The South is known for its delicious food, called “comfort food.” But it’s important to note that comfort food did not arise out of comfortable circumstances.
Most comfort food comes from the Deep South in states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslaved people were given very small amounts of food that was often of poor quality and nutritional value. Enslaved people used these foods to make and adapt traditional African recipes with what they were given. These recipes later became known as today’s soul food.
“One of the first things that I say in Southern food studies, maybe a bit provocatively, is that Southern food is Black food. There is no Southern food without the labor and the creative influence of African Americans. Southern food is the cuisine of cultural mixing,” Southern Foodways Alliance Associate Professor of Southern Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology Catarina Passidomo said.
The South has always been represented by popular foods such as fried chicken, okra, collard greens and more, and Black people are to thank for it.
“This food genre, now associated with comfort and decadence, was born out of struggle and survival,” Vannessa Hayford, writer for the blog Black Foodie, said.
A telling example of this is the yam or sweet potato.
The word “yam” comes from a word meaning ‘to eat’ in the West African language Wolof. When enslaved West Africans came to the United States and lived off of what they found in North America, what are commonly known as sweet potatoes came to be called yams, and new recipes and dishes were created and passed on.
“A lot of things that we now consider traditionally Southern, like okra and watermelon, maybe classic examples, came from Africa directly. I think any kind of clear-eyed examination of what Southern food is would certainly involve an acknowledgement of the contributions of African Americans,” Passidomo said.
Many UM students enjoy Southern foods often in their day to day lives.
“I like Southern foods, especially because I work at Ajax, so I work with Southern foods pretty much every day,” junior hospitality major Eli Waxler said.
Another student, sophomore biology major Kenny Van concurred.
“What’s not to like about Southern food? Green beans, mashed potatoes, corn bread, okra,” Van said.
Although these students appreciate these foods, neither knew how historically closely tied they were with enslaved Africans. Passidomo finds that unsurprising.
“I think that it’s pretty uncommon that students have had that experience of thinking deeply about where their food comes from geographically and also historically,” Passidomo said. “Until relatively recently, the foundational contributions of African Americans to Southern and American food were under-acknowledged or outright ignored by mainstream white culture.”
Passidomo thinks that this trend in awareness about food is changing, however. Toni Tipton Martin, Micheal Twitty, and many other respected journalists and writers in the culinary world have authored works that seek to re-write the narrative and highlight the influence that African Americans have had on Southern food.
“Of course, Southern food today continues to evolve and incorporate ingredients and dishes from the diverse cultures that constitute the contemporary South,” Passimodo said.
Passidomo wants to avoid telling an incomplete, grim picture of Southern food, however.
“There is something really powerful about food. It remains a tool of resistance for African Americans throughout the 20th century. Restaurants were really prominent places for political activism and resisting segregation,” Passidomo said. “Now there’s this tremendous revitalization of young African Americans trying to buy land to farm and seeing that as really a political act and a way to re-establish a connection to the land. I think that’s a really powerful story, too.”
Because of how Black people have used Southern food to resist oppression and assert pride in their culture, Passidomo believes Southern food is a very complex and vital aspect of Black culture.
“That also means thinking about not just enslavement and depression and violence, that’s part of the story, but I think it’s also important to acknowledge that there’s tremendous creativity and resilience in keeping food traditions alive and intentionally remaining connected to Africa through food,” Passidomo said. “That’s a really powerful form of resistance.”