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This story originally aired in the Nov. 12, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
From creamy macaroni and cheese to fried chicken feet, soul food has brought happiness to families and individuals throughout the world. Soul food is typically associated with states in the deep South, but the cooking style is traditional in the Appalachian region, too.
It’s a warm spring afternoon at Manna House Ministries, a Second Baptist Church in Beckley, West Virginia. Xavier Oglesby is singing his favorite hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” as he prepares a macaroni salad in the church’s kitchen. Today, Oglesby is cooking alone, but normally this kitchen would be bustling with life.
“It kind of reminds you of when you watch a bee’s nest and how the bees are. They’re buzzing around and everybody is just so busy. That’s just kind of what it looks like, but it’s an organized chaos,” Oglesby said. “The ladies at the church growing up, you know the old ladies, they’d be cooking. And all the ladies, they would bring their best recipes. And every one of them is good at something — at least one thing — and they pride themselves at that.”
It might be macaroni salad, or a pan of biscuits, or chitlins. Soul food is a cooking style that is intrinsic to Black culture both in the South and Appalachia. Oglesby said more so than the food itself, it’s the way a meal comes together that makes soul food, soul food.
“When you think of soul food, that’s the first thing you think of is Black folks. Because we were able to take nothing and make something out of it for a meal, and that’s the way it is even today,” Oglesby said.
Oglesby has been cooking since he was a teenager. He learned from four generations of his family. But learning how to cook in the Oglesby household wasn’t always easy. It had its moments of strict instruction from his great grandmother, Grandma Virginia.
“She cooked for the superintendents of the coal companies. And as you know, back then they were domestics, and that’s what she did. She was known for that. I mean this lady, she could cook — I mean, almost in her sleep. It was amazing to me just to see her cook and how she would sing,” Oglesby said. “And everything had to be done perfectly.”
Grandma Virginia expected perfection from her great-grandson, too.
“She would have a wooden spoon in her hand, and she’d watch me prepare this dish, and I would have to do it exactly how she would do it,” Oglesby said. “If I didn’t do it, if I missed the step or whatever, she’d hit the back of my hand with the wooden spoon.”
In his family and at church, women were central to the cooking traditions Oglesby grew up with. So as a boy who was interested in cooking, he felt some judgment from the men in his family. Older men in the family weren’t accepting of Oglesby wanting to make a career out of cooking, due to his gender.
“In this family, you have to kind of take your place,” Oglesby said. “And that’s what I did. And then eventually it was easier for the guys of the family — for the older men — to accept and like that. When you look around today, you know, guys make a living doing anything,” Oglesby said.
Now, Oglesby is teaching his niece, Brooklynn Oglesby, how to cook soul food and family recipes. He’s doing this through the West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, which is directed by the West Virginia State Folklorist Jennie Williams.
“This program is hosted every other year. But for a full year, artists can be a part of this program to pass on their traditional knowledge and art forms and skills to an apprentice of their choosing,” Williams said.
Folklife apprenticeship pairs are carrying on community-based traditional art forms and cultural practices — from fiddle instrument repair to mushroom foraging — all with the goal of passing on stories, skill sets and traditional knowledge.
Full disclosure, I worked with Williams as an AmeriCorps member this year. This is an excerpt from an interview Williams did with Oglesby and Brooklynn, where Brooklynn talks about learning from her uncle.
“My main goal has been to learn how to cook, and he’s taught me a lot,” Brooklynn said. “I’ve had to cook on my own. I’ve had to make meals and stuff, and I’ve struggled since I’ve moved out with my own family. It’s been a major struggle because half the time I’ll spend two hours cooking just for it to be so nasty.”
Each apprenticeship pair considers the future of their tradition, and who they want to pass their knowledge onto.
“I’m hoping I can raise two sons that know how to cook,” Brooklynn said. “I’m hoping I can keep that going and teach my kids, and hopefully they’ll be better cooks than me one day.”
For the past year, Oglesby and Brooklynn have been spending time learning together. Williams said Oglesby and Brooklynn are exactly the kind of pairing the apprenticeship program aims to support.
“I was really excited to receive their application. Oglesby has worked with us in our first round of the apprenticeship program,” Williams said. “So to have him back again in the program is really exciting. And for him to bring on his niece to learn their family cooking traditions, that’s especially something that we want to support.”
As part of their work together, the Oglesby’s have prepared food for community gatherings and they’ve hosted events. One of those events was a card party, which is an informal community game night.
“On the coal camp, we used to have card parties and people would go to each other’s houses,” Oglesby said. “On the nights that they would have the card parties, the ladies would bring covered dishes and they would have all kinds of stuff. They would bring pig feet, and somebody may bring some chitlins.”
These card parties have been hosted by Oglesby and Brooklynn at the Women’s Club in Beckley, West Virginia. They have featured live music, tables with cards, and of course, good old-fashioned soul food.
This story was produced with help from the West Virginia Folklife Program. The full interview with Xavier and Brooklynn Oglesby by Jennie Williams is archived at the West Virginia Folklife Collection at West Virginia University Libraries.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.