African American Foodways

by Reana Kovalcik

 This panel was presented by Kevin Mitchell and Adrian Miller.

Making a Way of No Way: African American Foodways in Diaspora

African American food was “molded in the crucible of enslavement,” a cuisine that was birthed by people “making a way of no way and taking advantage of the disadvantages,” said Randy Fertel of the Fertel Foundation in his opening of Slow Food Nation’s African American Foodways summit. Listening to Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller and Chef/Chef Instructor Kevin Mitchell, however, what really stood out was not so much the struggle, but the joy to be found in foodways of the African American diaspora. In their discussion, Miller and Mitchell returned time and again to themes of joy and justice when talking about their experiences with soul food, the diversity of African American cuisines, and making healing connections through food and cooking.

Miller, a food writer, attorney, and certified barbecue judge, guided the discussion with a series of engaging stories, prompts, and questions. Chef Mitchell, Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston and Secretary of the Edna Lewis Foundation, shared his perspectives with the audience and gave us the inside scoop on everything from his thoughts on culinary appropriation to his preferred barbeque saucing method (on the side).

Though Miller and Mitchell discussed many different culinary and cultural topics, the thread through them all was soul food. Soul food was described generally as the immigrant cuisine of Africans brought to America as slaves, which then morphed into many divergent styles as freed African Americans spread across the country. Some people might just think of popular Southern staples when they think of soul food, but Miller and Mitchell emphasized that soul food was as diverse as the many cuisines and traditional foodways of Africa itself.

“For example,” Chef Mitchell said, “we didn’t grow up with chitlins, but we did grow up with my grandmother making pigs’ feet. Soul food is also about using what’s available, which means that in each region different ingredients are going to be highlighted. In Charleston, we have an abundance of shrimp, so that features largely in our cuisine.”

Miller even noted that in some southern communities where Latinx culture is prevalent, tamales were even seen as part of traditional soul food fare.

While soul food can mean many different things to different people, many in America are increasingly taking an interest in African American soul food – including professional chefs. Some chefs that are getting particular acclaim in the media for their soul food cooking are not African American themselves, and while Mitchell and Miller welcome the diverse interest, they also underscored the need to make sure culinary inspiration doesn’t become cultural appropriation. For non-Black professional chefs cooking soul food, or anyone professionally cooking cuisine outside of their culture, Chef Mitchell gave the following tips:

  1.     Honor the culture from which it came, first and foremost. Acknowledge the cultures from which one is borrowing everywhere you can, on your menu, your website, and in the media. If you are using the culture and cuisine of others to profit, the least you can do is acknowledge their contribution.
  2.     Give back to the community. As a way of thanking and honoring those from which you’ve borrowed, consider giving back and supporting the development of aspiring chefs from within those communities and cultures.  
  3.     Cook it well.

By following these tips and honoring the diversity one another’s cultural foodways, we can all set what Chef Mitchell’s grandmother called, “a welcome table,” one where everyone can gather together in a spirit of respect and reconciliation. 


Chef Mitchell and Adrian Miller’s go-to reads on soul food and the African American Diaspora:

The Taste Of Country Cooking, Etna Louis
The Welcome Table, Jessica Harris
The Cooking Gene, Michael Twitty
Soul Food, Adrian Miller
In the Shadow of Slavery
Black Rice
High on the Hog
Black Slave Owners
Southern Provisions
The Jamima Code, Tony Tipton Martin

Reana Kovalcik is a member of Slow Food DC and Slow Food USA. 

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