Soul Food History – Healthful Roots

african marketLast week, at the American Stroke Association’s Annual Conference in Hawaii, researchers presented a study that found that eating a “southern style diet” increased stroke risk by 41%.  Further, the study found that “eating a Southern diet accounted for 63 percent of the higher risk of stroke among African-Americans above that of their white counterparts.”  The researchers described a “Southern Diet” as consisting of foods such as fried chicken and fish, fried potatoes, bacon, and sweet tea – foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

But is the diet that the researchers describe representative of “Soul Food?” Or were the researchers making up their own definition, while ignoring the healthful aspects of Soul Food, which has its roots in West African cuisine? The answer might surprise you!

The Healthful Roots of Southern Cooking and Soul Food

The same study found, “Those whose diets were highest in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains (eaten about five times a week) had a 29 percent lower stroke risk than those whose diets were the lowest in these foods (eaten about three times a week).” Soul food, and by extension southern cooking, is based on the diet that West Africans brought with them to this country on the slave ships.

In his book,  Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, Frederick Douglass Opie,  a professor of history at Marist College, states that the traditional West African diet was predominantly vegetarian, centered on things like millet, rice, field peas, okra, hot peppers, and yams. Meat was used sparingly, as a seasoning. (Click here to read more about the West African roots of soul food on

In other words, the West African diet was healthy.  Not only that, but the West Africans carried their passion for healthy food with them when they were forcefully brought here on  slave ships.  Many of these individuals not only cooked for themselves, but for their white masters, incorporating their rich culinary traditions into what would eventually become Soul Food.

In our own “Savory Soulful Recipes” brochure (click here to download), we feature a host of healthy, folate full recipes.

Throughout the next two weeks, our posts will celebrate African American contributions to health and healthful food.  We’ll start next week with two columns on an African vegetable that is full of fiber and folate.  Hints: 1) A famous southern stew is named after it; 2) it’s said to resemble a “lady’s finger.”

If you haven’t guessed, tune in on Monday to learn more!

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