The African American diaspora launched a wave of cooking traditions and styles throughout the United States that became synonymous with “Southern,” “comfort,” or “down-home” food. As descendants of enslaved people moved throughout and beyond the South, they adapted old family recipes to meet the changing ingredients and socioeconomic conditions. In the mid-20th century, the term “soul food” became broadly used to describe the style of food found in Black communities—a style reflected in many food traditions found in the South.
The 2021 Gather ‘Round event in Atlanta invited a panel of chefs and recent cookbook authors to discuss their thoughts on soul food and its influences on their cooking. Panelists included chef and spice entrepreneur Belinda Smith-Sullivan, who released her new cookbook Southern Sugar in September.
Smith-Sullivan took a moment during the event to share her thoughts on soul food, her new cookbook, and pound cake.
Belinda Smith-Sullivan on Soul Food
The Local Palate: How has your perception of soul food evolved over time?
Belinda Smith-Sullivan: Soul food… It’s interesting. I work with IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), every year we have this discussion. In my opinion, soul food refers to the foods I had as a child. Soul food was the food African Americans cooked and ate in our segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. Now, soul food is almost synonymous with comfort food… In my mind, it is synonymous with comfort food. All of it has its roots in Southern food, and now both have merged. I don’t think you can separate the two.
TLP: What memories do you have associated with the foods or meals you grew up with? Do those align with what you consider soul food today?
BSS: I used to spend summers in Mississippi with my grandparents. Soul foods were the foods that they cooked and my mother’s type of cooking when she moved away from there. It was usually just a weekly menu and it repeated itself over and over again. Now it might get boring, but then it didn’t, because you always had something to look forward to. Thursday night was spaghetti and meatballs—my favorite comfort food! I grew up in a Christian family, and on Fridays, we ate fried fish. That’s a tradition I still maintain today.
It wasn’t until I got to college in Minnesota that I was introduced to other foods. There, the food has a heavy Swedish influence. When I first saw Swedish meatballs, I thought, “Oh, no, those are not meatballs.”
TLP: You’ve been in the kitchen from a very young age. What about being there and being with your mother and female family members made you fall in love with cooking?
BSS: Oh, no, it was both men and women cooking. My parents are from huge families, and everyone, including the men, cooked something.
Growing up, I was the only girl in my family, and there weren’t many girls in my neighborhood. The boys played a little too rough, and I was a tiny little thing, so I always stayed close to mama. I’d do my homework and watch her cooking. I’d ask, “Mama, what are you putting in there? Why are you putting that in there?” When she realized I was learning her recipes, I became her secret weapon, and I could help her out.
When people say to me, “Oh, I don’t like to cook,” it’s like they took a knife and stabbed me in the heart because it’s just who I am. The kitchen is where I go to escape, and cooking is what I do to relax. The kitchen is my domain.
TLP: What elements of other nations’ cuisines have you fallen in love with? Did you discover any international culinary traditions that resonated with your notions of soul food?
BSS: Through my three cookbooks, I’ve become pigeon-holed as a Southern cook, but my specialty is actually Mediterranean. It’s not that I’m cooking different things; it’s all about the herbs and spices I incorporate into the things that I’ve been cooking all along. I like the simple, healthy cuisine that comes from the Mediterranean. I think food should look like what it is, I think it should be simple, and I think it should be good.
TLP: What story are you trying to tell through the recipes in Southern Sugar?
BSS: I want people to love baking again. There are people who love to cook, but they’re afraid of baking. In a lot of ways, baking is easier than cooking a savory dish, because it’s all laid out for you. If you can read, you can bake. Start with something simple, pound cake! You don’t have to worry about icing, different layers; you just put it in the pan and voila! You can’t ruin it if you try.
Interview has been condensed for web publication.
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