Celebrating the rich history and flavors of traditional “Soul Food” recipes and culture for Black History Month

We all love a good home cooked meal and the rich savory flavors from Southern cuisine. In celebration of Black History Month, we are exploring the history of some of the South’s most popular foods. Join us as we give them a healthy twist while honoring their origin and tradition. 

Soul Food’s true magic is in capturing the humanity and spirit of African-Americans overcoming centuries of oppression, creating a cuisine that beautifully blends the food and techniques of West Africa, Western Europe, and America. 

A Bit of History:

The origins of Southern recipes, often referred to as “soul food,” trace back to before slavery and are rooted in West African and European foodways. These methods were adapted to the conditions created in America. Many of the foods integral to Southern cuisine originate from the rations given to enslaved people. 

Typically, enslaved people were given items such as cornmeal, rice, beans, and undesirable parts of pork per week. From those rations birthed the creation of soul food staples such as cornbread, creamed corn, ham hocks, barbecued ribs, chitterlings, and neckbones. Incorporating their cultures and traditions brought with them overseas, enslaved people created flavors and recipes of foods we still widely enjoy today.

In true “Common Threads Fashion”, let’s explore some of soul food’s classic dishes in a healthier way. This month we are bringing to your table four new recipes with a twist for you and your family to try in celebration of Black History Month.

#1: Ham Hocks & Black-eyed Peas

The inclusion of pork, whether fresh, smoked, or smothered appears in a variety of soul food dishes. Pigs could be raised on small scale farms with very low maintenance, and could often be purchased at much lower prices than other animals. 

Ham hocks are commonly smoked and used to flavor vegetables and legumes. Using a slow cooker to prepare ham hocks allows the collagen and flavorful fat to break down and render, bringing a smoky flavor to the vegetables and peas. Ham hocks are typically cured and thus contain sodium, so keep that in mind before adding additional salt. 

Black-eyed peas (commonly known as cowpeas or pigeon peas) became a popular legume to farm because of the nitrogen they help to produce and add to the soil, helping plants to grow while offering great nutritional value. Served with hearty root vegetables and bold spices, black eyed peas are a filling and tasty dish commonly enjoyed on New Year’s Day as they are said to bring good luck into the coming year.

#2: Oven Fried Catfish and String Beans (aka Green Beans)

Catfish were commonly found in nearby lakes, rivers, and streams, making them an accessible and affordable source of protein. Traditionally catfish were prepared in cornmeal and served fried. However, in this recipe, it is baked in the oven as a leaner cooking method.

#3: Buttermilk Homemade Biscuits and Gravy 

Biscuits are a popular form of bread because they are an affordable and delicious companion to many southern dishes. Preparing biscuits and gravy was also a way for cooks to utilize leftover grease from pork and/or beef sausage to be transformed into a delicious gravy, which had many uses. 

This recipe utilizes ground turkey sausage for a leaner protein source. We have also added whole wheat flour providing more fiber and nutrients from whole grains to this recipe!

#4: Banana Pudding 

Banana pudding is a classic southern “no bake” dessert. Known for its simplicity and sweetness, banana pudding is the perfect dessert to make with your kids!  Traditionally made with homemade pudding or custard using whole milk or heavy cream, this healthier interpretation is made with low-fat milk and cornstarch. Try it with a classic meringue whipped topping or whipped cream!

As is the case in many cultures, these recipes and other staple items are often passed down from one generation to the next. These traditional Southern comfort foods, for many of us today, serve as reminders of happy times spent with our families. We hope that you enjoyed learning a bit of the history behind the creation of these recipes and create more happy, healthy memories with your family around the table.

More Resources:

Enjoy more recipes and information on Black History Month foods:

Beyond enjoying soul food recipes, Black History Month is a good opportunity to speak with members of your family about racial equity and social justice. Following are some helpful resources:

Article Sources:


Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides children and families cooking and nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that contribute to wellness. We equip under-resourced communities with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn and play. We know that food is rooted in culture and tradition, so we promote diversity in our lessons and recipes, encouraging our participants to celebrate the world around them. To learn more, visit www.commonthreads.org or on social media by searching for #CookingForLife.