Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Soul power

Shannon Adams-Hartung
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Cooking fried supper for a benefit picnic supper on the grounds of St. Thomas' Church, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, August 7, 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Black & White Negatives Collection, LC-USF33-030967-M4.
Cooking fried supper for a benefit picnic supper on the grounds of St. Thomas’ Church, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, August 7, 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Black & White Negatives Collection, LC-USF33-030967-M4.

Soul food has deep historical, cultural, and economic roots in the African American community. Much of the cuisine affiliated with modern-day soul food dates back to the era of American slavery. Before the fourteenth century, the African diet was primarily vegetarian. Meat was used sparingly in comparison to various grains, rice, millets, nuts, and seeds.1 The Middle Passage changed that. Africans were tightly packed onto ships and fed very little, leading to widespread malnutrition and death from nutrient-related ailments such as scurvy and rickets.2 Many who survived the journey to North America managed to bring tribal seeds and roots such as watermelon seeds, yams, sweet potatoes, and okra, and introduced them to the American South.3 However much of the diet of enslaved persons consisted of foods native to their new home, particularly meats and carbohydrates. Enslaved persons often fused traditional African cooking styles with these foreign, American provisions. For example, millet porridge—a staple in many West African communities—was easily transferred to Native American chickahominy.4

Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, food became a central element in African American life; “a vehicle for self-expression and independence from the dominance of the plantation owners.”5 Culinary decisions were often the only ones that black people could make, thus they became artists with the raw materials for gastronomic creativity.6 Some enslaved persons had private gardens from which they could sell produce for monetary gain or personal nutrition. Knowledge of certain agricultural practices possessed by enslaved Africans was sought after and implemented by slaveholders: for example, growing rice.7 Strong cooking skills elevated the social status of individual in comparison to their fellow fieldhands. These enslaved persons had the opportunity to become cooks in the main house, eating better meals while being perceived in a more positive light by the master and his family.8 Some black cooks even gained notoriety. Thomas Jefferson took his chef James Hemmings to France to obtain a formal culinary education, providing him with the necessary skills to create recipes that are still considered influential in American cuisine.9

The significance of food, culture, and tradition during American slavery became one of the building blocks for the concept of “soul food” when it was introduced during the mid-twentieth century. As professor and historian of Southern and black history Charles Joyner said, food—and the new category of soul food—became a symbolic representation of black historical lineage. In light of social pressures toward assimilation and common misconceptions alluding to the absence of a distinct African American culture, middle-class blacks after World War II were “eager to assert their racial authenticity.”10 Dishes and recipes were therefore embraced as a part of the Black Power movement—specific pieces of African American culture tied to slave and African ancestry that could be celebrated. During the 1960s and 70s, as the Civil Rights Movement emerged, soul food restaurants and barbeques began to spring up in major cities, meant to help young people remember their past in the midst of a struggle for a better future.11

Although many soul food traditions have obvious historic ties, some items that are routinely categorized under this culinary subheading have a more complex backstory. Fried chicken is one such example. Although African tribes were primarily vegetarian, chickens were often the only livestock animals that enslaved persons were permitted to raise on their own.12 Frying and seasoning the heftier portions of a meal, namely the meat, was also in the best interest of enslaved persons as laborers not only for taste, but for biological and physiological necessity, as fatty foods provided sustenance and endurance for long days in the field.13 Other foods, while tied to slave culture, are soul food staples as the result of modern social and financial realities. Take for example chitterlings or chit’lins (pig intestines). As a slow-cooked meat, chit’lins could be left alone all day while enslaved persons were in the field, and then consumed in the evening hours.14 However, its prevalence in modern soul food is more closely tied to economic practicality. While the majority of pig was used and sold in the form of sausage, bacon, and ham, the intestines were often considered beneath white consumers. African Americans, who had historically been on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, could not afford to be discriminatory in terms of their nutrients; therefore, chit’lins and other low-cost foods and drinks such as Kool-Aid became chief components of the soul food diet.

