The ability to follow a recipe can make or break a meal. While having a great recipe is part of the answer to making appetizing soul food, even more is required for the cook.
“The key to good soul food is cooking from the heart and with love,” said Esther Lewis-Bernard of Esther’s Cajun Café & Soul Food, 5204 Yale St.
Soul food cuisine reflects its ties to Black culture and African roots. According to Lewis-Bernard, soul food originated in the Deep South, which includes the states of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
“During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslaved African people were given meager food rations that were low in quality and nutritional value,” Lewis-Bernard said. “With these rations, enslaved people preserved African food traditions and adapted traditional recipes with the resources available. Over time, these recipes and techniques have become the soul food dishes we are familiar with today.”
Some of those soul food staples include oxtail, which at one time came from an actual ox and now more commonly comes from beef cattle, along with fried chicken, smothered pork chops, fried catfish, mustard and collard greens, cabbage, black eyed peas and red beans and rice.
“This was our everyday food,” Heights resident Corrine Campbell said. “I loved my grandmother’s fried chicken and collard greens. No one can make fried chicken like her.”
Campbell spent most of her childhood in Mississippi before moving to Houston for college and then work.
“I think soul food tends to be more fatty, salty, bigger portions,” Campbell said. “Well, really just more. You can’t go wrong with adding more seasoning, more anything to soul food.”
Campbell doesn’t make soul food as often and she used to eat it, but when she does, she still calls her grandma for recipes. She said she’s written most of them down, but there’s a few her grandma won’t give her, like her “famous” sweet potato pie.
“Like all food it brings people together,” Campbell said. “But sitting down at a family reunion or any other family gathering with a plate of soul food not only connects us with each other, it connects us with our past. Because of that it will always be my favorite food.”
Soul food and Southern food are closely related. Both have a lot of the same types of dishes and recipes, and both are considered comfort food. But it’s soul food’s history that makes it its own unique cuisine.
“This food genre, now associated with comfort and decadence, was borne out of struggle and survival,” Lewis-Bernard said.
Other than Esther’s on Yale, there’s not many places in the area that dish out soul food. Its sister concept is Esther’s Signature Dish, 1102 Pinemont Dr., which specializes in brunch and Cajun lunches. There is also Soul Taco, 1027 W. 19th St., a crossover concept that takes soul food staples and makes them into tacos.
“I do wish there were more places nearby,” Campbell said, “but really the best soul food is made at home.“
If someone venture to make soul food at home, Lewis-Bernard said that canned items just won’t get the best result. She suggests buying produce fresh from farmers markets because makes a difference in the taste of a dish.