On the Road in Search of Soul

The black Southerners who joined the Great Migration wanted to leave oppression behind—not their beloved family recipes. Their traditions would redefine American cooking.

Then

Federal Writers’ Project, 1935–39

North Carolina, Mississippi, Illinois

Then

Federal Writers’ Project, 1935–39

North Carolina, Mississippi, Illinois

News of the “Chittlin Strut” at Mehitable Dorsey’s North Carolina cabin traveled by word of mouth. For less than a dollar each, guests could crowd into Dorsey’s home—which would have been transformed into a restaurant for the night, with tables and seating in every room, waiters rushing plates of hot food from the kitchen, and banjo players for entertainment—and enjoy a menu of cider, pickles, slaw, potato custards, cornbread, molasses, and chitlins. Chitlins, or chitterlings, are the small intestine of a pig, soaked in salt water, rolled in meal, and fried in hog fat. Chitterling dinners were frequently held within African American communities in the South during the Great Depression to raise money for myriad needs, whether it was to support the local church or to bring in extra money for cash-strapped households.

Rice and chicken are boiled together in iron kettles to make the Southern food staple chicken pilau at a cookout in Florida, circa 1930. Courtesy of Stetson Kennedy/Library of Congress

Dorsey’s chitterling dinner was documented by Katherine Palmer, an employee of the North Carolina office of the Federal Writers’ Project, the Works Progress Administration’s jobs program for out-of-work writers. Palmer had been assigned to an ambitious but doomed project called America Eats, in which writers were dispatched across the country to document Americans’ dietary habits, and especially to examine social food affairs such as church picnics, Thanksgiving dinners, and wakes. The stories were intended to be collected in a book—but before it could be published, the FWP was dissolved, in 1939. Manuscripts produced for the project are still preserved at the Library of Congress, and many have been repackaged online and in books. Embedded in these narratives are rich accounts of the culinary traditions of black Americans in the South, such as Dorsey and her neighbors.

In Virginia, a FWP writer describes how a group of women planning a fundraiser for their church debated whether they should serve chicken stew or pigs’ feet. (In the end, they served both.) Another writer described a Mississippi man named Bluebill Yancey as “the pit artist of the day”: Yancey was routinely hired to cook for politicians, who wooed potential voters to events with the promise of his legendary barbecue.

Chitterlings, fish, and sugarcane for sale in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1939. Courtesy of Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress

However, these scenes of largesse from the reports filed by America Eats contributors did not describe the daily diets of many black Americans in the South—especially not those who labored as tenant farmers, and sharecroppers. It was a system that the authors of the 2016 book A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression describe as “a relationship clearly descended from that of master and slave in the pre-Civil War South”—one that grew even more unequal when tenants depended on their contractors to provide their food, the cost of which was deducted from their own meager returns. Farmers might receive two daily meals consisting of “rice, cornbread, and coffee for breakfast and then peas and cornbread for dinner.”

The daughter of a tenant farmer picks through peas for supper in Creek County, Oklahoma, 1940. Courtesy of Russell Lee/Library of Congress
Menu at an African American restaurant in Detroit, 1940. Courtesy of Arthur S. Siegel/Library of Congress

Conditions such as these were part of why so many black Americans left the region during what’s known as the Great Migration: beginning around 1916 and continuing into the 1970s, more than 6 million African Americans left the rural South to resettle in the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. Many of these migrants ended up in Chicago, bringing their Southern cooking styles with them. This was not necessarily received with open arms by the pre-established black community, writes historian Tracy N. Poe in her 1999 article “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915-1947.” Such cooking—which Poe describes as a an “amalgamation of African, European, and early American resources and preparations” created by African American cooks—was looked down upon by Northerners as unsophisticated and unhealthy. But this only caused the Southern migrants to hold on to their food traditions even more tightly, and began opening businesses that catered to Southern clientele, advertising biscuits, fish, crab, shrimp, and barbecued chicken. Restaurants opened at a healthy clip in Chicago, alongside groceries and meat markets. Throughout the urban North, black entrepreneurs turned to cooking as a means of income, opening traditional restaurants—and running small operations out of their own homes.

