Lifting the lid on a family tradition
February 23rd, 2011
05:45 PM ET
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Cara Reedy is an Executive Assistant at CNN. She previously wrote for Eatocracy on being a small cook in a big kitchen.

I grew up in St. Louis, MO which is considered the Midwest, but has some clear southern leanings. Barbecue and fried chicken were always around. One of my favorite meals as a child was a one-pot meal consisting of potatoes, green beans, carrots and cabbage boiled with a ham hock. My parents served it with a fresh batch of corn bread to soak up the juices - often called pot liquor or potlikker.

I never really thought anything about this meal other than I liked it. When you're a kid, you generally don't analyze your food that deeply. It’s either like or can’t stand. Flash forward to adulthood, when I started doing some personal research on the African American slave diet. I suddenly realized that what my parents were serving was the original soul food.

Most people think of soul food as heavy, greasy and fattening and plenty of it is. My family reunion wouldn’t be the same without BBQ, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.

This wasn't our diet when our people first arrived in this country. We were Africans and like most immigrants we had to adapt our palates to what was available, it didn’t change automatically. Our diet was mostly plant-based with meat appearing in dishes as a seasoning not the main course. Slaves were only given meat scraps that their owners didn’t want, like ham hocks and neck bones.

In most cases they were also allowed to have small gardens where they grew high yield, low effort crops like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, cabbages, greens, peanuts and corn - which they ground up into meal for corn bread and jonnycakes. Slaves were actually, by most accounts, very healthy people; they had to be in order to work twelve hours in the field.

This may not seem like a groundbreaking research to most people, but it is an interesting piece of my ancestry that was staring me in the face my whole life. African Americans, myself included, struggle with the loss of chunks of our history to slavery. It was eye-opening to realize that the meal my parents prepared at least once a month is a direct connection to ancestors whose stories I will never know.

Got a story about your family's culinary roots? She it in the comments below.

Previously - A toast to Leah Chase

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Filed under: Black History Month • Cuisines • Culture • Food History • Holidays • Soul


soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. nyviewer

    I often throw whatever is in the fridge bins into a pot and cook it up. veggies, potatoes, a smoked turky wing ( gave up pork so no more hamhocks for me). some herbs, and water. cook it up and enjoy! The simplest of foods are often the tastiest.
    I can go into a friends pantry and fridge and come up with a tasty meal with whatever I find. This comes from growing up poor. My parents were europeans and brought the poor country folk style of cooking with them. We made all parts of food usable and stretched it to feed us for days. No fast food in our house. Rare occasion a hot dog or soda, but that was truly a treat back then.
    As long as what you make is made with love and care, it will taste wonderful.

    February 28, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  2. Sam Meyer

    Really nice article. Makes me want some pot likker right now!

    February 24, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  3. Panties

    I just live to eat. I will eat any damn thing that looks good.

    February 24, 2011 at 5:16 am | Reply
    • RuPaul

      Honey, you can eat my pantiezz any day.

      February 24, 2011 at 7:49 am | Reply
  4. DerekL

    Great – you've discovered what pretty much anyone with basic knowledge of American food history has known for decades. It's not only not groundbreaking, it's not interesting, it's old news.

    February 24, 2011 at 3:52 am | Reply
  5. BB Girl

    This is the food that I grew up eating at grandma's house. We never looke at it as black or white food, just as country food. My black friends were so suprised when they were discussing "soul" food one day and I chimed in with the fact that I grew up eating the same foods. Being poor doesn't see in colors when it comes to feeding a family, but these foods were filling and tasty.

    February 24, 2011 at 2:31 am | Reply
  6. cheese.cole

    "I worry that in today's world where we have food hurled at us through drive-through windows or pop prepackaged glop in the microwave for a couple of minutes and call it dinner, we miss out on this aspect of our families' unique histories."

