The roots of soul food run deep.
Mary McCallum-Stewart isn’t as well-known as Sylvia Woods, purveyor of Harlem’s legendary eatery, Sylvia’s Restaurant. But McCallum-Stewart also built a soul food legacy. The Jackson, Mississippi native launched her own soul food empire in 1969. Los Angeles’ M&M Soul Food Restaurant was inspired by her nickname, “Mississippi Mary.”
Although McCallum-Stewart passed away in 1998, her contribution thrives through various restaurants that bear some form of her name. They reach from southern California to Las Vegas, where her younger brother Ventress McCallum expanded the business. Her daughters Nicole Shaw and Debra Ratliff run Mary Stewart’s Southern Soul Food in the city of Rialto in the L.A. metro area.
“We had to learn by our mom showing us,” Shaw says of their culinary inheritance. “It’s not like us cooking by watching Food Network, by measurement. You can’t cook by measurement . . . We had to learn by our mom showing us, ‘This is what you do,’ and you cook by taste.”
Oxtails — cow tails, actually — are their most popular dish, along with greens, mac and cheese, yams, and red beans and rice.
For most, the term “soul food” harkens back to the 1960s’ civil rights and black power movements. But the
term has a longer history, says Adrian E. Miller, the Denver-based author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of An American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Shakespeare employed the expression in his first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. During early American history, black Americans used “soul food” in a religious context for centuries. Black jazz musicians created a style of play in the 1940s known as “soul food” that white musicians couldn’t easily duplicate. Soul food became most popular, though, during the 1960s.
“What happens in the ’60s is that ‘soul food’ as a term gets racialized and radicalized,” says Miller, also known as “the Soul Food Scholar.” “The Black Power advocates were trying to figure out, ‘How do we connect the very diverse African-American communities around the country?’ because what was happening in the rural South resonated with people to some extent, but what was going on in the urban North and out west was different. So they decided that culture was one of the best ways to connect people, and food was the great connector.
“[Also,] the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by this time in the mid-’60s, had expelled all the white members. A manifesto of theirs was leaked to The New York Times, and that manifesto said that white people can’t understand things like ham hocks, brains, pig’s feet, which was news to white Southerners because they’d been eating the same foods for 200 years.
“So, at that point, in that decade, ‘soul’ becomes ‘black,’ and ‘Southern’ becomes ‘white,’ and we’re still living with the legacy of that today. So much so that African-American contributions to Southern cuisine have been obscured,” Miller says.
National Soul Food Month, observed in June, is in its 15th year, says Charla Draper, a former food editor for both Ebony and Southern Living magazines. She now provides food consulting and public relations through her company, It’s Food Biz.
“National Soul Food Month grew out of a conference that was hosted in Chicago by one of the organizations I belong to, the Culinary Historians of Chicago,” Draper says. “The conference occurred in 2000 and 2001. The conference was called Grits and Greens and, in the second year of the conference, we created the National Soul Food Month identity, just really to help spread the word.”
Today some may view soul food as the unhealthy cuisine that black Southerners carried over from slavery. But the “unhealthy” assessment, Miller says, is untrue. “When you look at what people were eating, it’s actually closer to what we call ‘vegan’ today because there wasn’t a lot of meat,” he says. “[Meat] didn’t anchor the meal the way it does now.”
Food pioneer Edna Lewis — whose grandparents were enslaved — recalled in her revered 1976 cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, fried chicken was “a very special dish … produced only once a year in late spring through early summer” in her native Freetown, Virginia. Today, fried chicken is widely considered a soul food staple.
One main soul food feature never changes, however. “We just cook from the heart,” says Nicole Shaw. “We just cook from the foundation of what we were brought from.”