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What is the Meaning of “Soul Food?”

Kanika RR Kumar

What is Soul Food?

My search for an answer to the question – what is the meaning of soul food, began last week.

Last week, I watched tears pouring down my father-in-law’s eyes as he was eating his food. This is a regular phenomenon with him. Whenever I have expressed my curiosity over this, my husband had come back with a very interesting, “That’s how it is,” answer to my question. But last week, because my curiosity had gotten the better of me, and because he was the only other person at the table, I posed the same question to my son.

“Why does your grandfather become so emotional over food?”

The reply was lightning quick. “Because he wants it.”

I got back to my friend, Indira, with this new-found information, and she connected it to her own grandfather’s nose-watering act whenever he ate food.

Then, I began observing a pattern with my father-in-law and food. Every time, he ate something that he felt was tasty, his eyes would begin to water.  When I began to understand my father-in-law’s affection for food, I also began to realize a similar pattern around me, and within me. I have always hated sharing the food that I want. I like onions, and so does my brother. I spent my childhood getting angry over his abuse of my want. I also remember this one time when I had ordered food from a restaurant for myself, but my husband’s nephews got to it first. I hated it. Until I realized that I was supposed to behave like an adult. My son has this habit of asking what is on the menu, and I can see his curiosity light up when I show him the lunch and snacks that have been packed for school.

We all find satisfaction in eating specific foods, and begin to crave those foods in particular. This craving begins in childhood and keeps evolving through adulthood. We will prefer certain fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, or grains over others.

So how do we develop this craving for Soul Foods?

The moment food touches our taste buds, the nerves in the tongue get activated, and begin to send information about the food to the brain. The brain processes this information and sends back instructions on how to understand the food. It is then that we decide weather a particular food is sweet, salty, stale or fresh and so on. Now, the next question that we are going to pose to ourselves is…

How does the brain know all this?

The brain needs information to give its opinion on it. We are all constantly giving information to our brain. The information gathering begins in early childhood when we observe our parents and others around us.

Imagine yourself as a toddler. You are watching your family eat at the dinner table. What are the different things that you are seeing? You are watching them eat, watching what they eat, and you also watching their reaction to whatever it is that they are eating.

Whatever you are watching is the information that you are sending to your brain. If your family likes the food, then your brain connects the food to the “like” reaction. These incidents get stored in your long-term memory, and the next time you see the same food, you begin to crave it because your brain has associated the food to the reaction, and has sent you the instruction to like the food. This is a pattern that keeps repeating itself throughout your lifetime.

What is it about people that makes us like food?

I have never liked pizza. I never liked it when my friends gorged on it before me. I never liked it when my husband gorged on it during our first date. I grew to accept it, and like it as I watched my husband eat it regularly. My brain connected pizza to my husband and attached it to something very interesting. Family. And we all love family. So, we love to eat what the people we love, love to eat. While I don’t like everything my husband eats, my acceptance of pizza is my weird declaration of love towards my husband.

The factory in which my father used to work fed their employees heartily. It was the full works, for every meal. The factory churned out profits year after year, but soon after the management decided to cut food costs, their downfall began. The same was the case with the factory my father-in-law worked in. This is a pattern that can be observed in all work places that feed their employees well. We all like to finish a good day’s work with a good meal. Our brain associates good work with good food, with food being the reward for work well done. The better we work, the better we eat, and the better we eat, the better we work.

Which brings us back to…

Sweets have always been my father-in-law’s soft spot when it comes to food. He loves to dig into every Indian sweet, chocolates, pastries, and always drinks coffee, not for the caffeine, but for the sugar in it. My father-in-law shares his passion for sweets with his mother. He succumbs to the temptation of food, because it brings back memories of childhood, family and mother. Everyone’s first association with food is mother, and food itself comes from the Earth. The food that we eat connects all of us together as one, to this mother, the greatest mother of them all.

And that is why Food that feeds the Soul is called Soul Food.

Are we done?

Not yet. My next question is, how is all of this helpful to me in anyway? Watch this space for more.

But before you do that, here are a few questions you can ask yourself;
• What are your favourite foods now?
• What are your favourite foods from childhood?
• Has your preference for certain foods changed? Or have they stayed the same?
• If they changed, when did it the change happen?
• Why did the change happen?


Kanika Kumar is a poet-writer who is trying to make sense of, and organize the great chaos that exists both within and outside her.

Are you feeling stuck in your life? Do you think something is missing? If you are looking for a solution to your problem or are in search of a fulfilling life, begin your journey with Abirambika Ravivarman. She is a life coach who has made it her life’s mission to help people fix their missing link to happiness.

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