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Soul food can be a divisive term. How is soul food different than Southern food? Does soul food refer to rib-sticking food like fried chicken and ribs, or more everyday fare like red beans and rice? Soul food pioneers like Princess Pamela point the way towards an answer. Join Justin Dodd, Chris Scott, and Dr. Jessica B. Harris as they explore the history of soul food.

Special thanks to -
Chef Chris Scott
Dr. Jessica B. Harris
The Institute of Culinary Education
& The Museum of Food and Drink

And make sure to real the full article about Pamela Strobel from Mayukh Sen here:

Food History is a new series from Mental Floss where we dive deep into the culinary stories that lead to the food on our plates. If you have an idea for a dish, cooking technique, or cuisine that you’d like us to explore in a future episode, tell us in the comments.

For the origins of mashed potatoes, check out our earlier episode of Food History:

Pamela Strobel was an orphan at 10.

At 13, she had moved over a hundred miles from her childhood home of Spartanburg, South Carolina, with nothing but a suitcase and a diamond watch. She talked her way into a job helping the salad lady at a local restaurant, and eventually made her way to New York City, where she’d open an iconic soul food restaurant and adopt the name Princess Pamela.

She fed luminaries like Andy Warhol, got a star from The New York Times, and once kicked out would-be customer Ruth Reichl, a young food lover who would go on to become one of the most influential culinary writers in America. In 1998, Princess Pamela shut down her restaurant for unknown reasons, and then virtually disappeared. Efforts to trace her whereabouts were stymied by the fact that Pamela Strobel may never have been her legal name.

What does Princess Pamela’s unlikely journey tell us about the history of soul food? And just what is soul food, anyway? Hi, I’m Justin Dodd.

Welcome to Food History. Thanks to YouTube commenter Crystal Williamson for suggesting soul food as a topic. If you have an idea for a future episode of the show, you know what to do.

The terms southern food and soul food are often used interchangeably, and the story of southern cuisine is, indeed, inextricably linked with the story of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Some African-American chefs and food historians whole-heartedly embrace the “soul food” label today, while others evince more ambivalent feelings. But surely the soul food moniker says something about the cuisine’s unique place in our history—in the pain of its genesis and the power of its persistence.

We might not have the term soul food at all if it wasn’t for William Shakespeare. In his 16th-century play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia remarks on the looks of her love interest Proteus, saying: “O, know’st thou not his looks are my soul’s food? Pity the dearth that I have pinèd in, By longing for that food so long a time.” Now seems as good a time as any to remind you that I was, in fact, a theatre major in college.

Which..., God I miss those times… just seems so... Acting. Though Shakespeare’s term about romantic love was secular, the term was also used by the Christian church to describe spiritual nourishment.

It wasn’t until around the Black Power movement of the 1960s that the name soul food was attached to actual food. The meals that had been first cooked out of necessity by enslaved African Americans had grown into a source of cultural pride, and the new label set the cuisine apart from that of the South in general. Many of the ingredients we associate with soul food can be traced back to Africa.

Black-eyed peas, okra, and rice all made their way to North America via the Transatlantic Slave. Trade. Entire dishes found their analogs in our hemisphere as well.

Someone's who's spent a lot of time investigating this culinary continuum is Dr. Jessica B Harris. She's spent decades writing about food and culture.

In her books, like “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” and her time writing for Essence Magazine as their “Go Gourmet,” Dr. Harris has tasted, first-hand, the interconnected culinary histories of Africa and the African diaspora. I have okra on my stationary. I love the irony of okra.

Botanically, okra is related to cotton. It also turns up in so many classic African-American dishes. Not just in the United States, but around the hemisphere.

I have a pretty high tolerance for what I like to refer to as not slime, but the mucilaginous properties of the pod. When I lecture about okra or talk about okra, I always look around the room for what I call the okra face. There are many things that can be done to get rid of the slime, if you will.