    ...only if you go to these places and park in front of the drive through will they "hurl" it at you..... they don't do that at a grocery store, try going there for food instead.... come on people...I'm a chef and i find all the blame "hurled" at "the fast food industry" sickening...i don't like that sort of food so I DON"T BUY IT ...that simple.... instead of blaming some faceless "industry" why don't we realize that we've stopped teaching our children to cook.... more than that most of the adults i know can't cook without opening a box of this or that... if you can't create something healthy for your family to eat right now, how is your son or daughter gonna eat? ...just like you do, that's how. Take a hint from our author here... this is less about slavery and the horrors that people lived through and more about going home, making dinner. (and i mean MAKING, not opening, adding water and trying not to worry about all the chemicals and preservatives and such that PRECEDE the actual item you're supposed to be eating from said box. ...just make Dinner and sit and talk and be a family. That's the ONLY way to preserve our own family histories and provide our children with the tools they need to be healthy and happy.... and who knows? Maybe they'll teach their kids and they'll teach theirs...and so on....

    this is a great article! food for thought to be sure. Enjoy eating your histories people! (I want the recipe too!)

    February 24, 2011 at 2:04 am | Reply
    • ch6541

      cheese.cole, I think you and I are in agreement here. Please understand, I wasn't laying blame at the fast food doorstep. The statement was made for literary emphasis, and was not to be considered an indictment of drive-throughs than Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" should be considered a legitmate dietary recommendation. The issue IS in the fact that people don't take control over what goes in their mouths, and they CHOOSE to accept less than stellar options. Fast food serves its purpose for convenience, and to satisfy the occasional "Mac Attack." Nothing wrong with that once in a while.

      Learning to cook is important. Continuing to do it is essential. I find it amazing how many contemporaries don't know that real gravy doesn't come from a jar, or that you make make a stock by simmering bones and/or root vegetables, or that mayonaise is egg-based.

      Anyway, I just thought I'd make sure you understood that the choir agrees with you, Pastor Cole.

      February 24, 2011 at 3:23 am | Reply
  7. ch6541

    I think this is a great article. I worry that in today's world where we have food hurled at us through drive-through windows or pop prepackaged glop in the microwave for a couple of minutes and call it dinner, we miss out on this aspect of our families' unique histories. The time I spent in the kitchen cooking with my mom and grandmother (and sitting down to dinner with the rest of the family) was amazing.

    I never met my mom's great-grandmother, but my mom started talking about how her grandmother's strawberry pie was so much better than anything you could find today one day while we wre cooking. Before we knew it, we dug out her recipe and fixed it. (The secret is to spread a layer of cream cheese in the baked shell before cooking down some fresh berries with sugar, a little water and thickening it with corn starch to pour over the fresh berries.)

    Another time, I found out why my mom's date nut bread was so much better than any other i'd made or had. She and my dad were married in November and had so little money for Christmas gifts, she was going to make date nut bread for everyone in the family, but she couldn't afford to buy the walnuts. Her new father-in-law told her when he was a kid, they only used black walnuts because the trees were so plentiful on the farm. He shelled bags and bags for her. Now, we don't get date nut bread unless there are black walnuts to be found.

    If we don't return to the kitchen and the familiy table, we're likely to lose our existing oral histories and never start any of our own.

    February 24, 2011 at 1:04 am | Reply
  8. David Soares

    Mam that stuff is delicious-we Italians been making it for hundreds of years, we call it Minestrone–which in Italian means mixed up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My Aunt from teregio said it meant "from the garden"

    February 23, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Reply
  9. Ames Wolff

    Great little story. I love that kind of food. Rib sticking with lots of flavor. But, why don't the ancestors of slaves refer to themselves as "American Africans" instead of "African Americans"? Being American should come before being African....I refer to myself as an American of Scottish and German descent. Just sayin'...

    February 23, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Reply
    • Donna

      They are African Americans because they are first and foremost Americans. "African" is the modifier American is the noun. An American African would be someone born in African of American descent. You sound like an uneducated pill.

      February 23, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Reply
      • Donna

        born in *Africa* of American descent. Such as Liberians.

        February 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Reply
      • Whitegirl

        "Librarians?"

