The African American Folklorist: Black Southern Food Tradition

Apr 28, 2021

The terms "soul food" and "Southern style food" were not an initial naming convention for the meals eaten in the households I grew up in. We ate what Grandma cooked. What Granddad bought, for Auntie and Momma to prepare.

As time went on, the meals of my family began popping up in stores around our community, then particular spaces across the nation by the name “Soul Food” or “Country Kitchen.”

I remember Country Kitchen specifically, because it was on the route home from church, and on special occasions my family and I would stop there to order meals. The food was good, not as good as my grandma, or mother’s, but nonetheless we enjoyed.


The irony is, as I matured in the space of being a folklorist, I wondered why we paid for meals identical to what we ate at home. And when and why did my grandma’s and mother’s meals receive this name. To us it was just dinner.  To many people, it’s just dinner, lunch, or breakfast.

As I pondered this, I began to remember the great times we had as a family, either around the dinner table, or sprinkled around my grandparents home. My grandparents had five children, and their children had children. So, it would be a full house.

I began to think about the activities that took place during those times. As a folklorist these are the questions, research topics and interests we dive into. In diving, I am introduced to Foodways.

For folklorists, the study of foodways is usually based on the research and inquiry of what food means to communities, families, folk groups and regions. Since I'm out to investigate the food naming conventions and tradition of my family, I thought it would make since to first get a working definition of the term foodways, making the connection of the study to the actual traditions.

I sat down with Dr. Ann K. Ferrell, Program Director and Associate Professor for Folk Studies at WKU who shares with us the meaning of foodways as a folklorist, and the many ways food plays significant roles in our social, political, economic life.

I then sat with my Uncle, a military man that was part of the migration from the Jim Crow south, to discuss our family foodway traditions that are still practiced in my home today.

If you have any African American Family Food traditions you would like to share, contact me via email.

Here’s part of my interview with Dr. Ferrell:

Dr. Ann K Ferrell: Foodways is variously defined as pretty much everything to do with food from how we procure it, you know, or gather it, to how we prepare it, consume it, and even how we clean up afterwards. So folklorists have been interested in food ways for a really long time. And as with any kind of folklore, research, what often the questions that we ask are mostly about meaning. So what is food mean in people's lives?

Lamont Jack Pearley:  What does food mean, in African American households, as far as I can remember, from Friday through Sunday, it meant family, friends, and what is now referred to as Southern Soul cooking. However, we never refer to it as such, and church was a big part. Here's my uncle Donald born in Chicago by way of Mississippi with some backstory.

Uncle Don:  Well, I do remember that we all would get together even when we were living there, or when I wasn't living there, we would still come by and mom would say, Hey, I got dinner coming, and she would be in the kitchen rattling those pots.  And she would have some potato salad and some collard greens, and some fried chicken and man, everybody will be sitting at the table, then we come and we say grace…we sit at the big table normally on Sunday, but she has small things during the week, on a Friday she was always trying to keep the family together.  And that's how she did it. Those things come back come way back from our family in Mississippi. That's what my folks are from. That's how they did in those days, especially on Sunday.

Lamont Jack Pearley: My initial question was based on my memory, but this was happening before me Anthony Eric Monique and Ashley was ever born, right?

Uncle Don:  That's where it started. That's where the tradition you see, that's where it came from. When I'm talking about it, the tradition I saw came from down south. That's what you saw because that's the way it came. And it continued to roll like that.

Lamont Jack Pearley: This traveled from Mississippi to Chicago to New York.

Uncle Don: That's correct. And my grandparents, that’s the way they did this thing. And my parents just followed suit with my grandparents.

Lamont Jack Pearley: At what point did it become called Southern Food?

Uncle Don: Mom made Country style Southern food, because that’s what she did.