Soul food

As you might imagine, I spend most of my waking hours talking, writing or reading about food. Recently, a new word seems to be sneaking into the conversation. I’m hearing people commenting that a restaurant, dish or chef either has, or lacks, “soul”. It’s an odd idea which, though it might be difficult to pin down, is obviously expressing a widely felt need. That food is getting better in this country is no longer news, but people are still searching for a “special something”.

In 1960s America, “soul” was commonly used to indicate African-American culture. “Soul food” restaurants launched, serving food with African origins or re-appropriating the dishes of the poor American south. The soul food movement gave a name to an indigenous American cuisine of marginalised cultures and, in doing so, became a powerful political statement for them. Eating soul food could be an expression of pride, protest or occasionally “radical chic”.

“Soul” meant something else in Paris around 2000, with the emergence of Le Fooding, a group of young food lovers who’d grown tired of the rigidity of classical French restaurants and sought something more exciting. They spoke of food in metaphors of rock ’n’ roll, they espoused a punk-like ethos (albeit a chic one) and they sought food with “soul”. One only has to look at Johnny Hallyday to realise that the French were always a little confused about musical genres, but the basic idea shines through. Le Fooding wanted a free flow of new ideas, to cross-pollinate with diverse food cultures, to inject a little something into the sclerotic bloodstream of the world’s pre-eminent food city.

In the context of British food today, “soul” seems to have a subtly different meaning to either of these. Say what you like about the American diet, as a nation the US can claim uninterrupted cultural and historical tropes in food – anthropologists call them “foodways” – in a way we can’t. Our culinary culture is so interrupted by rationing, recessions and our historically odd attitude to food that I’m not sure there’s any remaining point in reviving the Bedfordshire Clanger or Hindle Wakes.

Philosophy isn’t my strongest suit, but it seems that soul expresses the intangible in human existence. There’s part of that which fits with food. There is something extra – beyond the ingredients and execution – in the food we love. This doesn’t mean that food “has a soul”, but it helps to give a name to that element which makes me equally crazy about a three-star starter and the spicy squid at my local noodle shop.

A word which indicates something indefinable, immeasurable and which will have its existence debated until the end of time is good enough until we can think of a better one.

I do, however, like Le Fooding’s use of metaphor and it has helped me define the “soul” I’m looking for. Enjoying food, for me, is very much like enjoying music. Haute cuisine is like classical music. It’s drawn from a canon from a few countries – largely not my own. The original was usually created a long time ago and when delivered by a master it can move me, though when churned out by a hack it’s irrelevant.

Modernist cuisine is like modern jazz. I think I enjoy it and understand it, but I have a suspicion in the back of my mind that nobody enjoys it or understands the virtuoso flights of invention quite as much as the bloke who’s performing.

Food with soul is like soul music. It requires little in the way of thought or explanation. It draws on the experience and the skill of the performer. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little rough around the edges – in fact, sometimes its rawness helps communicate how deeply it’s felt.

Greater minds than mine say that soul is intangible, but an intangible can be measured by its effects. Classical music makes me feel improved and occasionally elevated, jazz makes me stroke my chin and nod my head, but soul makes me want to get up and dance.

Food with soul, like soul music, speaks to something in me that I can’t define – but when it does, a huge part of me leaps uncontrollably to agree. If I weren’t such a cynic, I might say it was my soul.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer;; Twitter @Tim Hayward

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