By Justin Adams

DENVER (CBS4) – Soul food is the traditional food for African Americans, and it has its roots developed in the rural southern United States. CBS4’s Justin Adams spoke with Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, as part of CBS4’s ongoing series: Elevating Black Voices.

Miller says the term “soul food” was developed in the 1940s and 50s by jazz musicians.

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“Jazz musicians used the term ‘soul’ to describe the music in the Black church and the rural south and then that got currency in other parts of the culture. So, it was soul music first, soul brother, soul sisters, soul food. But, in the 1960s is when it really went mainstream,” Miller said.

The staples of soul food ranges from leafy green vegetables, okra, beans, sweet potatoes, cornmeal (used to make cornbread), macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and fried fish, and banana pudding just to name a few. Miller talks about several staples of “soul food.”

(credit: CBS)

Chicken

According to Miller, chickens trace their heritage to the jungle fowl of Southeast Asia that were first domesticated around 2,000 B.C.E. They have long been valued as a food as well as for their mystical qualities such as predicting weather or the future.

“West Africans have been familiar with chickens as late as 1,000 A.D., and many enslaved African American raised chickens for food or to sell to others. In time, chicken became a Sunday dinner favorite and is often cooked by baking, frying or simmering and smothering in gravy,” Miller said.

Chicken is leaner than other meats and it has less cholesterol.

Greens

Leafy, green vegetables are a big part of soul food cuisine. The five most popular greens are: cabbage, collards, kale, mustard and turnip greens.

“West Africans use greens in many dishes, and that culinary legacy crossed the Atlantic during the slave trade.  Enslaved West Africans couldn’t always get their native African greens in the Americas so they substituted the European greens in their dishes,” Miller said.

Okra

Okra is a green vegetable that is native to West Africa. When boiled or steamed, okra has a slimy property that makes it a favorite ingredient to thicken West African sauces and stews.

“Gumbo, the famous dish in Cajun and Creole cuisines, is a clear descendant of West African cooking. In many West African languages, “gumbo” is the name for okra. In the past decade, okra dusted with cornmeal and fried has become very popular, but give you should give fresh, boiled and steamed okra a chance,” Miller said.

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Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes were cultivated in South America as late as 2,000 B.C.E. Christopher Columbus made note of sweet potatoes in the journal he kept on his first voyage to the Americas. Columbus brought sweet potatoes back to Europe where they were an instant hit. It was European colonizers who brought sweet potatoes to the antebellum South where it was a common food grown by and fed to slaves. There are many types of sweet potatoes, and in time, the darker flesh sweet potatoes were mistakenly called “yams.”

A popular way to make sweet potatoes is to serve as candied yams in a sweet sauce or fried like French fries or tater tots.  A very nutritious way to make sweet potatoes is to simply roast them and add a little butter.

Cornbread

Cornbread is made from grounded up corn and other ingredients. “Corn” is a British word that was generically used for any grain, but in time it’s become the specific name we’ve given to a specific grain called maize. The maize plant was first cultivated in central Mexico in 5,000 B.C.E. and is now grown around the world. West Africans became familiar with corn which made its way to Africa during the 1500s, and it was a dietary staple for slaves throughout the antebellum South.

Cornbread remains a bread of choice for soul food cooks even to this day. A range of cornbread’s are made by soul food cooks including hot water cornbread, skillet cornbread and spoonbread (a cornbread soufflé).

Beverage: Ice Tea or Flavored Drink

Soul food should be washed down with a red drink. Though carbonated beverages and drinks made from flavored powders are often used, consider a healthier alternative by making an iced tea made from the red flowers of the hibiscus plant which is native to West Africa.

Hibiscus tea is also known as bissap in several West African countries, sorrel tea in the Caribbean and agua de Jamaica in Latin America. You can find hibiscus tea in the tea section of your grocery store.

Banana pudding

When banana pudding first hit the scene in the mid-1800s, it was a dessert mainly enjoyed by the rich because bananas were so expensive to import into the United States. As the price of bananas has fallen, banana pudding has become something to be enjoyed by all kinds of people. Whether prepared with a homemade custard or a pudding mix, banana pudding is a crowd favorite.

Bananas are native to tropical Malaysia, but they have quickly spread around the world.  As bananas become more accepted as a food, they were incorporated into existing desserts. That’s what happened with banana pudding which is an adaptation of the British dessert called trifle. Trifles were essentially small cakes with a sweet custard sauce poured over them.  Now, the cake has been replaced with vanilla wafer cookies.

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Find out more about Adrian Miller and the books he’s written. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter, and like his Facebook Fan Page.

Justin Adams