But my whole thing is, don't fight it. One of the things that's great about okra and one of the reasons it's used in all of those gumbos is because it is a thickener. When I was at Essence, all of those eons ago, traveling in West Africa, tasting dishes like soupou kandia.

An okra stew, from the Casamance region of Senegal. It is a gumbo ancestor. In Benin, a country that used to be known as Dahomey, they have something called sauce feuille.

Leaf sauce. It's a green gumbo, it is in fact very much like the green gumbo that chef Leah Chase used to serve every Holy Thursday in New Orleans. You come up through the Carribbean, you get callaloo, made with different leaves that are called callaloo, but are invariably soups that are leafy green with the shellfish or the fish that's around.

My taste buds would start slapping me around, going, "you know this. You've tasted this. Where did you taste this?" Put the dots together.

Start connecting the dots. So you find that, in some ways, we are bound by our mucilaginous okra. And I kind of like that.

Even with some familiar foods at their disposal, enslaved. Africans in the Americas still had to get creative when recreating the dishes and flavor profiles of their home countries. Leafy greens like collard greens became stand-ins for the African bitter leaf.

And let’s talk about yams. Or, let's talk about sweet potatoes. Sweet yams?

You know what, it's actually kind of complicated let's just roll the graphics. There are a couple different species of yams. The ones that originated in Africa have a tough, bark-like exterior.

They’re actually related to lilies and grasses. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, originated in the Americas. They’re usually either orange or yellow on the inside with a softer skin and a sweeter, creamier interior than yams.

The word yam, by the way, likely came from a West African language, where words that sound like “yam” often mean “to eat.” It’s tough to track exactly, because there’s significant overlap between different West African languages. In Fulani, for example, it’s nyami, while the Wolof word for “to sample” or “taste” is nyam. The two crops are easy to tell apart, but when enslaved Africans saw sweet potatoes, a starchy root vegetable could easily sub in for yams in many of their dishes, they evidently felt it was close enough.

They called it by the same name as the plant they were familiar with from home, and today yam is still widely used interchangeably with sweet potato in the United States. The confusion doesn’t stop there. In the early 20th century, a new sweet potato with reddish skin and orange flesh emerged on the American agricultural scene.

Prior to that, Americans mostly ate a variety of sweet potatoes that’s more brown on the outside and whitish-yellow on the inside. Both are sweet potatoes, just different varieties of sweet potatoes. Farmers wanted a catchy name to differentiate the newer offering, though.

They went with a word that was already in use as a slang term for sweet potato… yam. Now, when Americans talk about yams, you have no idea if they mean the African root vegetable, the softer variety of sweet potatoes, or all sweet potatoes in general because that’s the way we’ve used the term for most of the country’s history. Walk into a supermarket today and you may find soft sweet potatoes and firm sweet potatoes labeled as yams or sweet potatoes.

To give you an idea of how silly this all gets, our amazing fact-checker, Austin Thompson, shared this truly trivial tidbit with us: in the United States, if you label a sweet potato as a yam, you also need to label it as a sweet potato. So you if you call a sweet potato a yam you need to call it a sweet potato, but if you call it a sweet potato you can just call it a sweet potato. …Yams are lucky they’re so darn delicious, because shopping for them is a nightmare. And I refuse to specify what I mean when I say yam. ...

I mean sweet potatoes. Africans in America weren’t just limited by their new country’s agriculture. Slaves who came from the same part of Africa were often split up because slave owners thought that sharing a language would make it easier for them to rebel.

This meant that the slaves who cooked together also came from different culinary traditions. The African-influenced cuisine that developed in these communities was the result of enslaved people working together to figure out what knowledge they did have in common, even under conditions meant to make preserving their cultures impossible. Spices, starches, and savory stews like the gumbo Dr.

Harris discussed earlier were some of the elements of West African cooking that successfully transitioned to African American culture. Slaves were also limited by what slave owners provided them. They were given food rations to get them through each week.

A typical ration could have consisted of molasses, a staple starch such as rice, cornmeal, or sweet potatoes, and cheaper cuts of pork. Pigs were plentiful in the South. The animals were able to fend for themselves by foraging in the woods around a farm, and were therefore cheap and easy to keep.

