Where does Southern food come from?
Who gets the ultimate credit for fried okra, red beans and rice, gumbo, and the New Year’s Eve staple, black-eyed peas?
Southern staples such as rice, okra, collard greens, black-eyed peas, peanuts and even watermelon all have their roots in Africa, according to Coastal Carolina University anthropology professor Gillian Richards-Greaves.
Slave traders dealt in more than just slaves, and Richards-Greaves said the traders would bring over seeds along with slaves from Africa.
Never miss a local story.
“Some of the seeds were brought with them, but more importantly, the ways of preparing those foods were brought with them,” she said.
For example, collard greens can be found in both soul food restaurants and African restaurants. At Myrtle Beach’s Redi-Et Ethiopian Cuisine, a dish known as Gomen consists of collards cooked down with onion, garlic, and ginger and served on a flat bread called Injera.
A Jamaican dish known as rice and peas doesn’t use beans at all. Instead, it’s rice and red beans.
“In fact, a lot of what we call southern food is basically foods that slaves sort of created in the new world,” said Richards-Greaves.
Okra, another African import, is a key ingredient to gumbo. And the “one-pot” stewing method is consistent with the way slaves with limited supplies prepared their food.
“In the past where you have people working out in the fields, you have a limited amount of time to prepare food; you have a limited amount of resources, utensils with which you’re going to cook,” she said. “That would have influenced these one-pot meals that they prepare. They don’t have time to do a big spread and spend all day doing that.”
Those foods that were prepared by slaves have been passed down to create what’s known today as Southern food, or soul food to some.
“The oral tradition is very big in the African and African-American community,” said Richards-Greaves. “But more importantly, when it pertains to cooking, it’s just by doing it. Most of us would spend time in the kitchen learning, We’re peeling something, we’re grating, somebody’s asking us to taste the pot, to stir it. We’re watching, we’re helping, then we’re doing. That’s a big part of how it’s passed down.”
Because the types of foods that were often prepared by slaves were made up of cheaper ingredients, the same kind of food was often consumed by poor whites living alongside slaves, and after emancipation, freedmen.
In fact, the social construct of race may be what separates soul food from Southern food.
“There’s a lot of overlap because African-Americans would say “Soul food is what’s Southern,’” said Richards-Greaves. “Soul food is their thing. And then other people take it and make it a regional thing, Southern food. You could look at the other way. A lot of what is considered to be Southern food is what they regard as soul food, and is their creation as well.”
Richards-Greaves said she would like the tradition of soul food to continue, but with a caveat.
“I believe culture is important, but I hope that one of the drives is not just to protect what African-Americans have created, but to protect our lives,” she said. “So we find healthier ways to prepare these delicious meals that do not kill us in the long run. So maybe more baking, different seasonings, different methods of cooking it to really ensure that we can cut down on the high amount of sugars and decrease our cholesterol levels an specifically that we can reduce the instance of diabetes in our communities.”