Before diving into this rich catalog of culinary traditions from the Deep South, learning what soul food is—along with its history—will deepen your appreciation of this rich cuisine. Incorporate classic soul food recipes into your weeknight dinner rotation, or make them for your next holiday meal.
What Is Soul Food?
Soul food is a type of cuisine rooted in African American culture in the Southern United States, which originated during chattel slavery. Not all Southern recipes qualify as soul food, but all soul food has roots in the American South. One of the cuisine’s primary characteristics is an intensity of flavor, featuring rich comfort food dishes that simultaneously mix spicy, salty, and sweet flavor profiles. Popular soul food seasonings include black pepper, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, and celery seed. Some essential soul food dishes include collard greens, Southern-fried catfish, red beans and rice, buttermilk biscuits, and macaroni and cheese. Popular soul food desserts include peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, pecan pie, and banana pudding.
Cornmeal and pork are two foundational elements of soul food cooking, as they were among the limited foods provided to enslaved people during chattel slavery. Cornmeal is an essential ingredient for making hushpuppies, Southern cornbread, and fried fish. At the same time, various cuts of pork feature prominently in the cuisine, including pork chops, pickled pig’s feet, and chitterlings, also known as chitlins, which are pig intestines.
Today, cooks at countless soul food restaurants recreate and adapt traditional soul food dishes—developed in circumstances of scarcity—for modern diners to enjoy. For example, many Black people of Muslim and Jewish faiths have adapted traditional soul food recipes to omit the pork in alignment with their religious practices.
A Brief History of Soul Food
Though the term “soul food” didn’t emerge in the mainstream until the 1960s, many soul food dishes originated during the slavery era before the American Civil War in states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
During this time, enslaved people only received limited rations from enslavers, which often included cornmeal and pork, so they had to develop a cuisine around the foods available. Shortly after emancipation, many formerly enslaved people left the South during the Great Migration, recreating and developing this cooking style all across the United States.
The first known use of the term “soul food” dates back to 1964, during the rise of “Black Pride”—a concept encouraging the celebration of Black culture and heritage, concurrent with the Civil Rights Movement. Some offshoots of gospel and jazz music in the rural South rose in national popularity in the 1950s, when they took on the broader moniker of soul music. The word “soul” became a popular adjective used to describe many aspects of Black culture in the US—including African American cuisine
What Is the Difference Between Southern Food and Soul Food?
“Soul food” refers to dishes traditionally made and eaten by African Americans; since African American culture is an essential part of Southern food, many quintessentially “Southern” dishes are also popular soul food dishes. What makes a dish “soul food” is its connection to African American culture in the South and beyond, while “Southern food” does not necessarily have this same connection. Modern food historians like Michael W. Twitty experience soul food through two primary lenses: ancestral heritage and connection to ingredients representative of that heritage, and dishes that have become canonical over time, like collard greens, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and hot sauce.
Although the term “soul food” wasn’t introduced until the 1960s, its journey aligns with the Great Migration, or the period between about 1916 and 1970, when major waves of African Americans fled the rural American South to urban centers in the American Northeast and Midwest, and on the West Coast. As new African American enclaves formed in these cities, the juxtaposition and intersection of these communities with other disparate groups caused an interplay of food and culinary techniques that created unique takes on classic recipes and formed new dishes altogether.
14 Soul Food Recipes
Whether you’re working through all the Southern classics in the cookbook or simply looking for new dinner ideas, here are some of the best soul food dishes to try at home.
- Black-eyed peas: Black-eyed peas are a versatile legume often served over rice, with a side of cornbread, or alongside sautéed collard greens or turnip greens. Many recipes for stewed black-eyed peas use ham hocks, ham bones, or chicken stock to infuse the beans with savory, meaty flavor. They cook faster than most other dried beans, so avoid leaving them in the slow cooker for hours. One popular Southern black-eyed peas dish is hoppin’ John—a South Carolina Lowcountry dish cooked with rice and aromatics traditionally made for New Year’s Day.
- Banana pudding: Banana pudding is a dessert consisting of layers of vanilla pudding studded with fresh banana slices and vanilla wafer cookies. Original recipes for banana pudding called for a top layer of toasted meringue. Over time, whipped cream came to replace the meringue. Some banana pudding recipes feature a crust of vanilla wafer cookies, like the graham cracker crust on an old-fashioned cheesecake.
