Any discussion of the American South and its history quickly becomes snarled as problematic notions of heritage, symbolism, myth and race intersect. Few slopes are as slippery, few webs as tangled – and yes, we are on the subject of food here.
The differences between Southern cooking and soul food are negligible. At the same time, in lineage and diaspora, a noticeable gap exists.
If that seems a bit complicated – yeah. As Darryl Choates, owner of Seaside’s Deja Blue, points out, “if you don’t have someone who understands Southern cooking – soul food, there’s not just one way.”
Until a few years ago, the matter may have been met only by disinterested shrugs. Until Michelle Brooks opened her Seaside pop-up Michelle’s Soul Food Kitchen five years ago, there were no local establishments dedicated to Southern food.
“It was just little old me, and just on Friday,” Brooks recalls. She has since expanded her hours at the Retired Men’s Social Club to Wednesday-Friday.
Michelle’s is now joined by Deja Blue, a brick-and-mortar restaurant that opened with a special section of soul food offerings on the menu. That is, however, about to change. Owner Darryl Choates is scrapping steak, pasta and other common plates. “The new thing is total soul,” he says.
Michelle’s and Deja Blue have turned Seaside into a Southern cooking destination of sorts. It’s possible to find a few options at The Butter House, as well as Seaside Seafood Market, but the soul food-specific menus have been drawing guests from the Bay Area.
“People just love the food,” Choates points out.
Both soul and Southern emerged from a span of dusty cotton fields and hardscrabble farms stretching across Missouri’s bootheel, Arkansas and the rest of the old “Cotton Belt” into Georgia and parts of the Appalachians. Both share staples like fried catfish, hush puppies, cornbread, grits, fried chicken, oxtail, greens unheard of in well-to-do homes and all parts of the pig. There were seasonal rituals – poke sallet in spring, hog-killing and canning in the fall. This was the cuisine of those forced to make do, with no distinction between races.
Distinctions between soul food and Southern cooking can be found first in immigration patterns. In general, the Scots-Irish and other European settlers who filtered into the mountains and the deep south were familiar with basic seasonings like salt, pepper, smoke and pickling spices.
Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising History of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, told Epicurious that Southern food is the foundation, but “soul food tends to be more intense in terms of flavors and seasoning.”
In their forced migration, enslaved Black people brought culinary traditions from Africa and the Caribbean. They and their descendants provided a different take on the same ingredients, particularly with the Great Migration.
As waves of Black people moved from the South to northern cities, they brought with them the best of the cuisine. With greater access to ingredients, many of these were adapted to the new setting. Cornbread, which in the rural South had been flavored with cracklings, was now sweetened with sugar. Hence the common belief that Southerners sweeten everything.
Brooks does put sugar in her cornbread (her mother grew up in New Orleans, where it was available). But she points out that pantries weren’t so well stocked in the old days. “Sugar was expensive then,” Brooks says.
The phrase “soul food” dates to the early 1960s. But according to Miller, separation along racial lines began a few decades earlier in a surprising place – jazz clubs.
“The gospel sound they started fusing into jazz they described as ‘soul,’” he said. “And soul started becoming a label for almost all aspects of Black culture: soul music, soul brothers, soul sisters, soul food.”
In the wake of all this, there was an unfortunate rift that blurred a shared identity. Soul food, Miller explains, became Black, while “Southern” in turn was associated with white.
And that, in short, is the difference. Either way, however, catfish, hush puppies and a mess of greens? Perfect.