Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Southern Soul Food Holiday Dishes Are an Important Cooking Tradition


“This year, we should do something different,” I said to my mother on the ride from the airport. I had just flown home to Houston to celebrate the holidays with my family after my first two years away at the University of Pennsylvania.

“What should be different?” my mother asked, slightly confused.

“I’m talking about what we will eat this year for the holidays. I was thinking perhaps…”

“No.”

And that was that.

Growing up Black in the South, just about every celebratory family meal consisted of the following menu, all cooked by my grandmother: marinated roasted turkey, glazed ham, collard greens with smoked ham hock, baked macaroni and cheese, candied yams, dressing (not stuffing, a big difference), black-eyed peas (also with some smoked meat for flavoring), sweet-potato pies (never pumpkin), and buttery cornbread made with the Jiffy brand mix, of course. It was all incredibly delicious, but suddenly, to a newly college-educated me, it all felt underwhelming and routine.

Making the move from Houston to Philly for school changed more than my winter wear; it exposed me to all sorts of new regional and cultural influences, which were, in turn, shaping my journey into adulthood. I was feeling rebellious and progressive in all aspects of my life — I now donned a frohawk, had come out as queer, was exploring vegan cuisine, and was very vocal about disrupting the status quo. I was a 20-something.

How, I wondered then, does one go from having tried Japanese omakase and Ethiopian injera as an undergrad to eating the same standard soul-food meal three times over the course of the month or so between Thanksgiving and the New Year?

I also thought changing up our foods would be good for us. Years of watching holiday cooking specials on Good Morning America and the Today show inspired me to consider healthy “hacks,” such as roasted squash instead of candied yams, creamed spinach over baked mac and cheese, and cauliflower mash in lieu of potatoes, to cut carbs. I had read so much about the health disparities in the Black community and how eating traditional soul-food dishes, typically recipes that were high in calories, sodium, and fat, led to an increased risk of stroke and death. I had heard stories of how these meals were considered “slave food” (years later, they would be mocked as “low vibrational” plates by social-media influencers).

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So there I was, at 21 years old, trying to mix up the tried-and-true family menu. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that these excuses I gave myself for wanting to “upgrade” our holiday feast — to abandon my grandmother’s cherished recipes for the sake of health or experimentation — were actually a symptom of the internalized racism I’d absorbed my whole life. A racism that had burrowed itself even deeper after a few months spent at a majority-white Ivy League school. The problem, it turns out, wasn’t the food — it was me.

Before the social-justice uprisings of 2020 forced many white Americans to reconsider the ways in which they perpetuated institutional racism, there were a number of normalized racist tropes that were still being taught to the general public, including Black millennials like me. One of them was this still-persistent notion that soul cooking is the major contributor to the health disparities impacting Black people. For years, the media have run reports blaming Southern cuisine for not “serving African-Americans, whose ancestors imagined and perfected it, very well.” The reason? Because soul food entrees are often deep-fried and contain ingredients like offal, processed meats, dairy, sugar, and bread. This rationale, as many of us now understand, is bull: Inequitable health care access and a lackluster distribution of resources is the primary reason why Black Americans, and their health, have been disproportionately failed.

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My grandmother never worried about such things. She had grown up in the 1950s in Marianna, Arkansas, a small town that was known for its farms and juicy pork ribs. Living in the Deep South as a Black woman meant living through the racism of the Jim Crow South, where she was expected to be barely seen and not heard. When I was a child, I would spend the summers there shucking peas, going to church, and swatting mosquitoes — a quieter life. For her, cooking soul food was familiar and therapeutic; it was an extension of her love, her talent, and her authenticity. In a world where her rights were continually under attack and her image reduced, the kitchen was the place where she felt the most liberated. When I reflect on it, I realize my passion for food was born there because I helped her cook — everything was made by hand with care and precision.

A year after that holiday trip home from college, my grandmother passed away. It was a sobering catalyst in my quest to better understand the foodways of my family. That holiday season, I didn’t put up a fuss over how much butter and sugar we used for the yams, I didn’t try to eliminate the pork used to season the greens, I didn’t gripe about how long it took to prep the day before. In my mourning it all became clear that there was a methodology to how my grandmother’s Southern recipes were done, and my family was paying homage. Dinner that night was different, as her absence was truly felt. But the food itself and the stories that came with it took on a different meaning.

In hindsight, I realized that these same old dishes weren’t just some provincial tradition — they were an intentional choice to pay respect to the labor, heritage, and memory of those before us. There’s something to be said for the fact that these recipes were kept alive by a race of people who fought through unfathomable oppression for decades. To now think that I wanted to change them fed into the cultural gentrification that my progressive education was supposed to have taught me not to do — even when it came to food.

The moment I was able to recognize that the soul-food meals I ate during the holidays were not just a routine culinary choice but an actual cultural exchange was the instant I embraced them, and I’ve never looked back. Whatever sense of shame I once had in these family feasts was shaped by the anti-Blackness of a society that didn’t appreciate the plight of my ancestors. What kind of person would I be if I could eat, enjoy, and appreciate the food from other cultures, but not my own? Combatting that hypocrisy means doing more listening than talking, more cooking than recommending.

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Today, I can proudly say that I look forward to having these thoughtful, inspiring, repetitive meals every holiday season. At a time when Black culture is being frequently appropriated and misconstrued, I have a profound respect for my ancestors, who kept these culinary traditions alive and well. Although my grandmother is no longer with us, I’m at peace knowing that her living history is still being served at the table.

Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.
Copy edited by CB Owens



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