Soul food: cuisine consists of a selection of foods traditional for African Americans. It is closely related to the cuisine of the Southern United States. The descriptive terminology may have originated in the mid-1960s, when soul was a common definer used to describe African-American culture (for example, soul music).
Much has been written and discussed about the relationship between food, diet and spirituality. Hindus swear a vegetarian diet is the only way to go since it does not involve the karma of killing animals to live. The Westernized yoga set are largely the biggest proponents of veganism. Muslims swear that to eat anything pork-based means invoking the wrath of Allah and that includes meat of animals who kill with their paws or jaws (so no shark-fin soup for you!). Jews say the same thing with respect to Yahweh and how eating a cheeseburger is not kosher since you’re eating child and mother in one go (milk–> cheese + meat). Even within the aforementioned groups, there still exists a lively and ongoing debate on the merits of these types of diets and the various rules and restrictions.
I’m not going to write about what is the best diet to advance your own spiritual aims, I think that discussion is up to each individual person, given their health needs, their geographic and environmental reality (how on Earth are the Inuit supposed to become vegans?), their upbringing and of course, income (it’s not a joke when “Whole Foods” is known as “Whole Paycheck”). Food politics, food economics and food security are topics in themselves and are very charged and contentious ones at that.
Instead, I’m going to write about eating food that is so good, so well prepared, so well-cultivated and so down right delicious, that even a bite transports you to another realm, much like nectar and ambrosia did for the Greek gods of yore. Much has been written and discussed about the use of some of our senses to induce spiritual experiences, either by the taking in of beautiful scenery, the listening of beautiful, inspired music, the touch and the warmth of an embrace of a loved one, but the other two senses of taste and smell have largely been under-represented.
Eating and the pleasures of taste as a spiritual experience has mostly figured in the works of fiction more so than in organized religion or spirituality. More often than not, most religions and spiritual groups focus on what you can’t eat versus how to enjoy food. I think of short stories and films where food and the joys of eating go beyond pleasure like “Babette’s Feast”, “Like Water for Chocolate” and films like “Tampopo”, “Big Night”, “Bottle Shock” and “Eat, Drink, Man , Woman”.
I completely understand foodies in this regard. It’s not really about trying this new dish or looking for that rare ingredient or getting reservations at this exclusive restaurant. It’s about being on the lookout for that mouthful which suddenly makes you feel more alive and stops you dead in your tracks with a faraway look in your eye as you quietly enjoy the flavors dancing about your tongue. Suddenly, you feel grateful to be alive so that you can taste such goodness and appreciate the world more. It’s life affirming and not about the dreariness of counting calories and feeling smug because you just ingested a bag of kale chips instead of potato ones. In this respect, the yoga set drive me crazy. I don’t understand how throwing chia seeds and forgoing butter in cakes which turn out to be tasteless is supposed to give me enjoyment and make me happy.
I had several of these experiences including the first time I had a simple tomato in the Mediterranean and not the tasteless, woody ones we find in our North American supermarkets. Not even the garden grown varieties can do justice to that tomato I had at a Greek tavern, with nothing but a splash of lemon juice and a bit of salt. I felt like I was eating the first tomato placed on Earth, it was that fresh, that vivid, that real.
I’ve had the same experience with deep fried freshwater prawns in Bangladesh,
eating lychee, guavas, mangoes and papayas straight off the tree in my grandfather’s garden,
drinking freshly squeezed blood orange juice of oranges I picked a few minutes ago,
having the juices of white pomegranates sticking up my fingers as I try peeling them underneath the tree,
allowing the morsels of perfectly grilled octopus melt in my mouth at a beach side grill,
stinking up my breath with cream of roasted garlic soup at a garlic festival in California
or tucking into sautéed wild mushrooms I foraged for in the local forests.
So for this one time, I’m going to hijack the term “soul food” from our African American brethren. It’s not about a certain cuisine, or a certain part of the world or even gluttony. It’s a way of experiencing a fundamental part of life and giving it due respect, mindfulness…and pleasure