George Tillman Jr.’s Soul Food tells the story of how traditional Black cooking (otherwise known as “soul food”) brings together members of a Black family living in Chicago.
This scene from the movie shows the women in the family cooking Sunday dinner. The grandmother, Mama Joe, is wearing a dress layered with an apron, and a wrapped head scarf. What she is wearing was a very common outfit worn by female slaves and black women during the early 1900s. However, the sisters have on regular clothing. There seems to be dialogue between Mama Joe and Bird (played by Nia Long). Bird is clearly positioned in the foreground of the frame with a look of disgust, while Mama Joe is in the middle-ground of the frame responding to Bird.
If one were to actually watch the movie they would notice that Bird is making ham hocks. The reason for her look of disgust (shown in the image above) is because she is asking Mama Joe,”Why we gotta eat ham hocks anyway?” Of course Mama Joe has a response saying, “That’s all we had to eat! Ham hocks, pig feet, chitterlings, so we learned how to make things taste good by trying them out.” She then goes on to say, “Soul food cooking is about cooking from the heart.” Although not shown, the sisters start to understand why Mama Joe maintain certain soul food recipes.
Soul food cooking first became relevant during slavery. Slaves were given the parts of animals that were “undesired,” such as feet and intestines (i.e. chitterlings). What Mama Joe explains is that they had to make do with what they were given, and the food that was made was then fed to the families. The dishes mentioned above as well as other dishes (i.e. greens, black-eyed peas, yams, etc.) all make up the basics of “soul food,” and recipes have since been passed down from generation to generation, eventually connecting today’s generation with their ancestors who were once enslaved.
Although a subtle reference in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, soul food is symbolic. When the protagonist indulges in a yam being sold by a street vendor, he starts to explain the experience, saying he began to feel a “surge of homesickness” and “an intense feeling of freedom.” What is symbolic about the yam it is literally a rooted plant that has been adapted into traditional black cooking, connecting one to their “roots;” therefore, explaining why the protagonist felt “homesick” because it reminded him of his history. However, the “feeling of freedom” is interrupted by a rotten taste in the protagonist’s mouth, representing his remaining disconnect to his culture (which is further discussed in the novel). This shows a correlation between one’s connection to their Black history and the psychological “taste” of Black food. One does not work without the other.
Soul food is a tradition that connects Black people to themselves, each other, and their history.
Soul Food. Dir. George Tillman Jr. Perf. Irma P. Hall, Nia Long, Vanessa Williams, Vivica Fox. Twentieth Century Fox, 1997. Film.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible man. 2nd Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
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