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Soul Food Series, Part II: Chicago and Its Southern Roots

By Ashley Bode | December 14, 2011

Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance

This week in our Soul Food Series, we discuss soul food in Chicago and its traditional approach to this historic cuisine. Chicago is a city that is rich in food culture. This Midwestern mecca has so many flavors to offer that if may be hard to decide which one best represents the city. Perhaps the most important of these food traditions is soul food, a part of the city’s DNA that is irreplaceable, but recently has begun to evolve.

The emergence of soul food in Chicago came during a time many know as The Great Migration. From 1910 to 1930 more than 1.5 million African Americans migrated from Southern roots to Midwest, West and Northern cities. Then again between 1940 and 1970 another 5 million left the South and continued a route of urbanization. Chicago gained 75,000 new citizens just between the years of 1917 and 1919 as the city’s popularity grew because of the distribution of the black owned newspaper The Chicago Defender along the Northern bound railroad.

One of the few things the city’s new residents brought with them were food traditions. Former Chicago Tribune Food Editor, soul food expert and Chicago resident Donna Pierce says, “When enslaved Africans were scattered in the diaspora, religion and culture were taken away. Later, a small collection of common dishes were not called soul food until the 1960s. But there was no argument. Soul Food recipes were among the treasured uniting traditions brought from the South.” But what about soul food in Chicago is different? Little has changed. “These are the same recipes and flavors brought North in the 1920s and 1930s” says Pierce. Instead of focusing time on evolving the cuisine, Chicagoans instead tend to embrace the history, remembering those recipes that make each family’s connection with the South unique.

In times when so much attention is paid to health and the prevention of communicable diseases seen frequently in the African American community, like diabetes and heart disease, more and more people save real soul food for celebrations. Thanksgiving, birthdays and other holidays host true feasts celebrating that rich and delicious history. Saving these recipes for special occasions keeps them timeless, served artifacts of generations past. Pierce, founder of both BlackAmericaCooks.com and SkilletDiaries.com, has begun to write “skinny” versions of soul food classics for everyday so the same flavors can be kept alive day in and day out. She still uses traditional ingredients like okra, turnips and eggplant, but replaces things like sour cream with Greek yogurt in heavier recipes.

It is fair to say that soul food in Chicago has become more about survival. In the last ten years the city has lost more than 17 percent of its black population and with that numerous soul food institutions have closed their doors. That is not to say that there are not plenty of residents who stay true to their roots. While the famed Edna’s Soul Food, a west side spot that played host to civil rights leaders like MLK Jr., closed in 2010 after the passing of owner Edna Stewart, new places are opening constantly, offering Chicagoans new versions of  Grits, Mac ‘N’ Cheese and of course Fried Chicken.

Restaurants like Wishbone, an Oprah favorite, and the soon-to-be legendary Chuck’s Southern Comforts Cafe remind us of the differences between Creole and soul, while filling that homestyle void that Edna’s and Army & Lou’s have left in the city’s makeup. Then there are places like Quench and Soul Vegetarian East that are not only serving familiar dishes but educating customers on healthy living with a more holistic and preventative approach to one’s diet.

Whether soul food has taken a stance of survival or the role of tradition, it is undeniable that it still plays an incredible part in Chicago’s identity and in the lives of community members. “Some people have amnesia of who was in the kitchen,” Pierce says when explaining the origins and differences of Southern, soul and Creole cooking, “but it’s all celebration food. Keeping that passion alive is what’s most important.”

Stay tuned to rest of our series as we further discuss the history of soul food and share the experiences of regional innovators and soul food experts throughout the United States.

Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance

For more details from our series, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

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