The Northside is a community full of energized, robust, and powerful people and their histories. Residents and community members bring growth to a neighborhood formed and fraught by decades of unjust policy, culture, and decision making in our city. A majority of Northside residents, nearly 85 % identify as people of color, while many connected with Appetite For Change (AFC) identify as African American or Black.[1] If you’re familiar with AFC and the humans that make it all happen, you know our mission is to use food as a tool to build health, wealth, and social change. In the everyday that looks like growing food, cooking food, eating, and sharing food.

Appetite For Change operates a social enterprise restaurant on the Northside called Breaking Bread Café. Breaking Bread is a place for folks to be in community, connect, and get some fresh and flavorful food. As AFC gets ready to continue cooking in the café (after a brief hiatus that was extended by the pandemic), menu items will celebrate the culinary legacy of Black Americans. A robust and rich endeavor, so here we’re highlighting the glorious history and now of Soul Food cuisine.

There’s no denying soul food is delicious. You know it’s real when a meal takes you straight home or to the best place you’ve never been. Yet popular conversation around soul food often limits its theme to what the cuisine lacks: it’s unhealthy, not true Southern cooking, no complexity. Get to know a little about soul food, though, and you’ll understand that it is the real super food. Like Soul Food scholar Adrian Miller says, “If you look at soul food—the dark leafy greens are a super food. . . okra is a super food. Hibiscus is a superfood. Fish—all these things are the building blocks of super foods.”[2] The foundation of many Soul Food dishes are foods that health and wellness enthusiasts would readily label super, yet rarely when Soul Food is in the same sentence. If you don’t already, let’s get to know a little bit about Soul Food. If you do… admire these photos with us and please send some of your own.

Super Nutritious

Dark leafy greens are one of the more recognizable elements of Soul cuisine and have deep historical roots. Boiling leaves, as you might in a classic collard greens dish, is a common technique in many traditional African dishes to soften the bitterness of the greens. And y’all know dark leafy greens are rich in nutrients. Broccoli, collard, and mustard greens have a bounty of B vitamins (like folate) that aid in heart health, depression, and managing stress.[3] Other greens like spinach, kale, bok choi, turnip, beet, and sweet potato greens (yes you can eat those!) are full of vitamins A, C, E, and K that contribute to bone health, preventing certain cancers, and reducing inflammation that causes diabetes.[4]

Base grains and starches that are staples throughout soul dishes aren’t to be underestimated. Many soul dishes feature crops that originated West Africa, like rice, cowpeas (black-eyed peas), millet/sorghum, and yams, or those grown in Africa brought by colonizers, like cassava, maize, and plantains.[5] Of course, many of these plants that grow well in the similarly warm, moist climate of the American south and have been incorporated into Soul Food dishes today.

Maize, for example, is a plant similar to corn and grown throughout the Americas and is not-so-surprisingly good for you. Maize contains beta-carotenoids and antioxidants that the body uses to produce vitamin A, aiding in organ function and immune health. These antioxidants are particularly helpful when there is limited access to fresh vegetables throughout the year.[6]

Shrimp and grits

Cajun shrimp and grits, anyone? Grits are made from hominy (maize kernels without the hull) ground coarsely. The dish’s ingredients and preparation techniques originated among Native Americans and have informed iconic soul food dishes we know today.[7]

Super Innovative

Our ancestors, from whom soul cuisine is born, passed along their hard-earned skills in innovation and resourcefulness. Ingredients and dishes that might now be tagged with wellness buzzwords like local and seasonal were for our Black ancestors, almost certainly indicators of place and varied food preparation processes. Soul food, Adrian Miller reminds us, while undeniably bearing an “overt connection to slavery,” is inseparable from the resourcefulness, ingenuity, and communal spirit of Black people in America.[8] With the place of Soul Food, the American South, the connection to slavery is visibly stamped, but with place are soil, climate, and resources where ingenuity and community continue to bloom.

When Black people in America were enslaved, they had little time and energy to procure, prepare, or cook food for themselves. People cooked whatever was available with what they had, lending to the glorious cultural mélange in of Soul Food cuisine. The Chesapeake Bay area, along the eastern coast of the Virginias, produced many seafood and corn-based dishes, while the Lowcountry cooking was a versatile combination of rice, beans, and seafood. The Gulf of Louisiana lent to Creole and Cajun influence with meat, vegetable, and rice stews like jambalaya, and dishes in landlocked Deep South consisted largely of corn and pork dishes.[9]

Practice and technique also inform how Soul Food is prepared today. When people were enslaved, those with access to cabin fires or skillets would cook what they could over a fire, using generations of knowledge from their African (and more!) ancestors to flavor and cook dishes. With a simple fire, pork, bacon, eggs, on a skillet, root vegetables roasted in the ashes or coals, and boiled stews and vegetables. After the Great Migration and throughout the 20th century, many Black folks living in city tenements and apartments had limited storage for food and were forced to pay extra for access to a kitchen. Low-energy food preparation techniques and tools were essential. People had to be innovative, and their resourcefulness and ingenuity for generations has informed major elements of Soul cuisine today.[10] Things like quick and simple one-pot stews or slow roasts packed with flavor or biscuits and waffles on Sundays.

Soul Food is a cuisine steeped in power. It is built on a legacy carried for hundreds of years by many, its dishes often plant-based, its ingredients packed with survival and nutrients, its methods innovative and resourceful, able to make life and joy with what is available. Soul Food is super food.

Keep with us. We’ll explore Soul Food more, looking at the roots of different dishes and celebrating where they’re headed. Be the first to know and sign up for AFC’s newsletter.

 

[1] MN Compass (https://www.mncompass.org/profiles/city/minneapolis/near-north-neighborhood)
[2] Civil Eats (https://civileats.com/2020/05/05/people-of-color-are-at-greater-risk-of-covid-19-systemic-racism-in-the-food-system-plays-a-role/)
[3] USDA (https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/gfnd/gfhnrc/docs/news-2013/dark-green-leafy-vegetables/)
[4] Medical News Today (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/277957)
[5] Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine one Plate at a Time, 12.
[6] The Teacher Friendly Guide to the Evolution of Maize (http://maize.teacherfriendlyguide.org/index.php/what-is-maize/nutritional-components-cat)
[7] The Spruce Eats (https://www.thespruceeats.com/cornmeal-vs-grits-vs-polenta-1328613)
[8] Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine one Plate at a Time, 10.
[9] Ibid, 16.
[10] Ibid, 39.

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Appetite For Change is a 501c3 nonprofit organization.
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