A black church on Chicago's south side serves UP African-American Heritage through traditional food.
I can smell it the moment I step out of the choir stall into the narrow hallway connecting the church to its social hall. The kitchen is just below the stairs. The unmistakable aroma of roasting chicken and dressing, hot rolls, and the sugary, spicy whiff of sweet potato pie as it is drawn from the oven float up to me as I listen to the voices of people greeting one another. As the service ends, the organist cranks out the rollicking chords of the final hymn. It is Sunday at Our Lady of Peace Church on Chicago's South Side, and that means the eating is about to begin.
Sunday dinner is one of the most beloved rituals of the African-American community. Here in Chicago, they call their dinner "soul food," after the soulful cooking of generations of black women. Our Lady of Peace's Ladies' Society members Barbara Rice and Mary Ashton explain that a soul food potluck unites the community's interests in the church's African American heritage, love of home-cooked traditional food, and desire to uphold the reputation for hospitality earned by theft mothers and grandmothers before them.
And such hospitality! Tables heaped with black-eyed peas, chicken, potato salads, and barbecued meat greet people as they enter the social hall. The banter of older men, the low, soft conversation and laughter of women, and the excited whoops of children create a joyful, relaxing din. Newcomers are greeted with a big smile and a hug as volunteers Sarah Norman, Mildred Starks, and Bobbie Monten take steaming dishes to the buffet table or offer up heaping spoonfuls of comfort food.
Women like Mary, Barbara, Sarah, Mildred, and Bobbie are a link between their communities and the past. The Ladies' Society keeps the traditions of previous generations alive through church dinners such as this one, as well as picnics throughout the summer and February's Soul Food Festival. The rituals of potluck and picnic have a long history in the African-American community, as do the foods one is likely to find on the tables. It is a history that stretches back through the great migration of African Americans to the North in the twentieth century, the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, all the way to West Africa in the 1400s.
Commensality, or the sharing of food, is an aspect of African-American culture that survived the hardships of slavery. Travelers in West Africa as early as the fifteenth century recorded the hospitality of the Senegambian and Yoruban tribes they met on their journeys. In the nineteenth century, French chroniclers Rene Caille and Theophilus Conneau repeatedly mentioned the rich and complex dishes served them by their African hosts--quite a compliment coming from citizens of the world's most fanatical nation of diners! And though many aspects of African culture disappeared after slaves were brought to the Americas, good eating and the rituals that accompanied it survived intact.
Eating together had been and remains a feature of daily life in rural West African communities. The conditions of slavery, which relied on people working and living in close proximity to one another, allowed slaves to continue this feature of their African lifestyle. Slaves were even able to maintain some familiar dishes. Okra was brought via the slave trade to the United States and became the basis for dishes such as gumbos and stews. Watermelon is also an African import. Slave cooks found similarities between the African yam and the American sweet potato.
Leafy vegetables such as mustard and turnip greens continued to be a source of vitamin A, as they had in Africa. Ingredients such as hot peppers, peanuts, and tomatoes, which had become part of the international food trade after Columbus, continued to provide a distinctive flavor. And new foods such as corn and pork, although not usually of the highest quality, were easily incorporated into the innovative, intuitive culinary style of black cooks. …