried, catfish. The cookbook suggests reserving some dishes for which substitutions are near impossible—like chitlins—for holidays and special events; portions should be less than 3 ounces.
Hot sauce, because it is a soul food staple like the chow-chow pickle relish, is an existing remedy to African-American obesity. Family Style Soul Food recommends the flavorful condiment—made from cayenne peppers, vinegar, salt, garlic and other spices—as a healthy alternative to fat-based flavorings.
Williams, the Neo Soul author and caterer, sautés collard greens in olive oil and garlic for his health-conscious clients. “The conventional way to prepare them is to boil them in turkey stock for a long time, but you lose the nutrients in the vegetables,” he says.
Not all foods so conveniently lend themselves to good health or have viable substitutes. Williams says macaroni and cheese is the most challenging soul food to accommodate good health and taste. Because the dish has so few ingredients, he says, healthy substitutions are fairly obvious to the taste buds.
Weaver says that weaning black Americans off salt—a seemingly inescapable staple ever since its heavy use during slavery to preserve foods—would go a long way to bridge good health and taste.
“We’ve lost the flavor of our foods,” Weaver says. “If we learn how to season and marinate with lime juice and oranges and different herbs and spices, we could really appreciate what grilled salmon or tilapia tastes like as opposed to dressing it in corn meal and a lot of salt, then throwing it in hot grease to be fried.”
To replace salt, Jones, the New Soul Food author, developed a seasoning of garlic, onion, thyme and dark chili powder with cayenne pepper, paprika and black pepper for vegetables, fish, meat and poultry.
Weaver recommends oregano, thyme, cilantro and mint as a salt replacement. She encourages people to grow herb gardens. “You have to re-educate your tongue to appreciate the good flavor of soul food,” she says. “The same thing with sugar—we love our sweet foods, our sweet tea.
Sometimes our sweet tea is sweeter than the pound cake.”
Rani Whitfield, MD, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, known as the Hip Hop Doc for his health-themed songs in appearances at schools, says the stakes are too high not to change. “This is the first generation of young people in general, but African-Americans especially, that could face a decrease in life expectancy because they are making unhealthy choices,” Whitfield says.
Carver’s botany lab, Whitfield’s practice and the kitchens of neo-soul chefs and nutritionists like Jones, Williams and Weaver have proven it is possible to eat well, savor mouth-watering food and embrace a cultural staple of a painful but defining chapter in a people’s history—and do it all with soul.