I get amused sometimes as I watch the “traveling cooks” on TV interviewing local commercial cooks around the country in their restaurant kitchens. A LOT of folks think this dish or that originated in their area or was invented by their granddad or some other local individual. No doubt they believe it, but dozens of other folks from other places often make claims just as valid, or invalid, as theirs. The one I find most amusing is how glibly some black folks call certain foods “soul food” and act like blacks invented it. And, of course, the white, liberal, politically correct hosts nod their heads in either solemn agreement or downright awe. Now don’t get me wrong, blacks HAVE had an influence on American cuisine, especially southern cuisine, just not quite as much as they think.
A LOT of what is thought of as soul food is really just poor people’s food. Let’s start at the beginning. Back when folks lived in caves and mud huts, they didn’t eat so regular. As a result, they ate nearly every part of any animal, including brains, tongues, feet, tails and internal and even sexual organs. It wasn’t much different with the Native Americans or Eskimos when the Europeans arrived. It’s STILL that way with most people who live primitive lifestyles anywhere in the world.
Europeans were no different back then; many aren’t even today. In the old days, though, the royalty got the “good” meat from any wild game the hunters killed, and the ones who actually killed the game got only the “humbles,” another name for guts. From that situation, we get the expression “eating humble pie,” a saying most young folks have never heard. Incidentally, back then, a pie was a meat dish, not a fruit dish. Interestingly enough, organ meats are often richer in nutrients than muscle meat. So the poor man and his family may actually have been healthier than the royalty, IF they got an adequate volume of such food.
When the Europeans came to America, they not only found a native people still eating every part of the animals they hunted, they also found them eating fruits and vegetables that they’d never seen before. Among them were avocados, peppers, corn, papayas, peanuts, pineapples, potatoes, tomatoes, sunflowers, squash, wild rice, pumpkins, and cranberries, but there were many more. These foods were often prepared by whites in a manner very similar to the way the “Indians” used them, but gradually, some variations crept in.
When African slaves were imported to this country, they were usually given the scraps and left-overs from the tables of their owner’s. This included both meat and vegetables. Note the similarity to the Europeans eating of humbles; in fact, they got the exact same parts as their European predecessors, just from different animals, perhaps. They DID cook things a bit differently than the Europeans, usually making their dishes spicier when they could. They also added more greens to their diets than many whites were used to eating, which made the diets of the whites healthier, too, when they used black cooks. In addition, the slaves brought black eyed peas (though the Indians had various types of beans also), okra, watermelon, sesame seeds, millet and probably a few other things.
Except for the foods just mentioned, black cooking was more about combinations and seasonings than ingredients. Unknown to many modern blacks, most poor whites in both the north and south ate very nearly the same foods as their own ancestors did. Poor is poor, no matter what color your skin may be. The rich, like the royalty of old, or the slave masters, usually got the best parts of slaughtered animals, the poor got what they could beg or afford to buy. Even when I was a kid, many families that I knew (all white) ate a lot of cornbread and beans, wild and domestic greens, ox-tails, pig’s feet, soups, and vegetables that they could grow themselves, including watermelon. Those who raised a pig also ate chittlins (intestines), cracklins (connective tissue cooked out of the fat when making lard) and “pork rinds” (deep-fried skin). Some even ate the “mountain oysters” from the males.
I remembered two things while writing this. The first was the surprise of a black coworker years ago when he learned that my ancestors ate almost exactly like his. The other was the delight on the face of my beloved (and prim and proper) great aunt when I’d take her a jar of pickled pig’s feet! The bottom line is this—unless they choose to deliberately make themselves different, poor folks is poor folks pretty-much all over, both then and now. © 2016