Soul Food and the Stories It Tells About America

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What can we learn about our history, and ourselves, just by taking a bite?

You often hear me say on the Vox Conversations podcast or read in my writing how I believe identity is in everything. Nowhere is this more evident than with food. We associate our favorite cuisines with the people who originally cooked them. Ethnicities and nationalities are a part of our daily vocabularies because of what we eat.

Because food and identity are intertwined — in this nation and every other nation — things inevitably get complicated. It’s about to be Thanksgiving, one of the most widely celebrated American holidays, and one whose commonly told origin story is a Eurocentric fairy tale. It’s uncomfortable to think about war and genocide as you bite into your grandmother’s sweet potato pie, or as you savor that salty, smoky skin falling off your turkey drumstick. Just as the legacy of enslavement lives on in our bodies, our laws, and our cultural practices, it also goes directly into our bellies. Many of the items we see on our Thanksgiving tables, much of which I recognize as “soul food,” can teach us a lot about America — and about ourselves as Americans.

Thinking about all this encouraged me to reach out to poet, scholar, and author Caroline Randall Williams. Six years ago, Caroline authored a cookbook, Soul Food Love, with her mother Alice Randall, herself a celebrated author and the first black woman to co-author a No. 1 country hit. You might have also read Caroline’s op-ed for the New York Times in the summer of 2020. In it, she addressed the continued existence of monuments honoring Confederate soldiers with the viral opening line, “I have rape-colored skin.”

In this episode, we discuss not only some of the very good recipes in that book, but also how Southern “comfort food” has become everyday cuisine — sometimes to our detriment. How do we interpret African American culinary traditions in modern times, and what are we getting wrong?

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. Of course, you’ll find much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Jamil Smith

How did you first come to identify or connect with food so intimately?

Caroline Williams

I’m torn about how to answer this question because I can’t figure out if I’m supposed to honor the ancestors or my living mother in the answer of it.

Jamil Smith

Honor the truth, that’s all.

Caroline Williams

I can say in broad strokes, I came to my relationship with food through the women in my family. The two things that came to mind were my Grandmother Joan’s kitchen, but then also the pictures of my mom feeding me as a baby, and the earliest memories of her doing all kinds of elaborate concoctions to try and make me happy when I was her baby girl.

So food as a way to communicate love has always been sort of central to that, I guess. And it’s always been part of our family stories. My first complete sentence was, “Mommy, artichoke please?” Which, I don’t know. That says so many things about me. My first sentence was about food, and it was about weird food, and it was polite, but it was also demanding.

Jamil Smith

I’d say that fits. You’ve requested an artichoke exactly one more time than I ever have.

How do you talk about food with your mother?

Caroline Williams

Well, that question is so layered these days, because we did write a whole book together. Co-writing a book is complicated under every circumstance, and writing one with your mother adds an extra layer of complication for sure, but also a layer of insight and love. So when Mom and I talk about food together, we’re really talking about family history. We’re talking about hard truths. We’re talking about shared memories. We’re talking about learning each other and our ancestors through the food, through the recipes, right?

And I think we’re talking about how we collaborate. Like, Mom and I, we don’t cook together that often. We cook for each other often, but not together often ’cause we cook so differently. Like, I’m a “clean up by myself while I cook” kinda girl, and Mom’s a mad scientist genius who gets all of the stuff done and then we sort of survey the landscape of the kitchen afterward. And then take a deep breath and clean. You know, you learn so much about each other.

So how do we talk about food? What the answer is is that food is in everything for us. It’s in our history. It’s in how we sit. It’s in how we gather. It’s in how we write, what we wanna write, our political concerns, our creative obsessions. Food tells stories, and food is about survival and Black joy, for me. And so is everything else I do.

Caroline Randall Williams smiling and holding a copy of her “Soul Food Love” cookbook.
Author Caroline Randall Williams attends the 47th NAACP Image Awards ceremony at the Pasadena Conference Center in California in 2016.
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Jamil Smith

It seems also to be a method of communication. And in being writers, we are used to communicating in certain ways.

