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Soul Food  GatheringThe Black pioneers who settled in Alberta migrated primarily from Oklahoma and other southern states. Upon arriving in Edmonton and in various rural settlements, they were well acquainted with a unique cooking style reflecting the history and geography of their birthplace. Soul food, a term originally coined during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when “soul” was used to describe various aspects of African-American culture, refers to a style of cuisine originating in the southern United States. During this time, soul food cookbooks started flooding the market, making the recipes accessible to all. Prior to the 1960s, however, recipes and ingredients were shared in family kitchens—without the use of recipe books. The origins of soul food have their roots in African cuisine. Grains, legumes, yams, okra, onions, garlic, and leafy greens (e.g., collards, kale, watercress, etc.) were traditionally grown in Africa, and many of these ingredients made their way to the United States during the slave trade.

Buffet TableAmerican slaves consumed a high-calorie diet, which would provide them with the energy needed to accomplish plantation work. However, this was also a highly unbalanced diet highlighted, most notably, by a lack of vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Slave owners would giver their workers leftover cuts of pork, cornmeal, and molasses. Slaves also consumed dandelions, turnip and beet tops, and various herbs. They used the cornmeal to make cornbread, while they also mixed cornmeal and molasses to make a dessert. Domestic slaves—those who worked as servants for wealthy families—blended their own African cooking traditions with the traditions of the South. They served mashed yamsalongside mashed potatoes. They were especially keen on fried foods—fried chicken, fried fish, and even chicken-fried steak.They made puddings and pies out of various fruits and berries grown in the field. However, slaves were typically not permitted to eat such extravagant desserts. On larger plantations, slaves could hunt for their meat, usually preying on wild possum. Lacking a proper kitchen, slaves used open fires to grill their prize. For breakfast, they made hoecakes, derived from corn batter and placed on a garden hoe to cook over the fire. Hoecakes were often drizzled with molasses. The evening meal, known as “good times” food, was the highlight of the day—a temporary respite from labour and a chance to share stories.

Buffet TableSoul food continued to evolve after the Civil War, when former slaves began settling in other regions of the United States. Although the cuisine varied quite a bit depending on the local geography, there were certain foods that defined the essence of soul food. Many Black culinary traditions were evident in places as far north as Amber Valley, Alberta. Barbecued ribs, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and greens were the staples of soul food cooking. The Black pioneers of Alberta struggled to maintain a diverse and healthy diet. Naturally, they never threw out their leftovers and, instead, turned them into croquettes by mincing the leftover vegetables and meat, packaging them into cylinders, rolling them in breadcrumbs, and deep frying them.

When the Black pioneers of Alberta made their journey via wagons from Oklahoma to Canada, their diet closely resembled that of slaves only decades earlier. Meals were cooked over a fire with cast iron cookware. Families carried with them dried beans, cornmeal, flour, bacon, coffee, tea, salt, and sugar. One common meal consumed on the trails was hoecakes, baked with bacon bits inside. Pigs were essential because pork provided various nutrients and was a key ingredient in a wide assortment of culinary dishes. Pigskin was eaten as a snack, while pig fat was used to cook meals and also as a lubricant for the wheels and axels of the wagons. When the settlers arrived on their homesteads, they cooked using the ingredients available to them. They had vegetable gardens, and they hunted wild animals such as prairie chickens or grouse, wild game, and rabbits. They dried meats, canned fruits and vegetables for the winter, and stored their produce in root cellars. Other ingredients were purchased from stores in nearby towns.

Southern cooking influences were clearly evident at picnics and festive celebrations. Typically, a picnic consisted of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, yams, spinach with bacon, buttered corn and peas, cauliflower with cheese sauce, cabbage rolls, sugared ham, turkey with stuffing, roast beef, homemade rolls, and various sweets for dessert. In Edmonton and Calgary, restaurants owned by Black families served similar foods. In Calgary, Bob Melton and Florence Carter owned the Chicken Inn, and Louella and Dick Bellamy owned the Chicken Fry. In Edmonton, the Harlem Chicken Inn was a popular restaurant among the local community. These restaurants served fried chicken, biscuits and fritters, hot tamales (spiced, shredded meat wrapped in corn-based dough and cornhusks), chili, steak, and barbecued spareribs. All reflected the owners’ southern roots.  Despite the short growing season, Blacks arriving in northern Alberta continued to preserve their culinary traditions and employed a variety of soul food influences in their daily diet.

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