Is "Soul Food" Killing Black People?
Between the holidays and New Year’s Day, lots of African Americans are thinking about all the delicious food that’s about to be spread out over millions of tables. Food we call “soul food.” You’ve probably seen it in the movies. Every time there’s a Sunday dinner for black families, the food often depicted is fried, smothered in gravy, bubbling with cheese, cooked in fatty animal parts, or lathered in butter.
Wait, I’m making myself hungry.
But more to my point, that messaging is powerful in reinforcing stereotypes about who we are and what we eat. Is that what “soul food” is really about?
First a little history lesson for the new year: African Americans have a rich history of using food to celebrate the new year. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century starting in the Carolinas but extending throughout the South, black Americans cooked black eyed peas for luck and greens (symbolizing wealth/money) as the meal to start the new year right. January 1 is also called Emancipation Day or Jubilee Day because on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves from bondage, was read in Boston. This was cause for a food-full celebration.
But is the media’s stereotype of “soul food” correct? My fellow Food & Community Fellow, eco-chef Bryant Terry, author Vegan Soul Kitchen and his new book, The Inspired Vegan, has talked about lesser-known rich farming history of African Americans, which created the original “soul food.” As slaves we mostly consumed plants and vegetables. Slaves often ate raw vegetables or gathered fallen fruit and nuts from trees that surrounded the fields they toiled in. We toiled the soil for others and later for ourselves, and farms and small gardens continue to be a Southern legacy.
It is also true that decades later, as a post-slavery survival tactic, economics forced us to eat the unwanted (and cheaper) fatty meat portions—so we created delicious meals from pig guts (chitterlings), pigs feet, cow stomachs, salt pork, and the other pieces nobody else wanted. So, though we got fresh food and vegetables from the farm, how it got to the plate was a different story.
Yet, some African Americans have much pride over creating a cuisine partly based on turning items nobody wanted into tasty meals. Making something of nothing is one of our cultural legacies that many blacks wear with pride.
I take pride in that.
For others, what is viewed as traditional soul food is comforting, and reminds them of the Big Mamas and Aunties down south who help raise them and represents a connection to the past that many blacks desperately seek.
I get that too.
But whatever our food history, our disconnected past or our need to feel connected to our roots, the truth of the matter is blacks have the highest incidence and the highest mortality rate for nearly every disease and diet plays an integral part.
According to the Office of Minority Health, African American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. In 2009, African Americans were 1.5 times as likely to be obese as Non- Hispanic Whites.
African American adults are more likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease, and they are more likely to die from heart disease.
Although African American adults are 40% more likely to have high blood pressure, they are 10% less likely than their non-Hispanic White counterparts to have their blood pressure under control.
The point is clear. We really don’t have time or the luxury to debate our cultural food history. We have to create a new one. A new food culture based on the impact of our past choices: our families broken by beloved members who die too soon, our communities ravaged by lost resources, our unhealthy and/or obese children, and our babies who are born too soon and statistically die too early.
Our new food culture must embrace breastfeeding as the best first food for infants, and include fresh fruits, vegetables, actually cooking our meals, avoiding fatty foods and highly processed canned foods, shopping at the farmer’s market and planting our own small gardens.
Let’s be clear. I love “soul food.” I love it in its purest from-the-earth forms and some of its less healthy incarnations—though definitely not in its canned varieties. Yuck!
My own great grandmother, a half black, half Cherokee American Indian married to a black American southern preacher, made the best cornbread. My sister and I spent most or part of our summers with her in South Carolina every year. We went to the family farm and picked peas and then spent the afternoon sitting on the porch shelling them. Later that night, they were on our plate.
She made the best stewed okra, and I can’t even recall all various greens she covered our plates with. But I also loved her salt pork or her fried fresh fish and grits on a Sunday morning. And she cooked the best fried chicken and homemade buttery biscuits. But what I remember most is the time and care my Granny took when preparing our meals. That’s what made it soulful.
But whatever our distorted past, let’s start the new year forging a new food future. It is a health imperative. It is a community imperative. We can debate what soul food is, what our slave ancestors ate, and research all day long why we cook with fat, while our men, women and children die or live unhealthy lives. Or we can build a healthier African American fare with full confidence that whatever we create will always have soul.
What's going to be on your table for the holiday and New Year's Day?