Like a lot of native Texans, I’ve always struggled to distinguish what was Southern and what was soul food.
Was the hot water cornbread I begged my Austin-born mother to fry soul or Southern? How about the corn fritters, or the well-spiced collard greens with ham hocks on New Year’s?
Mac and cheese? Fried catfish? Until now, I couldn’t grasp the differences between Southern and soul. As a child, I connected the word soul with heaven and the lifting of spirits. In that simplistic, literal understanding, mac and cheese was indeed soul food. But so was German chocolate cake and pretty much anything with cream gravy.
My understanding of soul food has evolved. Soul food, I’ve learned editing this issue, certainly has its roots in the rural South. But it’s much more than comforting food. It’s about legacy, heritage and hardship.
The term soul food didn’t become common until the 1960s and the rise of the civil rights movement and efforts by Black Americans to reclaim their cultural legacy.
In 2019, Chef Gerry “G.” Garvin, author of “A Message to my Children” and former host of the cooking show “Turn Up the Heat with G,” told USA Today the essence of soul food is the spirituality, the love, the family, the connectivity and the escape from life’s strains over a really good meal.
“Soul food is something that was derived from the generation of former slave mentality, where we were given a certain ingredient, and we were taught to survive by eating it,” Garvin told USA Today. “That’s what made them survive — soul food in name is part Southern and part soul because times were just so (expletive) difficult for former slaves and people who still lived in the slave mentality. All they had was a good Southern dinner where they shared a good dinner and their soul.”
Aficionados have lamented lately the gentrification and overpricing of soul food. And there are worries of cultural appropriation as soul food becomes ever more popular.
That gentrification so far hasn’t seemed to afflict the upper Texas coast, where established and new soul food restaurants alike keep it simple and good.
There’s a difference between appreciation and appropriation. Here, long-time Black restaurants thrive with diverse followings. Walk into Johnae’s Soulfood in Dickinson and you’ll find a cross-section of locals digging into to some of the best down-home food around. The restaurant gets much love for smothered pork chops, meatloaf, fried catfish and more. I still dream about the biscuits.
We can’t thank owner Johnae Lynn Cotton enough for her hospitality and Creole shrimp for this cover.
This issue celebrates the rich heritage of Black-owned restaurants and chefs who feed us.
Although I’ve come to understand the differences in soul and Southern foods, I haven’t changed my long-held conviction that good, comforting food lifts the soul. Readers tend to agree, as you’ll find in our Shorelines feature.
Food plays a big part in defining cultures and bringing people together at the table.
In that spirit, Coast Monthly is excited to announce we’ve joined forces with Alicia Cahill, owner of The Kitchen Chick in Galveston’s downtown and author of many a delicious recipe for The Galley in this magazine, to produce a Coast Monthly Favorites cookbook.
Look soon for more details about that culinary collaboration.
Meanwhile, we hope you eat up every bite of this edition of Coast Monthly’s yearly food issue. Stay hungry and bon appétit.