But slaves had limited access to pork products. For years, meat that is literally higher up the animal, like pork chops, has been associated with affluence and choice—hence the expression, “high on the hog.” In the antebellum South these cuts were reserved for white property owners, while cuts like ribs, intestines, and pigs feet were given to slaves. Even if rations were small, enslaved people found ways to wring as much flavor as possible from the meat they were given.

Ham hocks or pork knuckles could be stewed with collard greens, for example. Even though the African-American slave diets were mostly plant-based, the salty, fatty flavor of pork products infused some dishes and turned a cuisine of scarcity into something that could be delicious. On some occasions, slaves could supplement their rations with food they fished or hunted, or with personal crops they gardened during their rare free time.

But it was those standard food allowances that largely shaped what came to be known as soul food. Chef Chris Scott, who you might know from his restaurants, like Butterfunk Kitchen, or his deep run on the show Top Chef, is a contemporary culinary voice who tries to marry delicious, modern soul food with stories of the cuisines heritage. My name is Chris Scott, and I've been a chef for about 38 years or so.

A lot of people, when you talk about soul food or southern food, immediately go right to fried chicken, ribs, watermelon, red velvet, things of that nature. Those items are soul food, yes. But, it kind of falls into a category called "celebration foods." Let's say your sister is getting married, or it's a Sunday dinner.

That's when you break out all of the good stuff. But a lot of soul food, AKA southern food, is based on the agriculture. So whatever we were growing is what we were eating.

And mainly, it was always a vegetable-based thing. So what I'm doing is a really common yes historical dish. It's just some cornbread at the bottom of the bowl, and overtop of that is a little neckbone stew.

The birdman was the individual, man or woman, that was in charge of raising the birds on the plantation, all the way from egg to slaughter. Even after slavery, we took our husbandry skills from raising chickens, and we were able to open up butcher shops, and become chicken farmers, owning our own land. Black folk back then weren't permitted by law to own any livestock.

But chickens were not on that list. So it was just that one humble bird, through resilience and triumph, we were able to breakthrough into our own kind of financial freedom. There are black people still in this country today that won't eat fried chicken in public because of the stigma that surrounds it.

There's a lot of pain that comes with southern food. I think that the birdman is that story of triumph. More and more I just try to get that word out, that we were doing something incredible.

This food was around long before I was born, and will be after I'm gone. But whatever I can do to talk about the hands that made it, the hands that grew it, the hands that cleaned up. That's an important story.

You feel that. You feel the hands of your ancestors coming through. You hear your grandmother's voice in your ear as you're doing the same dishes that you watched her make.

You feel a real connection to it. It's the power of food. The food, yeah it is important.

But what's more important is that communion with each other. Now don't get me wrong. I enjoy fried chicken, I enjoy biscuits.

Those recipes have been in my family for many years. But I'm so much more than that. So much more than that.

Deep-frying represents its own intersection of necessity and heritage. There weren’t any ovens in the slaves’ quarters, so without the means to roast meat or vegetables, frying with hot oil became a standard cooking method. And as a technique already in wide use in West Africa, it was a familiar method of cooking for some enslaved Africans.

The only time slaves could be relatively indulgent with their meals was Sunday. As a religious day of rest, this was often their one day off, though at least part of it was spent preparing for the work of the week ahead. On some plantations, slaves had conditional access to ovens, baking equipment, and ingredients like milk and flour on Sundays.

This was the day they made cobblers, biscuits, ribs, and other specialty items that are regarded as standard soul food fare today. It was also a rare opportunity for families to sit down and enjoy a meal together. Like certain ingredients and cooking techniques, communal eating was a practice from West African culture that remained essential to the African American way of life, even through centuries of slavery.

