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Soul Food: Origins of Soul Food

African American Cookery: History & Resources

Ingredients & foods

Black-eyed peas

picture of black-eyed peas

These are actually beans even though they are called peas.  They are of light-tan color with a black eye in the center.  Black-eyed peas are related to cow peas or field peas that are native to Africa.  Cows ate the stems and vines after the corn crops had been picked.  Tradition has it that eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day will bring good luck.



Chitlins Chitterlings or chitlins are an African American culinary tradition.  Chitterlings are the small intestines of a pig that must be cleaned very well before they are cooked.



Cracklin' Bread

Cracklin' breadCorn (maize) was ground into cornmeal for cornbread.  There are variations like hoecakes and hush puppies.  Cracklin' or crackling bread is a cornbread with bits of fried pork and fat.  It was common to use a skillet to make cornbread crispier.



Dish of kaleSome common greens in West Africa include okra and akatewa (a kind of spinach).  Other greens are collard, mustard, turnip, and kale.


African Okra

Okra is the main ingredient in Gumbo, a spicy stew or soup that is tradition in Louisiana. Other ingredients frequently used include vegetables mixed with chicken, pork, shrimp, or crawfish. The stew is thickened with okra or powder from sassafras leaves.  Gumbo and other types of Creole cuisine have its origins from the colonial era.  The cuisine is a blend of African, Native American, and European cuisine. The word "gumbo" comes from the African word for the vegetable okra, quingombo.


Picture of "Save Sugar" poster, U.S. Food AdministrationSlave families used molasses to sweeten food and beverages.  Blackstrap molasses, a very dark molasses, was a tradition in African American cooking.  It is made by slowly cooking the juice of sugar cane.  Sorghum syrup, similar to molasses, is also made by cooking the juice of the sorghum plant.  It is believed that the slaves brought sorghum seeds from Africa and grew it in the south.


PeanutsThe same as groundnuts in Africa.  The Portuguese brought peanuts to Africa.  Slaves used peanuts to make peanut pie and peanut soup.


Plate of riceAfricans from West Africa, a rice growing region, were brought to the south to work in the rice plantations of South Carolina.

Sweet Potatoes

Plate of sweet potatoesYams are not really sweet potatoes.  In the south, however, sweet potatoes are frequently referred to as Louisiana yams.  West African yams are actually tubers that are more similar to potatoes than sweet potatoes.


WatermelonWatermelon as we know it today was cultivated from the native African vine Citrullus lanatus.  It may be eaten as a dessert or used in recipes to make pickled watermelon rind or preserves.  The sweet juice of the watermelon may be boiled down to make a syrup.  In the deserts where watermelons grow, the juice is used as a substitute for water during droughts.

First known cookbook by an African American author

Photograph of book cover: "Domestic Cook Book for the Kitchen"








Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen

Published 1866 by Malinda Russell

Believed to be first work by an African American author devoted solely to cookery.

Books in Begley Library

Click cover to learn more
What the Slaves Ate book cover

What the Slaves Ate

The powerful, long-neglected testimony of former slaves places African American slave foods and foodways at the center of the complex social dynamics of the plantation South.

African American Food Culture book cover

African American Food Culture

The state of African American food culture today is illuminated in depth here for the first time, in the all-important context of understanding the West African origins of most African Americans of today.

African American Foodways book cover

African American Foodways

Ranging from seventeenth-century West African fare to contemporary fusion dishes using soul food ingredients, the essays in this book provide an introduction to many aspects of African American foodways and an antidote to popular misconceptions about soul food.

Hog and Hominy book cover

Hog and Hominy

Frederick Douglass Opie deconstructs and compares the foodways of people of African descent throughout the Americas, interprets the health legacies of black culinary traditions, and explains the concept of soul itself.

Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook book cover

Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook

Sylvia has gathered more than 125 soul food classics, including mouthwatering recipes for okra, collard greens, Southern-style pound cakes, hearty meat and seafood stews and casseroles, salads, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and more.

Vegan Soul Kitchen book cover

Vegan Soul Kitchen

Reinterpreting popular dishes from African and Caribbean countries as well as his favorite childhood dishes, Terry reinvents African-American and Southern cuisine--capitalizing on the complex flavors of the tradition, without the animal products.

Southern Food and Civil Rights book cover

Southern Food and Civil Rights

Author Fred Opie details the ways southern food nourished the fight for freedom, along with cherished recipes associated with the era.