Soul food way of life for Memphians—chefs, home cooks alike

The Four Way

By Kiemaya Malone and Anthony Moss 

Memphis is the home of the blues, the birthplace of rock and roll and home to the world’s best BBQ, but tender, fall off the bone ribs with sweet and spicy BBQ sauce is not the only food in Memphis.   

Home of the south’s best soul food can now be added to the list of reasons Memphis is so popular. Chicken fried to golden perfection, meaty red sauce spaghetti, creamy coleslaw, vibrant collard greens and deep fried catfish are just a few of the dishes found on many menus in Memphis’ soul food restaurants. 

These soul food restaurants have more in common than the foods that are on the menu. The historical connections, ability to bring families together and method of cooking put the soul in soul food. 

For many, soul food is a celebration of African Americans cultural heritage. It is a continuation of traditional cooking methods that were established in Africa. Slaves took the methods and transformed it into sustenance. 

Author Adrian Miller said people avoid diving into the subject of soul food. “They just think it is what black people eat.” Miller, who wrote Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, has studied the history of soul food extensively.  

Soul food, according to Miller, at its roots was cooked and made by slaves. Soul food started in a part of the Deep South called the black belt, which was a stretch of land where mostly blacks resided according to Miller.  The belt stretched from central Alabama to northeast Mississippi. 

Slaves were given the undesirable part of the animals and had to make it taste well enough to be edible. They often grew their own gardens and had to hunt for their own food as well, but many of them managed to make great food and be invited by their owners to cook at their table. 

Author Pamela Denney said soul food is also one of few things in the world that continues to crosses color barriers and brought people together. 

“Every restaurant you go into now has cornbread and collards, and grits and these foods that you would never thought you would see in California and New York are on the menus now. Everybody likes soul food black and white,” said Denney. 

Denney, the author of Food Lovers’ Guide to Memphis, has invested time into trying the food in Memphis and across the world.

Soul food is about how you do it and who you do it for. I make sure my food taste good or else I won’t serve it to my family. —Della Hughes

Patrice Bates-Thompson, the manager and current owner of the historic Four Way Soul Food Restaurant, uses soul food to keep her family and community connected. The restaurant opened in 1946. However, when the original owners underwent financial issues, Bates-Thompson’s family took advantage the opportunity of owning a restaurant. 

“My daddy grew up in the neighborhood,” Bates-Thompson said. After an attempt by the city officials to gentrify the neighborhood, “he felt a need to keep ties.” 

Bates-Thompson offers assistance to people in the community while also working with her family to continue serving soul food. 

Soul food has also transcended time and the traditional cooking methods have been taught to each generation. Home cook Della Hughes learned to cook from her mother before she died. Most of her favorite memories with her mother are when they were in the kitchen cooking fried chicken or caramel cakes for the family. 

“Soul food is about how you do it and who you do it for,” Hughes said. “I make sure my food taste good or else I won’t serve it to my family.”  

Hughes cooks her food in a traditional soul food method. She uses a lot of fats, butter, and animal products. The vegetables that she usually cooks, like collard greens, are cooked with pork products like ham hocks and hogs maws.  

Her children are all grown and on their own now. However, she knows all she has to do is tell them that she is cooking and they will come running. 

Hughes daughter, Latrice Hughes, is a chef. The passion for creating dishes begin with all of the hours of cooking soul food in her mother’s kitchen. For Latrice Hughes, soul food is about more than the technique.  

“It connects me to my background,” Latrice said. “My mother taught me how to cook. But it’s also about more than that. I never got to meet my mom’s mother but whenever I cook, I feel connected to her”.   

Today, Latrice carries on the soul food tradition by passing on the knowledge of love to her own daughter. 

Although Latrice learned the soul food basics from her mother, she uses the skills she learned in culinary school to tweak some of the classic soul food recipes to mostly make the food healthier. By taking away pork products and crusting her chicken with bread crumbs to bake in the oven, Latrice creates more healthy and delicious options for soul food lovers. 

Rethinking the calories

Soul food is known for being high in sodium, fats, and calories. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, the average adult woman needs between 1,800 to 2,400 calories a day. The average man needs between 2,400 to 3,000 calories a day. According to AllRecipes, fried chicken has 623 calories, collards greens have 165 calories, spaghetti has 221 calories and fried catfish has 371 calories, which means a total calorie intake of 1,380 calories. 

The calorie count increases if there is a roll and soda accompanied with the meal.  

A Visual Comparison of different cooking methods with different foods.

However, there are more healthy choices when it comes to soul food. Oven fried chicken and fish, for example, lower the calorie count significantly with oven fried chicken at 270 calories and oven fried fish at 164 calories. 

According to LIVESTRONG, this is because baking requires less oil. Each tablespoon of oil adds 120 calories and 14 grams of fat to your food. Deep frying has to be done at high temperatures which excludes the use of healthy fats like olive oil. 

There are also multiple cooking methods for that will bring out the delicious flavor of the soul food while still keeping its nutritional value. A few of these methods range from roasting to even grilling. For a full list of cooking methods visit the American Heart Association website. 



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