Soul Food: A Lecture by Harryette Mullen

On February 21, 2013, at the Performing Arts Center at Naropa University, Reed Bye, core faculty at the Kerouac School, introduced Harryette Mullen, who gave a lecture on soul food. “Soul Food: The poetics of food, the articulation of black hunger and the survival of culture.”

Mullen discussed the origins of soul food— the link or association with slavery and discrimination and the stereotypes of African American or black identity. Traditional Southern soul food consists of okra, sesame, watermelon, corn, maize, sweet potatoes, collard greens, cabbage, and peanuts. Soul food is also the result of shifting borders, diaspora, the exchange of people and food and hybridity. For example, Mullen traced the roots of collard greens to Europe—yet, collard greens are associated with African American cooking—which illustrates the notion of racial mixing and the inclusion of other races, ethnicities.

Other than slave narratives, black Americans wrote cook books to express the culinary mastery or expertise of the plantations. Mullen read poems by Anna Castillo, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and others to exemplify poetic soul food. Mullen continued to expand on the “roots” of soul food as a culture of survival: the restricted diet of slaves—a way to have ethnic pride and overcome adversity.  For instance, the work of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, expresses the expertise of black vernacular and the culture of survival in the poem “Possum:”


Ef dey ‘s anyt’ing dat riles me
An’ jes’ gits me out o’ hitch,
Twell I want to tek my coat off,
So ‘s to r’ar an’ t’ar an’ pitch,
Hit’s to see some ign’ant white man
‘Mittin’ dat owdacious sin–
Wen he want to cook a possum
Tekin’ off de possum’s skin.

W’y dey ain’t no use in talkin’,
Hit jes’ hu’ts me to de hea’t
Fu’ to see dem foolish people
Th’owin’ ‘way de fines’ pa’t.
W’y, dat skin is jes’ ez tendah
An’ ez juicy ez kin be;
I knows all erbout de critter–
Hide an’ haih–don’t talk to me!

Possum skin is jes lak shoat skin;
Jes’ you swinge an’ scrope it down,
Tek a good sha’p knife an’ sco’ it,
Den you bake it good an’ brown.
Huh-uh! honey, you ‘s so happy
Dat yo’ thoughts is ‘mos’ a sin
When you ‘s settin’ dah a-chawin’
On dat possum’s cracklin’ skin.

White folks t’ink dey know ’bout eatin’,
An’ I reckon dat dey do
Sometimes git a little idee
Of a middlin’ dish er two;
But dey ain’t a t’ing dey knows of
Dat I reckon cain’t be beat
Wen we set down at de table
To a unskun possum’s meat!

Black Hunger: everything—the whole animal is eaten, used for something—even fat could be used for soap.

“Put yourself into the food”.

“Butter carries memory.”

Mullen ignited the audience to begin to understand different kinds of black hunger: blackness: re-writing, or evolving the black narrative, black recipes—how black hunger relates to white domination.

As Mullen continued to explain the notion of the “culture of survival” she mentioned that ancestral relatives died from starvation, malnourishment, and “failure to thrive;” failure to thrive within a culture that forgets to acknowledge: slavery: prison.

As I sit here, discussing race, “how we deal with culture, shame, fear, curiosity…” I consider how colo(red) humans have evolved soul food. The evolution of soul food: Mullen mentioned the “Vegan Soul Kitchen” as a celebration of survival. Harryette Mullen’s final course of the evening was:

Gumbo: “symbol of abundance” and traditional secret recipes to honor soul food heritage.


april joseph is called a clarinetist-poetess, who traveled from California to work on an MFA at the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University, where (s)he also co-teaches a BA creative writing course. Her writing has appeared in Bombay Gin, and collaborative chapbooks: Forum, Bellow, and Heart Lip Spider. april(andbello—her trusty sidekick) can be found frolicking around the mountain-town of Nederland, CO, writing: silentsnow, reading: tarot, and rising to moonshine.