The History and Power of Soul Food

This fall, a diverse group of community members gathered at the Lucy F. Simms center in Harrisonburg, Virginia to honor and celebrate Black cooks and chefs who serve the Shenandoah Valley with their soul food. The event was sponsored by The Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, located in the historic Northeast Neighborhood of Harrisonburg, a nonprofit organization that has been collecting and preserving Black history in the Shenandoah Valley region for the past ten years.

I was honored to sit and eat dinner with friends and families of the thirteen chefs who were recognized for their contributions to the Valley’s history and culture. Together we ate, laughed, sang and cried in a space that smelled and felt like a homecoming.

After an opening introduction, a local musician followed with a moving rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” The song was followed by words signifying how important it is to honor and tell our own stories of food, culture and community. We prayed, and then everyone got in line to eat the delicious food catered by Franklin’s Catering & Custodial Inc. I was greeted with smiles as the catering staff filled my plate with beef brisket, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, collard greens and a homemade roll. For dessert there was banana pudding and cake commemorating the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project’s ten year anniversary of preserving Black history.

Back at my table, I was honored to share my meal while having intergenerational conversations about organizing, food, history and conservation with Black women from all over the region. The conversations and food were washed down with old fashioned, southern sweet tea.

During dinner, we learned about the history of soul food that included some surprises. Stories that especially hit home were the origin of American macaroni and cheese! As it turns out, mac ‘n cheese was popularized in the U.S. by James Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef (and brother of the better known Sally). He learned about it learned studying culinary arts while in Paris with Jefferson. We also discovered why Gordonsville, Virginia is known as the “fried chicken capital of the world.” It began with previously enslaved women who made money by handing up fried chicken through the windows to those aboard passenger trains passing through Gordonsville.

Hearing such stories about the resilience of my ancestors and how they financed their freedom and fed their families with soul food expanded my appreciation of my heritage and my own family and our meals together. Then to complete our celebration of food and history, we also enjoyed African drumming and folktales that brought things full circle and grounded us in the diaspora.

Our keynote speaker, Aleen Carey, spoke about the importance of food access and her work at Cultivate Charlottesville. She made parallels between all the Black communities in the region and the fight to end food insecurity. She spoke about collective power and the importance of community and how soul food has always been the cornerstone of change and radical movements. She left us with an appreciation for the past and motivation for community connection in the future.

The dinner ended with the celebration of thirteen culinary artists past and present. Their names were called and their bios shared. Many of the honorees were there, but a number of awards were received by family members who were proud to receive the award on their behalf. The whole room was filled with emotion as, for the first time, their history was told, their hard work appreciated.

While working on the sustainability plan for the Northeast Neighborhood of Harrisonburg, I have realized that sustainability and environmental justice can’t happen without the acknowledgement of the Black culture and history of the region. The gathering of community members around food in a historic building, in the middle of a neighborhood ravaged by urban renewal, shows that the legacy of the neighborhood still persists and is withstanding gentrification and climate pressures. The resilience of a community is not solely based on how well the community can withstand climate hardships, but also how it can withstand racial and systemic hardships.  Our dinner of soul food and honoring Black chefs, past and present, is just one of the ways in which community cohesion is being rebuilt; we surely need the entire collective community to get us out of the climate crisis. I left the dinner with my soul full, with new friends, and a renewed sense of community and hope.

Valerie Washington – RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow

RCC Fellow Valerie Washington is a graduate student of Urban and Regional Planning with a concentration in sustainability at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She is working on a sustainability plan for the Northeast Neighborhood, a historically Black neighborhood in Harrisonburg, Virginia.