        February 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  10. AV Dave

    I must agree with another poster. It is absolutely criminal, criminal I say, that the writer did not include a recipe for this strangely tempting dish.

    February 23, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  11. John R

    Oddly enough, I picked up more of my own family cooking habits from my father rather than my mother. His family is wealthy Bostonian mixed with a dose of Philadelphian. Of cuorse, by the time his generation came around, that money was gone – so I picked up "make food visually and flavorly elegant, but... uh... try to do it with canned beans and governemnt cheese, ok?"

    My mother is off-the-boat (ok, airplane) German of Silesian background, so I also have a habit of eating things like liverwurst or pickled sardines which tends to make my wife cringe. It will be interesting seeing how my newborns tastes evolve, as his mother is a downeast Mainer of French stock on her father's side!

    February 23, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Reply
  12. Ivy

    The article is light and a nice quick read. The recipe sounds delicious and similar to things my own family makes only insert pieces of roast instead. We are of hungarian and polish descent. I have to mention though... The one tiny thing that bugs me from the article is " African Americans, myself included, struggle with the loss of chunks of our history to slavery." You did not lose chunks of your history... those periods ARE your history. In every single people across the world there are good times and bad times. Sometimes there are horrible times. You don't just toss out the bad times and say they aren't part of your history. The history of a people includes both good times and bad.

    My own people ended up in the camps alongside of the jewish and other smaller persecuted groups. Those times in our history were as horrific ... but those chunks are not lost. Those chunks are still there and are a part of who we are... and always will be.

    Slavery was awful, but it was there, it was in the history of all those who suffered and those who profited from it. That is just the way it is.

    February 23, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Reply
    • EbonyandIvory

      Speaking from my own point of view, I believe the author is referring to those lost chunks of history as the part of the African experience that ceases to exist once they had made the trip to America. As a mixed race woman I can, and have, traced my Irish father's family tree back to his motherland almost three generations prior to his trip to America. I have not been so lucky to do so with my African American mother's family history. The genealogy search truly ends when her ancestors were sold as property during the slave trade, thus the lost chunk of history in our family tree.

      February 23, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Reply
    • Barada

      I think what is meant by "losing chunks of history to slavery" is the fact that connections to their history in Africa were lost. Also, because of the lack of proper records and use of surnames, it is very difficult to formally trace family histories during the slave times and even during reconstruction.

      February 23, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  13. Marge

    One of our favorite foods as a child growing was a big old pot of pinto beans cooked with ham hooks. But we had a corn cake to go with it. We didn't have the fixin's for corn bread so my mother made corn cakes instead. To this day I just can't fix those pinto beans unless I have the corn cakes. And a lot of poor growing up white people wish they knew more about their ancestry. I have spent the last 25 years researching it.

    February 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Reply
  14. Lucky Louie

    How about a recipe, please, Cara. I guess we could "wing it", but it wouldn't be the same. Sounds great on a cold winter night.

    February 23, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Reply
    • MakeYourOwn

      Heck, there's no specific 'recipe' for such a one-pot meal other than whatever you have and your own ideas about what will taste good together. There is nothing culturally specific about it either. This sort of meal probably originated with the first pot that would endure sitting on a fire. Some people would call it 'soup' or 'stew'. Just go ahead and cook – you'll figure it out!

      February 23, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Reply
      • Spot On

        You have the right idea! My grandmother would always say, "Season your food until it tastes good to you and someone else is bound to like it too. And if no one else does then you have your own tasty dish." Necessity is the mother of innovation. Don't be afraid to go in the kitchen and try something.

        February 28, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  15. Bryan

    Intresting story, I really enjoy soul food but it is so hard to get. It's a part of Americana that I wish was available more, there is really nothing else like it. I not a huge fan of chain restaurants but I really wish there was one for soul food that wasn't fast food.

    February 23, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  16. peaberryjo

    Who cares? I want some corn bread...we need National Cornbread Day!