What we think of today as soul food was, in some ways, established north of the Mason-Dixon line, half a century after the Civil War ended. Between 1916 and 1970, a wave of rural black Americans, like Princess Pamela Strobel herself, migrated from the South to Northern cities like Chicago and New York in search of economic opportunities and an escape from Jim Crow laws. A total of 6 million African Americans relocated during this period, which came to be known as the Great Migration.

Though these migrants were Americans, the way they treated the cuisine of their roots echoed that of many immigrant groups. Some of the most beloved immigrant dishes in America are heavy and rich, like Italian lasagna or Mexican tres leches cake. But immigrants weren’t eating these foods all the time in the old country.

They were special occasion dishes. When immigrants were missing the flavors of home, they often chose to make the meals that reminded them of holidays and family gatherings instead of the cheaper and less heavy foods they ate more regularly. Black Americans did the same thing when they moved out of the South.

Gathering around a table of fried chicken, pie, and cornbread was a way to combat homesickness and remember happy times spent with family back home. It didn’t hurt that ingredients like meat, sugar, and flour were a lot more accessible in northern cities than they had been in the rural south. But the southern dishes black migrants brought with them to the North during the Great Migration may not have survived to see the next generation if it wasn’t for black entrepreneurs.

Seeing a demand for southern fare, city street vendors began selling foods they nicknamed “letters from home.” In New York in the 1930s, vendors would hawk the so-called “Harlem Menu” on street corners, announcing to any pedestrian within shouting distance what southern goods they had in stock that week. Southern restaurants catering to black clientele began opening in Northern cities. Southern transplants no longer had to spend the whole day shopping and cooking if they wanted to recreate a special meal from home.

Chefs and entrepreneurs like Sylvia Woods, Leah Chase and Edna Lewis came from diverse culinary backgrounds and left their mark on what we understand black American food to be. But the people enjoying the food still hadn’t decided on what to call it. Around this same time, black jazz musicians were experimenting with a new label for their music that differentiated it from the white artists mimicking their sound.

The name they came up with was soul. It called to mind the gospel music of southern black churches, something that undeniably belonged to African American culture. By branding their music with such a personal label, black artists were essentially reclaiming ownership of their sound.

It was this climate that helped soul food become a household name. Embracing the food of your childhood may not sound like a radical act, but for black people in the Civil Rights. Era, it was an opportunity to show pride in a defining part of their history.

Princess Pamela brought together these two strands of culture, music and food, in what she called “The Little Kitchen.” It was originally on the second floor of an Alphabet City apartment building, at a time when some New Yorkers would avoid that neighborhood entirely, and it operated like something between a restaurant and what we’d call a private supper club today. Strobel was known to close the doors when she felt like it and convert the space into a jazz salon for the remaining patrons. Musicians would play, and Princess Pamela herself would often sing.

If you look at the comments of the incredible piece Mayukh Sen wrote about Princess Pamela—we’ll leave a link in the description—you can find former patrons speaking movingly of the unique environment Princess Pamela created and the power of her voice. She also wrote a cookbook, and it seems like as good a place as any to wrap up our story. [Kiss the cookbook section header]. Princess Pamela’s Soulfood Cookbook was originally published in 1969.

It included recipes from her Little Kitchen, as well as some that may have never appeared on its often-quite-limited menu. It was out of print for over four decades before being reissued in 2017, largely through the efforts of food journalists and Southern food evangelists the Lee Brothers, who became enamored with the book upon finding it in a second-hand shop in 2004. It’s easy to see what the Lees fell in love with.

In addition to dozens of recipes, ranging from soul-food classics like grits and biscuits to lesser-known dishes like roast opossum,. Strobel includes lyrical biographical interludes and pairs many dishes with her own poems, touching on politics and culture, religion and race. It’s hard not to draw connections between Strobel’s life and the cuisine she gave so much to.

Both stories are rooted in great pain, but are suffused, nonetheless, with joy and celebration. They aren’t simple stories of triumph that end with tidy happy endings, but they speak to an incredible desire to come together around food. To break bread.

In the book, Strobel shares a recipe for tripe, and accompanies it with the following poem. Thanks for watching.