HOPE – The rise of “Soul Food” was the result of a journey by West African slaves through South America and the American South for a cuisine which took its original name from a phrase used by Shakespeare, some 200 attendees at a collaborative Black History Month celebration learned Thursday night.
Attorney and food writer Adrian Miller, of Denver, Colo., is a graduate of Stanford University and Georgetown University Law School who characterizes himself as “a recovering lawyer who turned into a food writer.” Miller is the author of two books on African-American cuisine, including a comprehensive history of “soul food” which he discussed Thursday night as the keynote to the event at Hempstead Hall on the University of Arkansas-Hope campus.
“Part of my work is to talk about what soul food is,” Miller explained.
After leaving government service in the Clinton White House, Miller chanced upon an opportunity to pursue a definitive explanation of how West African foods became the foundation for a European-influenced way of cooking by Blacks in the early South. He literally ate his way across the country to research the book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
“There are 150 soul food restaurants across the nation,” Miller quipped.
Miller notes the phrase “soul food” is first used in the context of what is believed to have been William Shakespeare’s first play, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In the play, a young woman, Julia, confesses to her maid, Lucetta, her love for a young man named Proteus with the question, “’O, know’st thou not his looks are my soul’s food?’”
“It becomes a spiritual term until about the 1940’s when Black musicians began to play jazz-tinged gospel that became ‘soul music,’” Miller said.
The term took a racial connotation in the Sixties when it was used as defining of Black culture, he said.
“Soul is black; Southern is white,” he said. “Soul food tends to be spicier than Southern food.”
The application of the term to the starched-based diet of coastal West Africa which became a staple of slave meals cooked with “plantation rations” in the Antebellum South has since remained, Miller said.
“What we call soul food is the immigrant food that came from the South with the Black migration,” he said.
Based mostly in vegetables which slaves were allowed to grow, and meat they were allowed to produce generally for seasoning, the cuisine has remained basic as American culture discovers it and produces innovations, Miller said.
“If you’ve become acquainted with kale in the last five years, welcome to the party; we’ve been eating it for 300 years,” he quipped.
Soul food is explicitly color-based.
“In soul food, red is a flavor, not a color,” Miller said, explaining the distinction in the red-based cola nut tea and hibiscus tea of West Africa. “It’s the template for Kool Aid; tea, water and sugar.”
Based from a project by Hope Academy of Public Service students Tara Henry, Kennedy Phillips, and Kayla Wyatt, the event included a potluck meal, featuring cornbread, beans and iced tea provided by Aramark Food Services of Hope Public Schools and Chicken Express.
Local soul food recipes were also collected for a digitized community cookbook “Hope for the Soul” offered free to attendees.
Mike Simpson of the National Parks Service emceed the evening with NPS President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site Superintendent Tarona Armstong providing opening remarks.
After an invocation by Rev. Frankie B. Mitchell of Haynes Chapel Baptist Church, presentation of the colors by a Hope High School Reserve Officer Training Corps color guard preceded the National Anthem to open the program.
A performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was rendered by the Haynes Chapel Baptist Church Choir, and poetry readings by winners of a student Black History Month contest were also presented.
Hope Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart concluded the event by noting the importance of participation by parents and students.
“Your presence affirms that our community is special and that we as a school system are progressing in regard to our culture,” Dr. Hart said.