D.C.’s soul food scene is at risk, and some local chefs are hoping that bringing more awareness to the African American roots of southern cooking will help.
Oji Abbott, the chef at Ooh’s & Aah’s Soul Food on Georgia Avenue in Northwest D.C., said soul food-specific Southern restaurants have been disappearing in the District. Soul food restaurants have historically operated in Black communities in D.C., while Southern-style restaurants are more common in white areas of the city, he said.
“There were a lot of soul food restaurants,” Abbott said. “Nowadays however, there are not as many, and they’re definitely not prevalent in every neighborhood. I will say that yeah I’m one of the last ones that’s been able to really build the brand, keep it going on.”
Abbott explained how nonsoul Southern restaurants sometimes appropriate soul food dishes like chicken and waffles or shrimp and grits as “southern-inspired cuisine” without explaining the meals’ origins. This obscures their history and erases the unpaid labor of African American chefs who created those dishes, he said.
“Quite obviously, my forefathers and ancestors didn’t receive any monetary consideration,” Abbott said. “They were slaves, and they created this. And they didn’t get any pay for it.”
Christopher Carter, the author of The Spirit of Soul Food and a professor of theology and ethics at San Diego State University, echoed the importance of the African American contributions to Southern food, which many fans of Southern cuisine don’t recognize.
“There’s this way in which white people from the South claim, ‘Some of these foods are ours, and we make them too, and our parents made them, and our grandparents made them,’” Carter said. “And that’s true – it’s just, where did their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents get those ideas from? Because the likelihood is of it being kitchens that were run by men and women who were all Black.”
Jerome Grant, the executive chef at the local soul food fusion restaurant Jackie and the inaugural executive chef of Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, said deciding what dishes to put on the menu at the café was difficult. He said between every regional cuisine influenced by African American cooks, there was a huge variety of food to choose from.
“This industry was built on brown hands,” Grant said. “You look at it historically, Black people were always in some kind of hospitable fashion. We were the doormen, we were the maids, we were the servants, we were the valets, we were the chefs, we were the cooks. Hospitality was something that we built.”
Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty focuses his research on the food traditions of enslaved Africans in the New World and wrote the book “The Cooking Gene,” which won a 2018 James Beard Award. Twitty underscored the legacy of enslavement in the District, which laid the foundation for the area’s soul food.
“Soul food is the memory cuisine of the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of the enslaved,” he said.
He added that soul food is a way of creating a feeling of togetherness in the face of racial oppression and communicating coping tools to handle it.
“The kitchen gives you those tools,” Twitty said. “Cooking gives you those tools.”
Twitty also pointed out the importance of differentiating between the terms “African American” and “Black” when discussing soul food, saying that African American specifically refers to the ancestors who were forced from Africa during enslavement, while Black is a broader category.
“Soul food is a predominantly African American experience and tradition,” Twitty said.
Twitty also differentiates the soul food “canon,” the genre of traditional soul food as a whole, from the soul food “construct,” foods experimenting with the soul-food tradition by taking the flavors and experience of soul food and remixing it.
“If it’s the canon, then it could be fried catfish or it could be collard greens or it could be red drink or it could be any number of different vegetables,” Twitty said. “If it’s the construct, it could be someone having oven-baked chicken instead of fried or a hibiscus red drink instead of it being a Kool-Aid or another kind of punch.”
“Just think about what nutritionists are telling us to eat these days,” Miller said. “More dark leafy greens, more sweet potatoes, fish, okra, hibiscus. Those are all the building blocks of soul food.”
Miller also said many people have never learned about the strong influence soul food and Black and African American culinary traditions have had on Southern cuisine. He said the most notable example of this is Nashville hot chicken.
“It’s from a Black restaurant named Prince’s in Nashville,” Miller said. “The story is that this guy was cheating on his woman. To get back at him, she made a super spicy version of his favorite thing, fried chicken, to burn his mouth out. But he ended up loving it.”
Miller also pushed the importance of celebrating the origin of famous soul-food dishes being served by Black chefs, saying that Black food hasn’t had a “cheerleader” the way that Black music, sports and fashion have and giving the examples of Snoop Dogg, LeBron James and Beyoncé.
“I think it’s important to explain the African American contributions so that African Americans don’t seem like a side story but part of the main story,” he said. “I just think it’s important to be inclusive about African American contributions to America’s food story.”