Soul Food: a Story of Slavery, Spirit & Salvation

The term soul has frequently been paired with African American culture; soul food, soul music, soul brother etc. Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary describes soul as

a strong positive feeling (as of intense sensitivity and emotional fervor) conveyed especially by Black American performers

This definition captures brilliantly the history of soul food. The story of soul food denotes one of an emotional journey, a heroic struggle, a fervent march to freedom, a symbol of resilience – a story of emancipation.

Let’s take a look at the broader strokes of the story.

The Setting

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

First things first, to really understand a story, one should know the setting of the story. Slavery started with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which took place from the 15th through 19th centuries.


A story of Slavery, Spirit & Salvation: Soul Food

Photo credit- Jim Surkamp via Decorators Guru : CC BY-NC


The Portuguese were the first to engage in the New World slave trade in the 16th century. 

The first trans-atlantic slave travel began in 1526, executed by the Portuguese.

The New World (The Americas)

In 1607, England established Jamestown, Virginia, as its first permanent colony on the North American continent. Tobacco was the main crop and its cultivation was the main driver of the town’s economy. However, more labor was needed to sustain the growth.


A story of Slavery, Spirit & Salvation: Soul Food


Slavery in America began in 1619; a Dutch ship brought 20 Africans to Jamestown. Although these individuals allegedly were treated initially as indentured servants – a labor system in which people paid for their passage to the New World by working for an employer for a fixed term of years – this set a premise and allowed slavery to spread.

Millions of West Africans were forced to leave their homeland and become slaves in the Americas. This was not one cohesive group of people; they were from distinctively different countries, tribes and cultures. They crafted one of the first fusion cuisines–one that combines techniques and food from the region of West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. 

Antebellum South USA (1619-1865)

In order to have more power and enforce obedience, slaveholders controlled the amount of food given to their slaves by using a rations system. Adrian “The Soul Food Scholar” Miller wrote the following:

Generally, on a designated day of the week, each slave was allotted five pounds of a starch (cornmeal, rice or sweet potatoes); a couple of pounds of dried, salted, or smoked meat (beef, fish or pork—whatever was cheapest); and a jug of molasses. 


A story of Slavery, Spirit & Salvation: Soul Food

“Slaves working in 17th-century Virginia”, by an unknown artist, 1670.


With so little to work with, the enslaved had to look for ways to enrich their diets. They turned to fishing, foraging, hunting, gardening, and raising livestock. This gave them a slightly more diverse selection in their diet. However, having options in what they ate proved to be difficult – they could only tend to their “extracurricular gastronomical activities” at night on their own time after having labored in the plantations all day long.

The Best & the Worst of Freedom: The Black Church & Sharecropping (1865-1910)

The end of the 18th century ushered in a new era for slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation and abolitionism.


A story of Slavery, Spirit & Salvation: Soul Food

A large group of African-American spectators stands on the banks of Buffalo Bayou to witness a baptism (ca. 1900).


Church and congregations have always been an essential pillar of the black community. The first Black Churches were founded before 1800 by free blacks. However, after the abolishment of slavery, there was a long era of segregation. Segregation stopped African Americans from worshipping in white churches, which led to the establishment Black Churches – culturally distinct places of worship.

The new found freedom was celebrated during holidays, Emancipation festivities and Black Church gatherings. Food – celebratory food– such as fried chicken, fried fish, cakes, sweet potato pies, red drinks, and watermelon was served. Here are a few short explanations of the symbolism behind Emancipation Day celebratory food (also known as Juneteenth):


Just as the turkey has become synonymous with Thanksgiving, barbecue takes center stage in traditional Emancipation Day festivities. In early celebrations, men dug large pits and roasted pork, beef or lamb on a spit overnight. While the pit may not be present at today’s parties, barbecue such as pulled pork, chicken, ribs and hot links remains a favorite. Other traditional meats include fried catfish and smothered chicken.

Side Dishes

Similar to the best Sunday dinners, traditional celebrations featured a variety of special foods. Vegetables such as collard, turnip and mustard greens, friend green tomatoes, fried okra, potato salad, green beans and New Orleans red beans and rice graced tables. Traditional breads include sweet potato biscuits, cornbread and fresh-baked loaves.


Strawberry or red soda pop has been the traditional drink of Juneteenth since the original Emancipation Day. Former slaves celebrated their freedom by indulging in novelty strawberry sodas that they had previously been banned from drinking. Today, many people substitute the soft drink Big Red for strawberry pop but the tradition of the Juneteenth red beverage continues.


Red plays an important role in Juneteenth and can be seen in the drinks and desserts served. Jelly cake, yellow cake soaked with raspberry jam and red velvet cake, an old Southern favorite, frequented many Juneteenth party tables. Pies such as sweet potato, peach and blackberry and watermelon, easily available to former slaves in Texas, also continue to remain popular.



Unfortunately, freedom wasn’t always sunny for the freed.

Despite the end of slavery, little action was taking to help provide former slaves with land – having land cements one’s freedom. Landowners were willing to pay very little to workers, as a result, freedmen chose to rent land. This led to the domination of the sharecropping system where black families were allowed to work lands of ex-masters in return of a portion of the crop.

The new tenants, however, had to borrow money for supplies and equipment. To cover their debts, they preferred to grow sellable crops rather than their own food. Which, in return, made them borrow money, again, for groceries – the vicious cycle of poverty. The sharecropping system kept the freedmen poor, with few success stories only. Hence, their diet never really changed post slavery: heavy on seasonal vegetables, very little meat, and variations of cornbread and water with increasing amounts of processed food.

However, this would soon change.

The Great Migration (1910-1970)

Debt and racism drove millions out of the South. African Americans found themselves constructing new communities and homes in new areas and soul food was key in preserving memories of their journey. Soul food also represented the home and family they left. This move came with relatively more prosperity and afforded them more food opportunities than previously. 

A story of Slavery, Spirit & Salvation: Soul Food


Still, segregation was omnipresent and non-whites had to live together in secluded parts of towns. African Americans came across an array of immigrants and were among the first to embrace their cuisine, as Adrian Miller explains,

Because everyone who wasn’t Anglo-Saxon white was forced to live in close proximity in segregated sections of town, African-Americans encountered global immigrants and were early adopters of Chinese (chop suey, pork fried rice), Italian (macaroni, pizza, spaghetti), and Tex-Mex (chili, enchiladas) far before the mainstream public.

Soul food embodies African American culture. Despite their heavy and dark journey into the new world, African Americans were able to culturally adapt even in the face of scarce resources, draconian constraints, and ongoing injustices. It embodies the survival, tradition and creativity of formerly enslaved groups of people from various parts of the continent.

Today, soul food is well preserved in Southern cuisine. It’s also been adapted in today’s culinary trends such as vegetarianism and veganism thanks to chefs like Bryant Terry who gives more soul to the veggies and makes you forget the meat!

Soul Food

Pictured: Chef Giovanni’s Southern Twist Menu

DC, if you’re in for some soulful deliciousness, check out Chef Giovanni and Chef Madea‘s menus. UAE, we got you covered too! Don’t hesitate to message our chefs for some customized soul food. Just look up Chef Andrea and Chef Vanessa.

If there’s a certain culture you would like to explore its gastronomical history, sound off in the comments!