Here in Nashville, filling a plate of food can open a history book, a family photo album or a bottle of medication.
That is, a plate of soul food. Or Southern cuisine. The definition may be up for debate, but the symbolism is less likely to divide a table.
“You can have fried chicken, greens – usually turnip or collards – sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, pork … and it doesn’t have to even include meat to be soul or Southern food. To our family it was taking what you had and making something beautiful with it,” said Brenda Moses, a former political advocate who grew up in Jackson with Gil Scott-Heron. She travels to meet her friends at Swett’s Family restaurant on Clifton once or twice a month.
Friends at Swett's: George Wright Jr., Brenda Moses and Gloria Dailey Towner
“We had a big family, and I started cooking on a stool in my mother’s kitchen at age 8 or 9. And we were masters of recycling. When there was a hog, we used all of it. The backpackers would take whatever’s left of the farm – food that was going to be thrown away, if you can believe it – and we’d make delicious chitterlings, cowpeas, squash casserole. We used to lay out card tables, to gather around – because back then we couldn’t go out to hotels or wherever because we are black. Preparing this food and getting together to eat it – that was my whole life.” Moses said. “This food is like medicine. It just makes you feel better.”
Gloria Dailey Towner, a retired educator and friend of Moses, said the cuisine is equally close to her heart.
“My family were sharecroppers, we grew cotton, and as a child I couldn’t work on the farm because I had bad allergies. So at a very young age I was cooking this food in our kitchen.
“There is a place in the world for soul food. When everything else is going on in the world – you look for comfort. Those senses of smell and taste of the flavor coming together bring senses to the soul. It’s a marriage of spicy and sweet. You will see condiments – like hot pepper sauce – at soul food places that you won’t see in any other restaurant.”
On any given day at Swett’s the menu includes fried chicken, turnip or collard greens, candied sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and pork ribs, chops, and feet, plus simple sweet desserts.
“If you look around,” Towner said of Swett’s dining room, “it brings all types of people together. On Sundays, you will see people from all types of religions. It doesn’t matter what color you are, where you are. [Soul food] is spiritual, a place of comfort, love and the memory – it becomes associated with peace and love. We come together to eat together and experience the comfort.”
Diane Stewart, head chef and owner of Ella Jean’s café adjacent to Meharry Medical College on what she calls “a back alley of Jefferson Street,” resounded Towner’s comments. “It just brings people together, no matter what race.” Stewart said her restaurant, cafeteria style and having intense customer loyalty, serves Southern cuisine – what she describes as “classic Southern dishes.”
Stewart said she left a more than 10-year career with Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority to do what she has loved the most her entire life – cooking.
“I’ve always loved how food unites people, in good times and bad.”
However, she distinguishes Southern cooking from soul food as simple recipes like chess pie, sweet potato pie, meatloaf, cabbage and fried chicken. “I think of soul food as heavier, more meat, more fat.”
Stewart said she is happy to see restaurants like Dan’s (Dandgure's Classic Southern Cooking) still going strong, and new ones honoring tradition like Kingdom Café & Grill and Mai-Bees Southern Cuisines, both on Jefferson Street, open up, and interested in how people, like one woman in the neighborhood from Trinidad, is taking recipes from her home to marry them with Southern U.S. cooking.
“Soul food and Southern food overlap extensively because they are born in the same region,” said Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.
“To me, the main difference is in how the cuisines are performed. soul food tends to have more intense flavors: saltier, spicier and sweeter,” he said, citing Nashville Hot Chicken as a perfect example.
However, Moses, Stewart and Towner independently agreed that “new” Nashville restaurants serving hot chicken are “too rushed” and “not in the tradition of comfort.”
“The lines between savory and sweet are blurred more often in soul food,” Miller said. “The best example here is that a soul food cook always put some amount of sugar in cornbread.”
Another hallmark of soul food is the extensive use of various meats, he said, “But that's no longer exclusive to soul food now that other chefs celebrate nose-to-tail cooking.” Ultimately, he said soul food is the cuisine that African American migrants took from the South and transplanted in other parts of the country.
Miller explained that soul food is the fusion of cuisines of West Africa, West Europe and the Americas. It's too simplistic to think of it as “slave food that was the master's leftovers,” he said, because that ignores the movement of ingredients and the class dimensions of the cuisines.
“In most cases, food in the American South is about place and class more than race," Miller said. "Black and white Southerners of the same socio-economic status were pretty much eating the same foods.”
“Though the use of unpopular ingredients is a part of the story,” he said, “it's not the whole story.”
It’s a story that continues to be written.