The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

August 23, 2012

Mike Pound: Looking for a definition of ‘soul food’

I was talking Spam with Jim West on Thursday.

Jim is older than I am, but he’s not much older, so we both spent time as kids getting to know Spam.

For those of you who didn’t grow up in modest circumstances (yes, I’m talking about my 14-year-old daughter, Emma), I shall attempt to explain Spam for you.

Spam is meat that comes in a can. It is, to the best of my knowledge at least when I was a kid, part ham and part “whatever.”

The good qualities, to my parents back then, were that it tasted OK and it would last forever.

The bad qualities were that ... it tasted OK and it would last forever.

I told Jim that my mom used to fry Spam for dinner. He told me that his mom used to dice it up and put it in scrambled eggs for breakfast.

“I came into the kitchen one time, and my mom was putting Spam in the eggs, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ and she said, ‘Eat it!’”

I asked Jim if he remembered the gelatinous substance that dropped off the block of Spam when it came out of the can.

“Yea, what was that?”

“It’s a mystery,” I said.

Jim and I were talking about Spam because Jim mentioned that his mom also used to put it in macaroni and cheese. We were talking about mac and cheese because Jim agreed that it qualifies as a member of the soul food family. We were talking about soul food because Jim called to tell me that the Emancipation Park Day Committee is gearing up for its second Soul Food Cook-off.

The cook-off will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Community Service Center, 110 S. Main St., as part of Joplin’s Third Thursday activities. The event is a fundraiser for the annual Emancipation Day in the Park celebration, which is held on the first weekend in August

Before the last Soul Food Cook-off, I stumped Kathy Ratliff, one of the organizers of the event, when I asked her for a definition of “soul food.”

Kathy paused for a second and then said, “I don’t think I ever defined it. We just eat it.”

Later, when pressed a bit, Kathy gave me a list of the types of food that qualify as soul food.

“Yams, collard greens, fried chicken, sweet potato pie, baked beans, barbecue, cornbread, grits, macaroni and cheese, chitlins, black-eyed peas, rolls,” she said.

When I mentioned to Kathy that soul food sounded a lot like home-style comfort food, she agreed. So did Jim when we talked on Thursday.

According to Jim, while soul food holds a special place in the hearts and stomachs of the black community, it is not restricted to race.

“So white people can fix soul food, too?” I asked.

“Anybody can,” he said.

My parents grew up in Kansas during the Great Depression. Both parents grew up in large families run by single moms. As a rule, when I grew up, the foods of my parents’ youth were the foods of my youth. And much of what we ate certainly qualified as soul food. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that, which is why Jim wants to stress that the Soul Food Cook-off is open to any and everybody.

The entry fee for the Soul Food Cook-off is $10. Categories will include main dishes, side dishes, vegetables and desserts.

To enter, people may call 417-782-0055 or 417-483-1752.

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