It was an income-generating solution similar to that Mehitable Dorsey and other Southerners made when they produced chitlin struts, fish fries, and pigs’ feet dinners at their homes and public gathering spaces. FWP writer Palmer reported that Mehitable Dorsey hung festive lanterns from her ceilings, kept the hearth fires blazing to warm every room, set out china dishes, and cooked fresh servings of chitterlings throughout the night. Her guests sang and danced, and the strut ended just after midnight. Dorsey’s final act, according to Palmer, was to decide to leave the dishes until morning.

A restaurant in Belle Glade, Florida, 1937. Courtesy of Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress

Then

Federal Writers’ Project, 1935–39

North Carolina, Mississippi, Illinois

Now

David Alekhuogie, 2019

North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, California

Now

David Alekhuogie, 2019

North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, California

I currently live in Los Angeles, where I grew up, and for Federal Project No. 2, I wanted to take a road trip along the trail of the Great Migration, looking at places where various members of my family had once lived across the South. I wanted to photograph the story of soul food along that journey, and the ways that food had intersected with that civil rights movement. I started in Chicago, where I had spent time studying photography. Then I went to North and South Carolina; Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; Alabama (where my maternal grandparents were born); Texas; and, finally, back to Los Angeles, where my parents settled.

Eagle’s Restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama.
A preserved Jim Crow-era section of the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where some of most influental sit-ins of the civil rights movement took place in 1960. A portion of the lunch counter was acquired by the Smithsonian.
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan killed four young girls.
Sugar Harp, a blues musician and patron of Eagle’s Restaurant.

My work often comes out of formal investigations of the transitions of kinship. Tracing the history of soul food through the American South is, in many ways, an investigation into the history of my mother’s cooking. In my family, the practice of gathering around the table and sharing meals has always been a way for us to demonstrate how we care for one another.

At Eagle’s, you can get oxtail, collard greens, and mac and cheese to go.

Soul food is good because it’s special; it’s not special because it’s good. Soul food is a tool for storytelling. People of color in this country often use food as a way to pass down tradition and culture. Soul food has its traditions: collards replaced the greens like spinach and kale from traditional African cuisine, seasoned with thrown-away parts of the animal such as neck bones and ham hocks; cornbread comes from the rationed bags of cornmeal given to slaves; and seafood such as fried catfish and shrimp are religious meals, especially the closer one gets to the Mississippi River. (I was raised Catholic, and in my family, we always had a fish fry on Good Friday during Lent.)

Customer at the Saltbox Seafood Joint outside Durham.
The Four Way, a soul food restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee.
A cattle ranch in North Carolina.
A restaurant depot in South Carolina.

My mother, the head chef in my family, was never able to convince me to eat chitterlings, the small intestines of a pig or cow. They were once considered unfit for white people to eat, and were usually given to slaves. I thought they smelled so bad. When I was a boy, I would ask her, “Why do you cook that?” She would tell me it was because chitterlings reminded her of her mother. As an adult, I understand this. Soul food reminds one of what it’s like to be cared for.

The “Obama Special,” at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles, comes with three wings and a waffle. Shown here with a side of corn bread, collard greens, and sweet potatoes.
Visitors watching a film at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

In Alabama, I had a conversation with a blues musician named Sugar. He told me that soul food is never going to be as good as your mom’s cooking; instead, food like this is meant to remind you of that. A shrimp po’boy sandwich at Paschal’s in Atlanta, or a catfish platter at the Saltbox Seafood Joint in North Carolina, remind me of my mother teaching me to fry catfish after coming home from Catholic school. After church on Sundays, we always went to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach, California. I always got the leg and thigh special. My dad would eat one of my pieces of chicken, every time. I think we all use food to come together, whether it’s at home or away.

The entrance to the Four Way, with a mural of famous Memphis citizens, including journalist Ida B. Wells.

The stairs to Martin Luther King Jr.’s room in the Lorraine Motel, Memphis.
James, a cook at Paschal’s in Atlanta.
The end of Sunday family meal at Roscoe’s.

David Alekhuogie is a photographer living in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Yale University and the School Of The Art Institute of Chicago, and and has exhibited at the Chicago Artist Coalition, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, Reagan Projeccts in Los Angeles, and Danziger Gallery in New York

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