Have you ever watched Chopped? It’s a popular cooking competition that airs on Food Network, featuring fast-paced rounds in which four chefs are eliminated after preparing full courses using ingredients from mystery baskets. The show has been a runaway success with several spin-offs and a huge influence on the proliferation of cooking shows that now dominate the channel.
One particular episode has always stood out in my mind: of the four contestants, one was a white woman in her mid-forties, a single mother of a teenage boy.
She had a twangy accent so thick it would make the Dixie Chicks proud, and she described her food as “down home Southern cooking” as she plowed through the appetizer and entrée portions, making black-eyed peas and chitterlings. The judges were wowed by her talents and charmed by her personality, though she ultimately lost.
She immediately reminded me of Paula Deen, the Food Network phenomenon that put too much butter in everything, made the same biscuits your grandmother did and came under fire for racist remarks, admittedly using the n-word and dressing black waiters to look like slaves at a wedding.
At the time, the Deen situation was a curious case, as she was a white woman making what many black Americans thought of as “soul food”: dishes and cooking styles that originated from traditional African cuisine, grown out of American chattel slavery and heavily influenced by the culture of Southern blacks.
How could someone cook these kinds of foods yet have such disdain for black people? But as time has gone on – the Paula Deen incident occurred almost four years ago – in an increasingly tumultuous racial climate, the erasure of African-Americans’ contributions to Southern cuisine has become more and more apparent.
Collard greens. Kale. Sweet potatoes. Even pork rinds, which have become sea salted pork rind chips. These are foods long considered black American “soul food,” a moniker believed to have originated in the 1960s and ’70s when the term “soul” became a catch-all phrase for African American culture. These ingredients and meals are receiving a curious rebranding in recent years as simple “Southern staples.”
Dishes like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, breaded fried okra and cornbread were once thought of as “lower-class” due to their association with blackness, and the fact that they were high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol.
While previously relegated to food ghettoes, they are now becoming more and more associated with genteel Southern sensibility, a fine sheen of polish as they turn up on hipster wedding menus and in trendy American restaurants.
Whereas before you had to find a barbecue spot or fried fish joint to find certain menu items unless you lived below the Mason-Dixon line, dishes heavily influenced soul food by are now popping up on menus everywhere. (The fusion of vegan dishes with comfort food to create “vegan soul food” has become an especially hot trend.)
Rather, they journeyed over on slave ships during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when slavers were sure to include foods that they knew their “cargo” would eat. Many of these crops – and others, like peanuts and rice – were later grown on plantations as a way of ensuring slaves remained strong and healthy.
As enslaved African people continued preparing dishes they would’ve eaten in their homelands had they not been abducted, passing recipes down while also inventing new ones, a rich culinary tradition was born for African-Americans.
And, as black people worked in the homes of whites – initially as house slaves and later as domestics such as maids, cooks and caterers – these same dishes found their way onto the plates (and palates) of Southern white Americans, becoming a foundational component of what we now call “Southern” cuisine.
Some wonder if “soul food” versus “Southern food” is mere semantics. They believe that soul food is Southern food; the main difference being that the more casual label of “soul” is often utilized for black chefs, as opposed to “Southern” for whites.
However, because these meals all rely on staple ingredients that were brought over from Africa and then introduced into the South, it’s clear that racialized and coded language has made the distinction an important one – one that leads to high-profile celebrity cooking gigs in restaurants and on cooking shows like Chopped for white chefs, while black chefs are relegated to the back of soul food restaurants, if they end up in restaurants at all.
African-Americans remain highly underrepresented in the culinary industry. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, about 60 percent of chefs or head cooks are white, while only roughly nine per cent are black.
And even as the number of minorities enrolled in culinary schools rises – there was a three per cent increase in black chefs and head cooks from 2012 to 2013, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics – the number of employed black chefs hasn’t risen at the same rate.
When PBS ran a story expanding on the Chicago Tribune’s question, “Where Are All The Black Chefs?”, it found that negative views of African-American cooks; typecasting (one celebrity chef lamented how she chose to leave her cooking show after she was asked to be more “sassy”); and lack of mentorship, opportunities and exposure to be some of the main issues affecting black people in the kitchen.
Even on Chopped there is a dearth of black contestants and viewers themselves have noticed that coded language is used when discussing chefs of color or of various genders.
When the Paula Deen story broke, many black American chefs spoke out about how she was a disgrace to Southern culture, with some explicitly pointing out how, as black chefs, they are held back by racist beliefs that their cooking is “untrained,” “low class” and high in saturated fats, while white Southern chefs creating the same types of food are seen as more professional, talented and well-respected; creating “comfort food” that appeals to the masses.
Soul food, like so many other aspects of African-American culture, appears to be infinitely more marketable when stripped of any overt association with blackness.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Musical genres like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll were created by black people initially thought of as working class, unskilled, sinful and even satanic by the mostly white mainstream, yet the style was later co-opted by white people with little to no recognition of the pioneers that made it all possible.
Elvis Presley was crowned “the king of rock ‘n’ roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe – the gospel singer-turned-nightclub chanteuse whose spirited wailing and guitar riffs served as inspiration for everyone from Chuck Berry to Presley himself – was hardly mentioned. It has historically been big business to rebrand and sell certain aspects of black culture without the peskiness of actual black bodies behind it.
The gentrification of food has been a hot topic in recent years, as many “ethnic” foods are “discovered” by well-meaning foodies – often white – who then raise the price of these meals until the original purveyors and consumers can no longer afford to eat them. This happens across racial lines and is often driven by the fetishization of “the Other,” or an urge to view and sample “exotic” cultures.
This leads to foods from other cultures being reduced to “hip” and “trendy” experiences to try out. The gentrification of food is also closely tied to the physical gentrification of neighborhoods, as high-income people move into lower-income neighborhoods where “trendy” local dishes are being produced.
There is a cruel irony here, as the bulk of low-income communities in the United States are comprised of African-American, with many living in “food deserts” that have few grocery stores or farmers markets and give limited access to fresh fruits or vegetables. The proliferation of high-sodium ingredients and saturated fats in “soul” food, for example, often stems from this centuries-old lack of access to healthy ingredients.
During the time of slavery in the U.S., slaves often had to make do with the scraps from their master’s kitchens in addition to the crops brought from Africa to sustain them, leading to the creation of dishes like chitlins, made from pig intestines, as well as eating pig snouts, neck bones, and fatback – all considered the poorest cuts of the meat.
One food blogger has theorized that a key difference between “Southern” food and “soul” food is that Southern food tends to use the more expensive cuts of meat, harkening back to a time when white masters had access to the best ingredients. White Southern chefs made the same type of dishes as black soul food chefs but with better ingredients, thereby driving up the value of the food.
So, what can be done? Like with so many other clashes about ownership and identity, it can seem futile and downright Sisyphean to constantly quibble over the origins of various “Things That Are Popular Right Now.”
However, it is imperative for foodies and cultural critics alike to recognize the origins of “soul” food and the systemic way that black soul food chefs are sidelined and discredited. If we don’t, white Southern cooks will continue to end up on Chopped while Black chefs languish on the chopping block.
For more social commentary, check out why the post-Soviet trend might need rethinking.
- Words: Eboni Harris
- Lead image: Food Network