When one hears the term "soul food" there's typically a mental visual of what many have equated as "Black food"—dishes and recipes brought over from West Africa to the Americas by enslaved men and women, that have now been mostly adopted and heavily utilized in Southern cuisine. But, according to Chef Alisa Reynolds, soul food is deeper than just a dish itself.
Reynolds, the upcoming host of Onyx Collective and Hulu's new series Searching for Soul Food, (airing June 2, 2023) takes us with her on a global journey in search of the true meaning of soul food. From Italy and Jamaica, the rock star chef finds that, for her, this type of cuisine is rooted in love and emotion.
"My definition of soul food can be summed up in one word, love. It's literally struggle, DNA, and passionate people who are able to make something when their backs are against the wall, like we did when we came to the Americas," says Reynolds. "I believe because of us, and our American story, I had to find out if that same thing existed in other parts of the world. We were powerful enough to coin it, but what exactly is it? It's love."
Birthed from her own curiosity around why the cuisine was deemed "soul" food versus any other descriptor, Reynolds visits countries like Jamaica and South Africa, while also making stops in unexpected destinations like Italy.
"The food takes on this emotion that makes us feel safe and loved. As time has passed, and we move away from such dark histories, food shines through. In Italy, at one point in history, the country didn't have the lush growing environments that it does today. It was about creating something from nothing. So, pizza just became the poor man's food. They had no choice but to start eating tomatoes, and they created this dish that is now a symbol of love around the world. Many people don't even realize that backstory," continues Reynolds.
Beyond the stop in Italy, chef Reynolds says that being able to delve into the stories behind stories are truly what make Searching for Soul Food so special.
"To go to Oklahoma and be able to hear the true history of the Choctaw people, really blew me away," shares the chef. "It was great because it helped me connect the dots on my own familial history. In Peru, being able to witness the art of how they utilized the earth to cook their meals, was just great for me."
When asked what her ultimate soul food spread would be, she admits that the dishes can change for her often.
"Well, my most obvious would be fried chicken, mac and cheese, and yams. I always have to pay homage to James Hemings for mac and cheese, yams are a stable from the Mother Continent, and then I say fried chicken because we took the recipe and perfected it," she shared. "Black military vets then took it all over the world as they fought for our country. But my not so obvious soul food dishes would be salmon croquettes and rice and beans."