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A Brief History of Soul Food

May 17th, 2021

If there’s anywhere to find soul food in the South, it’s right here in Atlanta! 

Soul food is so much more than tasty dishes and nostalgic meals. It’s a cuisine extremely rich in culture, history and tradition from the many different peoples who contributed to it, and it’s always evolving to something new.

Here’s a brief history of soul food in the South, as well as some of the staple foods that have built the soul food cuisine we know today. 

A brief history of soul food

Before we get into the ingredients and specifics of the dishes we associate with soul food today, it’s important that we understand the complex history behind both the name and the cuisine. 

It’s important to note that while soul food is Southern, not all Southern food is necessarily soul food. The terms are often used interchangeably, but there are fundamental differences between some Southern foods and soul foods that have a great deal to do with tradition, culture and history. 

Soul food is a cuisine that’s been a part of traditional African-American culture in the Southern United States since the 17th century. The cuisine has evolved over the years, as many cuisines do, but the dishes and recipes today reflect much of the history and changes in both the South and in African-American cultures. 

Let’s take it back to the beginning, or at least as far back as the 17th century American South.

During the period of slavery in the United States from 1619-1865, most of what Africans and African-Americans ate was regulated by the plantation owners. It usually amounted to a bag of starch (such as rice, sweet potatoes or cornmeal), some meat and a small amount of molasses distributed to each slave once a week. That was it. No veggies, no dairy and no fruit. 

Any other food had to be foraged, collected or grown by slaves themselves. This is where the early soul food cuisine was influenced by a wide variety of cultures, such as Indigenous American, European and especially African. 

Indigenous Americans had been cooking with corn for centuries already, and the versatile grain was quickly implemented into many traditional soul food recipes such as cornbread, grits, fritters and breaded fish. Poor Europeans in the U.S. had brought with them their farming practices and homesteading crops. And, of course, Africans had brought vegetables like okra, peppers, sorghum and black-eyed peas with them from West Africa, too.

It was during the Reconstruction Era (approximately 1865-1910) that soul food evolved from simply a diet to a more cultural phenomenon. African-American churches were where food became an integral part of celebrations and gatherings, as the community would come together over delicious dishes to reconnect with each other after a long week’s work. These gatherings were immensely important to African-American communities in the South, and the dishes served became a celebratory symbol of the community, too.

As African-Americans moved North during the Great Migration, soul food dishes became heavily influenced by other immigrant cultures. This was mainly due to the fact that cities were so heavily segregated that many, if not all, non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants lived together in a separate portion of the city in close proximity to each other. It was here that African-American cuisine adopted elements from Italian, Chinese and Latin-American cuisines, such as spaghetti, fried rice, pizza, chili, macaroni and more. 

It was only in the 1960s that the term “soul food” was first coined to reference the traditional African-American cuisine that originated in the South. The Civil Rights Movement illuminated the immense legacy that the African-American cuisine had made on Southern culinary traditions, and “soul food” was a mark of the traditional culture that had become such an integral part of so many Southern kitchens. 

Soul food is a type of cuisine where the dishes are all made differently depending on what state, what county or even what family one lives in. The cuisine has evolved to encompass everything from original recipes to vegan varieties to heart-healthy dishes and more, but the versatility of the ingredients and the visual representation of so many languages, cultures and origins on a single plate is what really keeps the soul in soul food. 

Common soul food ingredients

Although recipes differ from region to region and family to family, there are a few common ingredients that are foundational to the soul food cuisine.


The most common forms of rice available today were never grown in the Western Hemisphere up until the 17th century. The grain was brought over on the ships from West African nations, where rice was already a staple in many dishes, and grown by slaves to supplement the meager diet provided to them. 

Today, we can see similarities between the South’s jambalaya and similar dishes from Ghana and Senegal.


Okra is an incredibly versatile plant with deep roots (literally and figuratively) in East Africa. In addition to serving as a fibrous vegetable, okra can be used as a soup thickener, a coffee substitute and even as rope! 


West Africa is a haven for growing edible leafy green plants, and so it’s no wonder that we see similar forms of boiled greens in a wide variety of Caribbean and Southern American cooking. Here in the U.S., collard greens are the greens of choice, and they are usually cooked with pork to add flavor to the dish. 


The pork industry was a massive part of the economy in the Antebellum-Era South. Those who were enslaved would often receive the leftover cuts of meat, such as the head, feet, ribs or organs, and would season the meat with peppers, spices and fresh herbs to make the less-than-flavorsome meat into a tasty dish. These spice combinations became the basis of the barbeque sauce recipes we have today.

If you live in our luxury Atlanta apartments, then this is your sign to find a local soul food restaurant and give these dishes a try! Experience centuries’ worth of history and culture in each bite as you enjoy the delicious flavors and wide variety of soul food dishes here in the heart of the South.


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Features photo courtesy Pixabay/laineypics

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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