Soul Food Combines All of America’s Flavors, Experts Say

From left, food author Adrian Miller, moderator Nicole Brown and local chef Kenyatta Ashford.

By Shawn Ryan  

Kenyatta Ashford fondly remembers family dinners from his childhood in Louisiana as “like a hug.”

“My dad comes from a family of 13 out of rural Louisiana, and my mom comes from a family of nine. Our home became the central gathering place for family during holidays,” he recalled. “It was one of the things that propelled me into wanting to take care of people and prepare, you know, a really, really good meal for them.”

Ashford is chef at the local restaurant Neutral Ground and winner of the culinary competition “Chopped Next Gen” last year on the Food Network. He partnered with author Adrian Miller in a Thursday lecture, “A Conversation about Black Cuisine.”

“My central focus making food is ultimately to always make it delicious because it just brings up a certain comfort to you and everything,” Ashford said. “It’s kind of almost like a hug.”

Miller’s first book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” won the James Beard Foundation Award for Scholarship and Reference in 2014. His latest, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” published in 2021.

Sponsored by the Department of History Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the title of the lecture may have been “Black Cuisine,” but the conversation broadened far beyond. While there were discussions on the roots of soul food, the use of vegetables in many of its dishes, barbecue and other topics, it also branched into locally-sourced foods vs. corporate products, building a restaurant business and healthy food choices.

Considering soul food to strictly be a province of blacks, for instance, is the wrong attitude, Miller said.

“This is not a widely shared take, but this is my take. I think that anybody can make anybody’s food, but there are certain guidelines,” Miller said. “You’ve got to be on point with the flavor profile and make it correctly because the worst thing you could do is take food from another culture and make it poorly and make a nasty version of it.”

While the idea of soul food seems intrinsically tied to the South, the reality reaches much farther, Miller and Ashford said.

Some of it goes back to African slaves who brought recipes and cooking techniques from their native countries. Europeans also brought their styles. The Great Migration from 1910 until 1970 took blacks from the East into western America, where cuisines from Native Americans, Latinos and other cultures blended.

“When people come in contact with other people, they notice. They borrow. They experiment. That’s what the human experience has been about,” Miller said.

“Soul food is a coming together of West Africa, the Americas and Europe in terms of ingredients, techniques and culinary traditions. That all comes together in America,” he said.

Nor is soul food unhealthy, as many believe, Ashford explained. Despite the use of lard, fatback and other artery-jamming flavors in some dishes, the base of the cuisine is vegetables.

“I think, as a culture here in the United States, food became an unhealthy thing when it became industrialized,” he said. “Before World War II, lots of folks grew their own food. Food was vegetable heavy.