Adrian “The Soul Food Scholar” Miller, is the author of the 2014 James Beard Foundation Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Follow him @soulfoodscholar
I'm a peaceful man, but sometimes I do things that are best described as "fightin' words." This is such an occasion—here, I've dared to rank the top ten essential soul-food dishes of all time.
Soul food—a cuisine that fuses West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas—is no stranger to controversy. Though the label floated around black culture at least a decade earlier, "soul food" had its breakout moment in the 1960s when Black Power advocates declared their independence from the narrative forced upon African Americans by white hegemony. Food was included in that ambitious project. Soul food was presented to the world as a cuisine wholly distinct from southern food, even though they shared common ingredients, culinary techniques, and history.
It was a brilliant marketing move, but it was ideologically incomplete for two reasons. Despite the conscious effort to create difference, the lines between soul and southern cuisine are blurred inside the American South—so much so that even African Americans call what they eat southern food. Secondly, African Americans were left to fill-in-the-blanks as to what soul food is. Soul food's malleable definition was sufficient to get buy-in from African Americans all across the country, but it also allowed for a lot of regional and personal interpretation.
Now, a half-century later, we can look back to see that a consensus has developed as to what should be on a soul food plate. Like many soul-food aficionados, my childhood memories of what I ate at home, at my grandparents, at church, and at restaurants have shaped the ranking that follows. I've endeavored to be as objective as possible by stepping back from my own personal preferences and adding what I have gleaned from the stupendous amount of research that I did for my book on the history of soul food.
Whatever follows, I'm certainly not trying to bad-mouth anything that any loving caregiver served you while growing up. Still, it's time to set the record straight. Here is a countdown of the best soul-food dishes.