Soul food probably gets its name from the mid-1960s, back when the term "soul" was used to describe something distinctlty African-American.
It all comes back to soul— soul music, soul man, soul food. The latter of which owing its roots to the foods served and eaten by slaves in the old American South.
On it's surface, soul food is just plain delicious. Who doesn't like a plate filled with fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and some corn bread?
However, there is much to honor in the history of the food, says Michael Twitty, an African-American food historian and author of the forthcoming book "The Cooking Gene."
"Soul food is unique because it has socio-political overtones and carries the burden of race. It's a cuisine based on memory. It's a cuisine founded in resistance, and it's main technique is feeling and intuition."
In Atlanta, the city's most conspicuous soul food is served up at the world-known Gladys Knight's Chicken & Waffles establishment on Peachtree Road. But Knight's son's business dealings have been called into question recently, making headlines and attracting attention to the 44 reasons —and then some— why you should probably find a different place to eat.
No matter where the give and take between race, history and food in the south nets out, the resulting submissions into our cultural narrative are just plain delicious.
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Here, in the capitol of the south, you've still got options.
Mary Mac's Tea Room
224 Ponce De Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta
Mary Mac's history in Atlanta predates chicken and waffles by about 50 years or so, first opening its Ponce De Leon doors in 1945 to serve made-from-scratch soul food with something general manager Matt Thompson calls an "unprecedented, undisputed, undivided and undersung commitment to bringing world-class southern hospitality to the American people." Usually, terms like service and hospitality are (in restaurant-speak) filler marketing language and noise, but in Mary Mac's case, the claim to hospitality greatness may just be true. Servers, managers and staff at the Atlanta institution are as friendly as the southern ideal, and "goodwill ambassador" Jo Carter is kept on staff for the sole purpose of giving back rubs to guests. That is some old school soul stuff.
180 Northside Drive SW, Atlanta
Soul food starts at fried chicken. And Paschals is famous for their fried chicken. The Castleberry Hill establishment is the kind of place you'll find a legend eating lunch. As they famously pointed out to Paste Magazine, "what do Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. all have in common?" Paschals. The chicken joint (like Mary Mac's) has been around since the 1940s.
Photo: Courtesy of Sean Spalding
Kevin Gillespie is one of the best chefs in Atlanta, and Revival is his family-style restaurant offering "a proper version of the traditional Sunday dinner." Make no mistake, this is not a historic chicken joint. There is no 70-year history. The story of Revival doesn't begin on a plantation. It wasn't born in a segregated era and it has no ties to the old south. It's a shiny, new, old-school throwback brought by a red-bearded white guy in Decatur. And, it's delicious.
S & S Cafeteria
2002 Campbellton Road SW, Atlanta
The thing about all the above is that they are popular, well-known establishments. There is something about the under-rated spots that are slinging the food they sling without pretense or much in the way of fanfare that really capture the essence of soul food. Nowhere is that more true than at S&S Cafeteria, a southwest Atlanta favorite that has home-cooked food that stays on its game.
Willie B's Sisters Southern Cuisine
705 South Gordon Road SW, Mableton
This fast-service spot south of Atlanta will feed you right, even if it might be a little hit-or-miss on service or menu availability. But the fact is, oxtail, okra, mac and cheese, yams, cornbread, blackberry cobbler and a dash of collard liquor — that is a lunch only a true southern original can provide.
Who's Got Soul
3818 Covington Hwy, Decatur
Chef Kash has soul. The Decatur spot is closed on Monday's, but laying down a steady soul groove the rest of the way. They make a standout mac and cheese, a tasty peach cobbler and all their food is cooked from fresh, homemade ingredients. And they pump up the sweet R&B jams. Because soul.
968 Memorial Drive, Atlanta
Like Greenwood's on Green Street, Home grown is its very own thing. The food is decidedly southern; a breakfast soul food restaurant you could say. But what sets it apart is the vibe: East Atlanta hip without the kind of pretense that usually comes along with that tag. Former teacher Lisa Spooner and fine-dining chef Kevin Clark have in Home grown a breakfast joint grown like a flower out from a crack in the pavement on Memorial Drive.
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