“Soul food” is often used as a catch-all term, but a deeper look into the category reveals that the term actually represents Creole, Lowcountry, and even Northern African-American cuisine, cooking styles, and experiences.
“Soul food is regional,” explains Toni Tipton-Martin, an award-winning journalist and food historian. “It’s based on the availability of ingredients and that’s what African-Americans have always been known for, which is what created Southern food in the first place – the amalgamation of people and their techniques and experiences with the local environment and the foods they found there.”
Tipton-Martin has dedicated her career to encouraging a deeper appreciation for African-American cooking and addressing the erasure of African-Americans in America’s food history through her books, Jubilee and The Jemima Code. Today, it was announced that Toni Tipton-Martin is the 2021 recipient of the Julia Child Award for her work highlighting and memorializing the history of African-American cuisines.
Building a legacy, one dish at a time
While painting a picture of African-American cooking over time, Tipton-Martin’s work also corrects the perception of Black women in food history. In The Jemima Code, the acclaimed author breaks down the stereotypes associated with Black women. “The Aunt Jemima trademark was a caricature constructed from numerous characteristics of Black women,” says Tipton-Martin. “What I’m doing is disentangling them and allowing them to stand independently.”
By demonstrating the tenacity and technical skills of Black women in America’s culinary history, Tipton-Martin dispels the myths associated with African-American cooking and instead draws attention to its genius. Her books demonstrate the high level of expertise and creativity that Black women have always contributed to the culinary arts starting with Malinda Russell, who in 1866 may have been the first Black woman to publish a cookbook in the United States.
“What Russell brought to the table was a proficiency in baking and the science of cooking in a way that was not ordinarily attributed to Black women,” Tipton-Martin notes. “She stands in the gap for many women who owned pastry shops, who were bakers, who had baked goods as a major part of their catering companies and later on their cooking schools.” Since Malinda Russell, Black women have continued to prove their culinary prowess and claim space for Black people in the pages of history.
Blazing a sweet, new trail
Today, a new generation of Black women are building legacies for themselves in the food industry by continuing to preserve and popularize African American food cultures through social media and on some of the nation’s biggest networks.
As the host of Delicious Miss Brown on the Food Network, Kardea Brown invites viewers into her kitchen and shares her pride and passion for contemporary Southern cooking. To watch Delicious Miss Brown is to get a glimpse of Brown’s life, with each episode featuring friends, family members, and anecdotes that reflect her intimate connection to food.
Brown’s cooking is heavily inspired by her Gullah heritage. Hailing from the Lowcountry area between North Carolina and Florida, the Gullah people are a cultural group of African-Americans who have preserved many of the traditions of their West African ancestors. Their style features African-inspired techniques and locally-available ingredients such as rice, okra, and seafood.
As a chef of Gullah descent, Brown uses her large platform to continue the treasured custom of passing down recipes and shares her food traditions with the world. “For my particular culture, I think it’s important to keep the verbal tradition of sharing recipes alive,” she explains. “Words in a book can easily be rewritten, but oral stories will live on forever. The only way to ensure it continues is to keep sharing it with the next generation.”
Innovations in storytelling are breathing new life into the cuisine, but there is always a deep respect for traditional flavours and techniques, and especially, the sense of community that comes with it.
Soul food for the digital age
For internet sensation Danni Rose, community is one of the most important ingredients to success. And it’s no surprise that her sentiment comes straight from the dinner table. “You really see the beauty of our food during the holidays and Sunday dinners. Ensuring these traditions continue means that we have to make time for each other at the table.”
A recipe developer from Birmingham, Alabama, Rose began sharing recipes inspired by her father’s juke joint through a weekly Facebook Live broadcast, and has since developed a social media following of over 800,000 people. Using the name Stove Top Kisses on Instagram and YouTube, she serves up delectable, creative recipes with a side of quick wit and down-home humour. Not only are her recipes (and recipe remixes!) undeniably drool-worthy, hundreds of comments under each one emphasize how important her dishes have become to future generations of Southern-food lovers across North America.
Rose recently took her talents to the OWN Network with a special appearance on the hit series Food Fantasies which introduced viewers to her laid-back style and easy recipes that turned her recipe videos into viral moments. Through it all, her passion for home-style cooking is clear. “Southern food to me is like a Chanel bag, it’s timeless and classic.”
There are countless stories, from Edna Lewis’ work to change America’s perception of Southern cooking to Leah Chase’s use of food to unite people during the Civil Rights Movement, that prove the innate value of soul food. For Tipton-Martin, the goal is to give these women and their legacies, their due. “I don’t wish so much for us to discover the accomplishments of Black women, but for us to amplify them and respect them.”
As the internet age continues, it’s safe to say that these kitchen mavens won’t be forgotten.