Chicago’s soul food restaurants, once a cornerstone of Chicago’s African-American communities are disappearing. According to a recent Associated Press article, the once-thriving restaurants are a victim of the sagging economy, more health conscious taste and an exodus of African-American residents from the Chicago area to the suburbs or to southern cities.
Early this year, soul food staple Army & Lou’s - a favorite of late Chicago mayor Harold Washington - closed its doors after 66 years in business. Other restaurants such as Izola’s Restaurant in Chatham and Edna’s on the West Side have also shuttered in recent years.
Is soul food becoming extinct in Chicago? The Food Genius team was eager to investigate, so we created a heat map based on how far someone would have to walk to find a soul food dish.
Gathering the data was a bit trickier than expected. First off, the definition of soul food is complicated, subject to varying interpretation and passionate debate. It’s less about specific ingredients and dishes and more about the style and preparation. For example, soul food cooking encompasses fried chicken, but fried chicken is served by non-soul food restaurants. Secondly, how do we account for regional southern cuisine such as Creole and Cajun, or more upscale restaurants with southern influences? (or do we include them at all?)
We included dishes that would be considered “traditional” soul food: ham hocks, pigs feet, chitterlings (or “chitlins”) chicken liver, hushpuppies, collard greens, etc.
We looked at the restaurants in our database and their overall soul food dish count. We limited this search to confirmed soul food dishes, rather than potential or assumed soul food dishes, so no restaurant came over 15%. The restaurant with the highest percentage of soul food dishes that was Miss Lee’s Good Food in Washington Park (15.07%) close behind were southern influenced restaurants like TABLE fifty-two (11.25%) and The Southern (10,81%) The total number of soul food dishes in our database (ignoring fried chicken) came to 1063.
So our take? There are many dishes that would fall under the category of “soul food” to be found in Chicago, but not necessarily at soul food restaurants. What are your thoughts?