    February 23, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  17. Jason

    Wonderful piece! How refreshing to hear of a family opening the intimacy of their history to share what seems to be a delectably, divine dish. To those who took time out of their schedule to express unwarranted negativity, go find something to do. I'd love to read more articles such as this in the near future. :-))

    February 23, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  18. Susan

    Food history is a passion of mine, and this article was right in line with that. I'd love to see a recipe with it, but I've eaten what they're describing in the article, so it's all good. I know how it's made, so not a problem. Geneaology, when explored by way of the kitchen, is one of my favorite research topics.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Reply
    • kas

      If you haven't you should read Gunter Grass' book, "The Flounder." In it, the author traces the history of humanity, male-female relationships, and cooking through fictional stories that include historical elements. The best part is, Grass himself is a cook and he has these amazing recipes which he uses and describes in quite good detail, to illustrate the changing times. I think the most interesting that I can remember was from a story about a 14th century nun who cooked stuffed hearts stewed in prunes with a pepper-and-garlic-studded cow's head. While it may not sound appetizing for us, it's really interesting to think about how food (and what counts as "delicious") has changed over the centuries, plus he has some really wild combinations (the book starts with a dish of pears, green beans, and veal, I think) which are fun to think about. The book won a nobel prize, too, so it's well written to boot, although the English version isn't as good as the other translations (it was originally written in German). Anyways, happy readings and eatings!

      February 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  19. Jeff

    Hard to beat green beans and new potatoes (or a mess of beans) cooked up with a good ham hock – that is a vegetable's leap to immortality. And I do love some cornbread. I make a trip several counties away to get some really great ham hocks, especially necessary in the Fall.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Reply
    • bcoles

      There is a little butcher shop in Jackson California that has the most outrageous smoked ham hocks in all of northern California. Can't remember the name, but just ask anyone there and thry will point you in the right direction. I have their card somewhere and I'm sure if you go to Butcher Shops in Jackson California on Google you will get the address and phone number. It's always wise to call to make sure they are open and have what you are looking for,,,, enjoy

      February 23, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  20. AmericanOriginal

    The most fascinating thing that could happen to Americans is a national DNA test. I'm sure there would be a lot of us finding out that we aren't who we think we are. Don't always believe in what you see in the mirror and knocking other ethnicities. You may be one of these people yourself......

    February 23, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Reply
    • NoSupriseToMe

      The most fun with that idea would come from the significant number of people that would find out there had been some undisclosed unions in their parents' past. Even some of the parents would get surprises...

      February 23, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Reply
    • Rene

      Very True.

      February 24, 2011 at 1:19 am | Reply
  21. Totally Domestic

    Interesting!

    February 23, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  22. Joyce Gorden

    I found it to be an interesting story. Thank you for sharing it with those of us who appreciate family and traditions.
    I love genealogy and this to me is another aspect of it.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  23. martha mayhem

    Nice article explaining the origin of some soul foods. I'd like to see a recipe here too!

    To the points of the others who have commented...
    I don't think this is an article about race or slavery. I think this is an article about how the foods we now think of as soul food came about. African american slavery in this country is part of the history of the food.

    And to the person who doesn't care – troll.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  24. Bob Boblaw

    "struggle with the loss of chunks of our history to slavery"

    Were they really keeping track of it before slavery?

    February 23, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Reply
    • Deeds

      Do you know what an oral tradition is? Have you studied African History? Harvard has a wonderful department... so if they think there's an African history, maybe they're on to something... moron!

      February 23, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  25. meg

    I love your article. History of what and why we eat can be fascinating but often is cheapened by convenience and indulgence (not to mention what we read). Thank you for sharing your history.

    February 23, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  26. Rod Furlong

    This article needs a recipe!

    February 23, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • guava guy

      try google

      February 23, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Reply
  27. MR FEDZ

    Who gives a shat.

    February 23, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Reply
    • Lone

      Someone should write a paper on the 'who cares' phenomenon. Why go through the effort of saying it when it's so much easier to say nothing at all. This is a food section, and the article is about food interests. It doesn't make sense as a troll because trolls at least leave an opening for response. it isn't even worth insulting.

