‘The Dish with Deah:’ Soul food vs. Southern food. What’s the difference?

Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report

Howdy! And welcome to “The Dish, with Deah,” a new weekly column aimed at satiating a desire for Fort Worthians to nosh on a bit of history, dining trends and cultural foodways with a heaping side of thoughtful context.

Some of you may know me through my bus tour, “Soul of DFW” or perhaps you’ve purchased my cookbook, “Cornbread & Collard Greens: How West African Cuisine and Slavery Influenced Soul Food.” If so, you know what you can expect. And thanks to the vibrant restaurant scene in Fort Worth and surrounding areas you’ll even get a bit more.

Currently I’m enrolled at the University of North Texas pursuing my PhD in history and researching Texas foodways. In a former life (a long, long, long time ago) I was also a culinary instructor. So, in short, you can trust that my reviews to come with insightful and fair commentary and always written from the perspective of being helpful.

That being said, I understand the weight that words have, and the power bad reviews can have on an already fledgling establishments, especially those hit hard during and post-pandemic. Rest assured, my reviews will be honest; however, I have no desire to rip a restaurant to shreds publicly. If I visit an establishment that I don’t particularly enjoy, I will simply choose to not write about it. 

So, without further ado: Let’s dig in!

To contact me with column ideas, please email [email protected].

History of food you might eat this month

It’s Black History Month! You may be curious about trying some foods unfamiliar to you, or perhaps you’re searching for the best foods that are part of the Black diaspora. Soul food, Caribbean food, and of course, some African foods would fall under this expansive umbrella. I’ll be visiting some traditional soul food restaurants this week and writing about what foods you should try in the next issue of “The Dish with Deah.”

As Southerners, whether you have a birthright or got here as soon as you could, you probably are well aware that many foods from within Black culture are considered synonymous with “Southern food.”  Soul food vs. Southern food, however, is like the difference between eating fried chicken and chicken-fried chicken. Both breaded and fried with delicious historical references dripping into our kitchens, but utilizing completely different methods and techniques that were prompted by two cultures.  

Soul food, as we know, is food that has roots and preparation methods which are traced back to enslavement period, West Africa and can include foods that are inherently indigenous to Black people’s culture and traditions. It began in the South, but, of course, by way of The Great Migration, can be prepared anywhere and also can vary depending on what state you reside. Anyone of any racial or ethnic makeup can cook soul food, in my opinion. But an acknowledgement of who originated a dish is encouraged just as we credit other countries for their contributions. Lastly, what is considered soul food in Fort Worth would look rather different than what is considered “typical” soul food in New Orleans. 

Southern foods, however, are location specific. By default, they are foods prepared in the collective South. They are foods that have been heavily influenced by a myriad of other Southern states that, of course, include Black people but also dominantly Anglo countries. 

Texas, for example, has obviously been shaped by many countries, among them being Mexico and Germany. With the latter clearly drawing influence from the pork schnitzel with the Texas staples chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken. Mustard and potato salad are nods to this culture as well. When celebrated author, journalist and architect Frederick Olmsted was commissioned by the New York Daily Times (now the New York Times) to traverse across slave -holding states to study the economic impact, much of his time was spent in Texas. 

In the 1850s he wrote candidly about his travels across the budding young state. One could even call him one of the country’s first travel writers with his witty food opinions that praised the German population’s foodways. Taking particular interest in their butter-making abilities and heavier “meat and potatoes” fare many of us still attribute to this community today. 

So, if we consider these two classic culinary additions and layer on a heavy dose of Mexican foodways, you basically have Texas’ beloved cuisine. I’m speaking very broadly, of course. And this is how I measure soul food vs Southern food. How do you differentiate? 

Deah Mitchell writes about more than food. You can email her at [email protected].

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