Star : Alisa Reynolds
Hulu’s Searching for Soul Food is a love letter to soul food all around the world. While we often equate it with the comforting cooking of the American South, chef Alisa Reynolds travels the globe in this eight-episode series, to expand her mind and palate and broaden the definition of what we consider soul food.
Opening Shot: An animated collage appears onscreen featuring old photos of our host, Alisa Reynolds as a younger chef and as a child. On one side of her is a French flag and images of classic French cuisine, and on the other side of her are illustrations of a crayfish, a boombox, and a woman with an Afro. She narrates, “I’m chef Alisa Reynolds: classically trained, soul food raised. At my restaurant in L.A., I apply my classical training to what I know: soul food.”
The Gist: Reynolds begins this series in Mississippi, the heart of the American South and slavery, to begin her story of the origins of soul food. This is a show dedicated to understanding not just the American version of soul food, but what that term means across the globe – in later episodes, Reynolds visits Jamaica, Italy, South Africa, and Peru – but along the way, she connects the dots between soul food’s African roots to other Indigenous cultures and the way customs traveled across the globe, due in part to the slave trade.
At 25 minutes each, the episodes move at a rapid clip, and the show is densely packed with information (and lots of food ogling). Reynolds visits with regionally famous chefs who have made a name for themselves cooking the food of their ancestors: succotash and braised greens and black-eyed peas. But for every dish she delights in, there’s a message in there too, about that particular food’s significance, like how Africans hid things like okra and collard seeds in their hair during the mid-Atlantic crossing to bring the food from their homes to America. Later, Reynolds learns that often the only meat eaten by poor Southerners was whatever scraps they could carry out of their employer or master’s kitchen.
During a visit with bookstore owner Maati Jone Primm, Primm explains, “That’s the genius of being Black. We get oppressed, we get sad, we create the blues. We take garbage and make it into fine cuisine.” The food we’re celebrating has roots in hardship and exploitation, and yet, look at it now.
The show focuses on the contributions of Indigenous people too, who inhabited many of the same areas as slaves, and the cultures cross-pollinated and shared many of the same customs. Reynolds explains, for instance, that while hush puppies have long been considered Southern soul food, they were first introduced into Black culture by Native Americans, who had a long history of cooking with corn first. Reynolds calls out the Webster’s dictionary definition of soul food at one point, saying, “Despite what my friend Webster has to say, soul food isn’t just food eaten by Black people. Duh.” While it’s origins are often associated with slaver, she says, Africans were frying and baking and using “soul food” cooking techniques before they ever arrived in America, which leads us to the rest of the series, which explores the origins and traditions of cultures around the world who also create their versions of soul food.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Searching For Soul Food has a similar premise to Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu travel series Taste The Nation; both shows put attention on cultures or regions that are often overlooked or not given the credit they deserve for influencing the culture.
Our Take: Right off the bat, it felt like this show was trying to do too many things all at once. Visits with chefs in Jackson and Natchez, Mississippi were interspersed with animated history lessons and a comedy sketch featuring an actor playing an irate, knife-throwing version of Thomas Jefferson’s personal chef (and slave) James Hemings. (Though the sketch felt tonally out of place amid this otherwise fairly serious travel show, I still appreciated the message that Hemings, a Black man, was the first American chef to be classically-trained in French cooking, and he was responsible for popularizing foods like French Fries and mac and cheese.)
And yet, despite the show’s at times frenetic pace and disjointed segments, I found myself interested and curious in everything about it. Food history across the globe, not just in America, is a snapshot of cultural, agricultural, and political history, and Searching For Soul Food is an easily digestible way for viewers to dip their toe in a topic that can get pretty deep if you really want to dive into it. Reynolds is an affable host who moves the show along and she seems truly proud to be the one to take viewers on this journey of exploration with her.
Parting Shot: A montage of shots featuring all of the guests who appeared on the show and the food that was eaten flashes across the screen, flecked with clips of Reynolds smiling and dancing. If the show is a celebration, the final moments are the photo album that you look at to remember the good times you had.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Soul food: it is both our celebration and our saliva,” Maati Jone Primm, the owner of Marshall’s Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi says during a visit with Reynolds. This is her short and sweet way of explaining how food that was once just thought of as scraps evolved into food that is a symbol of a culture as well as a point of pride.
Our Call: STREAM IT! The tone of the show is all over the map, zigging and zagging between sketch comedy and light-hearted animations to serious conversations about slavery and history, which can be jarring. But the messages that underlie both the heavy and light moments are consistent and serve the same purpose: to explain our history through food. Searching For Soul Food is a travelogue filled with mouth-watering food, but it’s more successful as a historical and cultural guide to that food’s importance.