The pervasiveness of soul food in African American households has given way to negative connotations and stereotyping in the broader community. Many of these items were dubbed “poor people’s food” in the latter twentieth century.15 Watermelons were a frequent source of ridicule throughout history, particularly in popular culture. In the late nineteenth century, Alden Fruit Vinegar trading cards displayed caricatures of blacks with “ugly, animal-like features” stealing chickens and eating watermelon.16 This idea has persisted into the new millennium; for example, in political opposition to President Barack Obama. In 2012, Kentucky resident Danny Hafley erected a mannequin statue of President Obama eating a watermelon because the statue “might get hungry out there.”17 In 2009, Dean Grose, Mayor of Los Alamitos, California resigned after sending an email with a picture of watermelons on the White House lawn with the caption “No Easter egg hunt this year.”18

Another important topic is the health impact on the African American community. Soul food tends to be meat-based and high in fat with fewer fruits and vegetables.19 Cooking styles further exacerbate this issue, with trans-fat oils and lards used to infuse fried chicken and other meats, and butter or margarine added to biscuits and pie crusts for flavor.20 But this trend has consequences. According to a study conducted in 2004, 60% of African American men and 78% of African American women are medically overweight. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for black Americans and 35% of African American adults have hypertension as the result of unhealthy lifestyles.21 While these trends are likely multifactorial, in 2009, the National Institutes of Health reported that minority soul food diets are etiologically linked to nutrition disparities and “higher incidence [of] morbidity and mortality rates” including “poorer survival [in the black community with] many diet-related chronic diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, [and] Type II diabetes.”22

Soul food is more than a dietary choice. In many African American families, churches, and communities, soul food is an essential part of life. Black people have consistently used food as a connection to the past and continue to eat certain dishes as a way to honor our ancestry and narrative as a people in the United States. While it has regularly been the target of negative racial stereotyping, and has clear connections to poor minority health, soul food continues to unite African Americans—in history, culture, and, more literally, in preparation, consumption, and fellowship.


  1. Covey, Herbert, and Dwight Eisnach. What the slaves ate: recollections of African American foods and foodways from the slave narratives. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009, 211.
  2. Covey and Eisnach, What the slaves ate, 211.
  3. Counihan, Carole and Penny Esterik. Food and culture: a reader. New York: Routledge, 1997, 272.
  4. Mitchell, William. African American food culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009, 7.
  5. Covey and Eisnach, What the slaves ate, 212.
  6. Mitchell, Patricia. Plantation Row slave cabin cooking: the roots of soul food. Chatham, VA: P.B. Mitchell, 1998, 14.
  7. Bower, Anne. African American foodways: explorations of history and culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 47.
  8. Bower, Foodways, 51.
  9. Bower, Foodways, 51.
  10. Witt, Doris. Black hunger: soul food and America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004, 6.
  11. Mitchell, Food culture, 73.
  12. Bering, Jesse. “Racist Food Stereotypes and the ‘Obama Fried Chicken’ Incident.” Slate Magazine. http://slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2011/11/obama_fried_chicken_incident_explaining_racist_food_stereotypes.html.
  13. Covey and Eisnach, What the slaves ate, 213.
  14. Bower, Foodways, 51.
  15. Douglas, Mary. Food in the social order: studies of food and festivities in three American communities; Vol. 9. 1973. Reprint, New York: Routlege, 2003, 115-116.
  16. Lemons, J. “Black Stereotypes as Reflected in Popular Culture, 1880-1920.” American Quarterly 29, no. 1. (1977): 104. http://jstor.org/stable/2712263?seq=3.
  17. Wing, Nick. “Danny Hafley, Kentucky Man, Defends Watermelon-Eating Obama Display.” Huffington Post. December 27, 2012. http://huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/27/danny-hafley-kentucky-obama_n_2372920.html.
  18. NBC News, “Mayor to quit over Obama Watermelon e-mail,” February 27, 2009. http://nbcnews.com/id/29423045/ns/us_news-life/#.UufTonn0Bcw.
  19. Mitchell, Food culture, 97.
  20. Mitchell, Food culture, 98.
  21. Mitchell, Food culture, 96.
  22. Satia, Jessie. “Diet-related disparities: understanding the problem and accelerating solutions.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109.4 (2009): 610.

SHANNON ADAMS-HARTUNG is a second-year pediatrics resident at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. She majored in global health and history as an undergraduate student and has a clinical and research interest in bioethics. She plans to pursue a career in neonatology and palliative care.

Winner of the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest

Winter 2023



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