Rich and Healthy Foods for a Traditional Soul Food Dinner

Fried chicken and waffles is a delicious indulgence, but there are better nutritional choices when it comes to soul food.
Fried chicken and waffles is a delicious indulgence, but there are better nutritional choices when it comes to soul food.

Let your mind wander to your favorite soul foods. Chicken and waffles. Barbecued ribs. Macaroni and cheese. Catfish, chicken livers, sweet potato pie.

Soul food is an ethnic cuisine that's part of our American Southern food tradition, brought to the United States through the slave trade and passed down through generations of African-American families. Its heart is in the food traditions of Africa, the Caribbean and South America.

The term "soul food" may not have originated until the civil rights movement of the1960s, but some foods on soul food menus have roots that go back hundreds of years -- or at least their inspiration does. You'll find a traditional soul food menu offers everything from oxtail soup, chitterlings (also called chitlins) and boiled pigs feet to collard greens and ham hocks, black-eyed peas, corn bread and cracklin' bread. Swallow it down with some sweet tea and finish it off with a slice of chess pie.

While this style of food varies from region to region, with shrimp and seafood making appearances in recipes in coastal areas, the common thread in soul food is that these dishes were created with what was around and available, usually offal and other leftover and unwanted animal parts (for example, chitterlings are a pig's small intestine that's been cleaned, soaked and boiled or fried) and weeds (for example, beet greens). Soul foods are often fried or slow cooked, prepared those ways to help tenderize otherwise difficult-to-work-with ingredients. Sauces, sides and main dishes are often flush with salt and sugar as a way to boost flavors.

Soul food traditions and recipes have been passed along in African-American families in the U.S. since the time of slavery, through stories, experience and sometimes recipe cards, but cooking family recipes and eating soul food doesn't have to mean sacrificing your health. What does health have to do with it? A lot -- every time you enjoy a deep-fried turkey wing you're increasing your odds of developing some serious and chronic health problems. Let's figure out what those health risks are, next, and then how to enjoy a rich but healthy soul food meal instead.

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