      CNN, a burial button, make it happen.

      February 23, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Reply
      • mrspellcheck

        Agreed. At the very least, an "unlike" option or a thumbs down icon with the comments that have a "like" option.

        February 23, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Reply
      • Rene

        Agreed.

        February 24, 2011 at 1:18 am | Reply
    • bcoles

      Certainly not you,

      February 23, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Reply
    • Jo

      Shut up.

      February 24, 2011 at 12:10 am | Reply
  28. Jdizzle McHammerpants

    I'll tread lightly here, but we all share a similar story. There is no singular victim when it comes to slavery in the past. The author states there is a huge chunk of her ancestry missing. No there isn't. It just happened on North American soil instead of the African Continent. Here's a story of my group:

    http://afgen.com/forgotten_slaves.html

    I love me some cornbread, that's for sure! Ham hocks are also excellent for stew use. MMMMM, mmmm!

    February 23, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • shannon

      Wait, no recipe????

      I like this article. I am second generation Boston Irish. You would think all we ate was corned beef and cabbage. But I remember many "franks and beans" nights. (Sliced hot dogs cooked in canned baked beans).

      Like the author, I wish I had more knowledge about my ancestry.

      Anyway, I simply enjoyed and identified with the article. Thank you to the writer. Thanks to CNN for the link.

      Too bad all the jerks have to "jack" your nice story.

      February 23, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Reply
      • EM

        Yeah, I agree. I come from a Jewish European background and grew up with similar types of stews (potatoes, vegetables, and a salted meat). One thing I find in common with African and Jewish cuisine is salted meat. Or in our case too, smoked meat. Either way, you are talking about food that tastes great ... but is not good for your health!

        I don't know how Jewish or African people could handle so much salted meat in the past and not have problems with blood pressure. Is it because they worked so hard? And with you Irish, corned beef is also delicious ... but also loaded with salt!

        They needed the salt or the smoking to preserve the meat or to make tough (ie, cheap) cuts more palatable. It ended up also giving great flavors. Why can't we find a way to make meat taste great but without all the salt and nitrates?

        February 24, 2011 at 8:22 am | Reply
    • bcoles

      Hit the hammer on the head. Today, while my wife was layed up in bed with a cough/cold I spent a little time chopping a couple of yellow onions and finding where she hid the wild bayleaf that I hand picked some time ago while out on a ride through the foothills near where we live in California. Adding a pound of pinto's and a huge 2,and 1/2 pound smoked ham hock that I purchased from a butcher that actually cures all their own meat that they sell in a little old gold rush town in Northern California. Wow, did I finally figure out how to cook this delious dish or what, By covering the beans and the ham hock with water and adding the rest of the ingreedients, the chopped yellow onions and three wild bayleaves in a good size pot, I simmered this wonderful pot of goodies on low heat for 2 and one half hours. Dinner was served with a loaf of sour dough french bread that we tore pieces off of as we needed for dipping in the jucies. I could of even eat the rind off of the ham hock as the fat was very thin and the rind was thicker and as tender as the smoked ham hock meat itself, Now I need to learn how to cook the greens that I remember eating with friends that lived in the porjects. Their Mama always had a pot of greens on the stove and as it seemed that the greens went with everything that was being served for lunch or dinner. I vividly recall her telling us to eat all your greens or there wouldn't be any fresh berry cobbler for desert. I also recall seeing my friends Mama picking those berries down by the railroad tracks when she was on her way home from the marketplace. Well, thats enough story telling for now,,, enjoy

      February 23, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Reply
      • EM

        Stop, you're making me hungry! But on the subject of "greens", what does that really mean. Is it only "green beans", or is it a general term for green vegetables? Her recipe had green beans, carrots and cabbage, which, by the way, is very healthy because they say you should always have 2 different colors of vegetable at a sitting. But does "greens" just mean all green vegetables (so celery too)? Also, what are "collared greens"?

        February 24, 2011 at 8:26 am | Reply

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