- Candied sweet potatoes: Candied sweet potatoes, or candied yams, are a Southern side dish consisting of buttery sweet potatoes caramelized in warming spices and brown sugar. Top candied sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows and then bake them in a casserole dish to create a sweet potato casserole.
- Collard greens: Collard greens are a mild-tasting, leafy green vegetable that you can cook or incorporate raw into your favorite salad recipes. Home cooks often serve thinly sliced collard greens alongside a hunk of cornbread or johnnycakes (flat cornmeal-based cakes) to sop up the rich broth they’re cooked in. Gently massaging them with a little olive oil for a few minutes will break down the leaves just enough for you to enjoy them on their own with your favorite dressing or tossed with red cabbage in coleslaw. Alternatively, take a page out of Chef Mashama Bailey’s book and cold-smoke your collard greens to infuse them with flavor and tenderize them.
- Cornbread: Cornbread is a quick bread containing cornmeal, popular in Southern cooking and enjoyed by many people for its tender, crumbly texture and sweet aroma. Southern cornbread has traditionally been made with little to no sugar and a higher cornmeal-to-flour ratio, while Northern-style cornbread is sweeter and more cake-like. Learn how to make cornbread.
- Fried chicken: Cooking up crispy Southern-style fried chicken is a surefire way to be the talk of your next BBQ, especially if you serve it with a side of waffles, buttermilk biscuits, or mashed potatoes with sausage gravy. To make a classic fried chicken recipe, start by coating the chicken with batter or flour and fry it to give it a crispy exterior. To enhance the flavor and tenderize the meat, brine the chicken before frying it.
- Fried okra: Fried okra is a regional dish found throughout the Southern United States consisting of fresh whole or sliced okra coated in buttermilk, tossed in a mixture of seasoned flour and cornmeal, and deep-fried in oil until crisp. Learn to make fried okra.
- Grits: Cornmeal-based grits are one of the cornerstones of soul food. Chefs cook ground corn bits with a medley of flavorings (like butter or cheese) to make a porridge, then top the mixture with various flavorful proteins (like eggs or fish). Many Southern restaurants will serve this soul food staple on all-day menus. Grits may feature different protein as toppings—for example, spiced shrimp is a common topping on shrimp and grits, while cornmeal-battered fish tops fish and grits.
- Gumbo: Gumbo is a rich, flavorful stew combining the unique flavors and textures of okra and sassafras leaves with various meat options such as seafood, Andouille sausage, or boneless skinless chicken breast. The precise history of gumbo is as murky as the stew itself, but gumbo recipes began to appear in New Orleans cookbooks at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Diners can enjoy gumbo on its own or alongside a scoop of rice, which sops up the broth perfectly.
- Jambalaya: Originating in southern Louisiana, jambalaya is a rice dish featuring spicy sausages and seafood local to the region. To make jambalaya, start by browning the meat, often pork and sausages. Then add the Cajun Holy Trinity of bell pepper, celery, and onion to the fat. Finally, toss the rice—which has grown on the Mississippi River since the early eighteenth century—with the meat and veggies, and cook it in fish or chicken stock with Creole and Cajun seasonings.
- Meatloaf: Meatloaf is a baked dish with a ground meat base that home cooks bake in the shape of a bread loaf. Many classic meatloaf recipes use lean ground beef as their central ingredient, but ground pork or ground turkey also work as a base.
- Peach cobbler: A peach cobbler is a freeform dessert with a peach base and buttery biscuit topping. The name “cobbler” comes from the shape of the batter or biscuit dough dropped in dollops on the fruit, which puff up to look like cobblestone streets. The dessert’s old-fashioned name dates back to the nineteenth century. Peach cobbler is not the same as a peach crisp, which is a similar fruit dessert recipe featuring a streusel, rather than biscuit, topping.
- Pecan pie: Pecan pie is a quintessential Southern dessert featuring a mosaic of pecan halves suspended in a silky, sugary blend of eggs, butter, and a sweetener—traditionally corn syrup—held together in a flaky pie crust. Learn how to make pecan pie.
- Sweet potato pie: Sweet potato pie tastes similar to pumpkin pie because both are made with sweet, starchy vegetables and seasoned with pumpkin pie spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. The best sweet potato pie tends to have a creamier texture than pumpkin pie.
James Beard Award–winning chef Mashama Bailey teaches you techniques and recipes for nutritious, flavorful Southern dishes—from grits to gumbo, at Master Class.