Soul food is healthier and more diverse than fried chicken: Carla Hall

Mention “soul food” and many people picture crispy, golden fried chicken and catfish, tender collards with ham hocks, smoky barbecue ribs and cornbread, rendered moist and rich with a stick of butter.

Those iconic foods are just a slice of what historically made up the traditional foods of African Americans. Why did these “celebration foods,” as I call them, become ubiquitous at Southern restaurants and church suppers, while other historic — and more nutritious foods — have faded? And how can we bring the full range of traditional soul food back to our plates?

Many of the dietary staples of African Americans, from the time of slavery, to emancipation, to reconstruction to the great migration were plant-based and nutrient-rich. West Africans bound for enslavement carried sorghum, millet, cassava and red peas. On Southern plantations, slaves cultivated and ate yams, okra, black-eyed peas and turnip greens. These foods are every bit as vital to the history of African American food culture as the fried and heavily salted foods that dominate what people think of today as soul food.

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