I think certainly, our ancestors and our elders communicated to us through food. I remember, you know, thinking about Thanksgiving, and thinking about my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese with the skin on top, so to speak.

And honestly, because I grew up pescatarian, her making that special effort to make a little side dish for me and my mother while cooking for everybody else. And that, to me, communicated care and love. That, to me, also is the soul food that I remember, the food that literally fueled my soul.

What is soul food to you? And how do we come to call it that?

Caroline Williams

So this is an evolving question for me. I think that traditionally what I have said is, to me, soul food is food that’s prepared with love, to show that love to the people that you welcome to your table. In broad strokes, that’s what soul food is to me, is food that serves the body and soul of the people you love.

And I think that I use that definition because of the charge and challenge of the cookbook that Mom and I wrote together was really to try and reclaim narratives of health and body preservation through food in the Black story. And so I wanted to get away from this notion that all of our food is unhealthy, or the scope of our food is limited to the celebration food that we have traditionally, in the bigger picture, called soul food.

And I preface that question with — I have traditionally said, because I think that as I get older and as I evolve, I fall in love like with being Black again every day. Like I’m in love with it. I’m in love with our stories. I’m in love with the gift of this, being colored in America, together with the challenge of it. I do think that there is value in making the traditional lists of what soul food is too: the collard greens, the candied yams, the fried chicken, the cornbread, the monkey bread. The Hoppin’ John, the hush puppies, the fish.

Jamil Smith

(laughs) Right.

Caroline Williams

You know, the spaghetti. (laughs)

Jamil Smith


Caroline Williams

All that stuff, the macaroni and cheese, the list of true comfort things that got put out on your Nana’s table. That stuff, as some iteration of soul food, is valuable to name because it conjures so many shared memories for all of us, and that creates community.

But there’s a challenge there. You wanna name the things that are obviously familiar to the group, but also I do feel a responsibility and a desire to expand the definition. Because when I bake a fish, that’s soul food to me. Because I know that that was what my grandfather did. He’d catch red snapper in Alabama, and he’d bake them in tin foil, and that was his favorite thing, and that to me is soul food then. Right? It’s clean, simple food that is soul food, because it tells a Black American story that makes me feel loved and connected to my ancestors.

Jamil Smith

I see comfort food and soul food, I think, being equated quite a bit. And soul food being, like you said, presented in the mind as a certain set of images. You know, the fried chicken, and a lot of things, frankly, that are not healthy for us.

I don’t know if equating the two is always appropriate. Do you see a distinction at all? And if so, why do you think that might be significant?

Caroline Williams

Well, I think that what is comforting and what serves the purpose that soul food serves are not always the same thing. Right? Like I get comforted by a warm bowl of mashed potatoes, or a bunch of macaroni and cheese or greens or whatever, on a plate that I can just endlessly dive into. But then that’s also some version of soul food.

But then again, this question of the purpose past the aesthetic. That’s something that I think about with the blues a lot too. Like the sound of the blues versus the feeling of it. That’s sort of how I feel about soul food.

It’s like, the blues had one sound. Old-time music had its own sound, and then it sort of evolved into the early primitive blues, country blues. Then you get the blues with the electric guitars and all of the different sounds that emerged in the ’50s and ’60s with the blues. John Lee Hooker sounds a lot different than Lead Belly, right? It’s still all the blues, but there’s this evolution.

And to me, the blues is the sound of Black American suffering made into popular art to soothe the people who were suffering in the South. Right? And that sound can change, but the spirit behind the sound … to me, that’s the spirit of the blues.

So the spirit of soul food is the flavors of what helps Black people survive. And you survive by being comforted, but you also survive by being well. So that’s the question, can this baked fish and these peppery vegan greens, can that be soul food? Because it keeps me well and also engages with my food history? I hope so. I mean for it to be.

I think that there’s a question of taking comfort and healthy comfort versus self-soothing and self-medicating, and all of those parts too. I can’t give you simple answers to these questions.

Jamil Smith

I don’t want simple answers.

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