At the heart of Southern holiday cuisine are savory, intensely-seasoned dishes that form a distinctive food culture. However, it’s not only the food that makes these dishes part of our most important traditions—it’s the deep history that informs the way these beloved dishes are prepared.
When the enslaved West Africans arrived in the United States, along with them came foods like peanuts, okra, and black-eyed peas but also cooking methods such as stewing, braising, and smothering. Although similar, each of these slow-cooking techniques gave them the chance to create vastly different dishes from the same ingredients. Stews were made using everything from peanuts to poultry. For something lighter, food was braised with just a small amount of liquid and dry heat. Smothering, however, added an entirely different layer of flavor by braising, then cooking it down in a gravy or roux. The smothering method also helped make less tasty foods edible and enjoyable.
Since the African culinary culture was filled with grilled foods, hearty stews and rich sauces served with ample vegetables and grains, smothered dishes easily joined the regular regimen of Southern slaves.
Around the holidays, when the slaves were occasionally provided with meat, they cooked using these traditional African slow cooking techniques. The process of smothering, stewing, and braising not only brought immense flavors to the food, but also gave them time to commune around the kitchen and share rare moments of community while doing so. Slow cooking served as a way to celebrate their heritage and provided much-needed nourishment for both the body and the soul.
These methods were used all over the South, but some of the most notable traditional dishes originated from Louisiana Creole and Cajun cuisines. The Creole and Cajun people and their food are a blend of West African, French, Spanish, Caribbean, and Native American ancestry. Known for their simple but flavorful one-pot recipes, smothering is used to prepare seafood, vegetables, and meats in Louisiana cuisine. The different cultural influences and techniques like the French roux, African okra, and Spanish spices can be seen in dishes like gumbo, smothered pork chops, and étouffée, which means “to smother” in French.
Even more so today, these smothering, stewing, and braising techniques are used in almost every step of preparing a traditional Southern holiday spread. Making dishes like braised collard greens, stewed okra, and this special smothered pork chop recipe is a delicious way to celebrate the past.
More vegan soul food recipes
To cook more of my vegan soul food recipes, including an update to sweet corn pudding, vegan mustard-glazed ham with southern-style biscuits, and my vegan version of turkey and cranberry sauce, read up on all the deliciousness here.