My friend Vanessa and I were talking on the phone a few weeks ago and she brought up a great point about the movie Soul Food. How come nobody ever talks about the connection between Big Mama's diabetes and big spread of "soul food" she consumed every week - smothered porkchops, buttery cornbread, peach cobbler and sweat tea?
It's a touchy subject, especially just two weeks before Thanksgiving. I know...I know... I'm looking forward to fried turkey and gravy too. I'm not trying to front. So what do we do? Smoked Tofu? Hell-to-the-naaw! As good as that macaroni and cheese looks, we have to find a way - and more importantly the motivation and willpower - to make or food less ....um lethal. So I started doing a little research. Looking for answers. Asking around.
Alan Dixon, author of Inner Civilization, outlines some historic facts that really inspired me to think about my Thanksgiving menu. I'm going to post this blog on Facebook for my family to read and consider. Here is an excerpt from his book:
Since the late 1800's, after rousing sermons, African Americans would spend late Sunday afternoons in church, enjoying dishes such as potato salad, collard greens, ham, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, spareribs, buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, candied yams, chocolate cake, pound cake and much more. Many such meals remind us of our grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members. At times we make certain dishes in tribute to all of the love and care they would put into each recipe. This feeling of love and care would be enhanced by the good company and good times surrounding each meal. Indeed, the bonds of love, food and soul are deeply intertwined, and quite strong.
Soul food is assumed to be the cultural food of black people. But should it be? Do we need to hold on to it as our cultural food? As a growing number of us are becoming more and more aware, much in the soul food diet creates serious health risks for African Americans. Foods such as hamhocks, fatback, fried chicken, chitterlings (chit'lin's), smoked ham, fried fish, macaroni and cheese, spareribs, yams, cakes, pies, sweet potatoes etc., are very high in starch, salt, fat, sugar and cholesterol. These foods can cause hypertension and diabetes. Numerous research studies have proven that excess fat increases the risk of dying prematurely from heart disease or cancer. 1 Foods high in fat foods are also linked to obesity and kidney failure. If the soul food diet is so dangerous to us, and is for the most part, slowly and persistently killing us prematurely, distorting our figures and affecting our health, why do we still embrace it?
...Most slaves in America were given a diet, basically, comprised of corn meal and salt pork or bacon. To supplement this diet they would hunt rabbit, possum and wild game in nearby woods; they would grow vegetables and they would fish in the streams, rivers and lakes on Sundays near their plantation. The slaves would also eat the food their owners had thrown away, including internal organs, hooves, ears, tails of hogs, and bottom feeding garbage fish (catfish). These scraps would be transformed by the slaves into "appetizing" dishes. The slave women would reach deep into a tub filled with the visceral organs of the master's hog and pick, rinse, soak and pick again over the pile of wrinkles. If she was lucky she would get three pounds of edible meat from more than ten pounds of pork waste. 2 No part of the hog was wasted. Slaves would render the fat into lard, save the blood for pudding, ground the scraps into sausage and barbecue the bones (ribs). The skin was also eaten. It was fried in the lard until crisp and served as "cracklings".
Our ancestors, during slavery, were forced to eat the remains and scraps from the masters' table. Using their resourcefulness, they were able to supplement and embellish what little they had with incredible ability and technique. The creativity of the slave diet was a testament to our resourcefulness as a people.
But why did this tradition of eating survive through the generations after slavery? The diet eaten by the slaves during the generations of the 18th century was not, of course, a balanced diet. During that time, not even whites, or the slave masters, enjoyed a very healthy diet. As pointed out by Kenneth M. Stamp in, The Peculiar Institution:"[e]ven the master and his family rarely had a balanced diet, though they generally enjoyed a wider variety (and a higher quality) of foods than did the slaves." At that time Antebellum Southerners knew very little about nutrition. This diet, however, was essentially memorialized in the case of African-Americans, while other Americans seemed to have moved on in terms of their eating habits as knowledge about food increased. How then was this diet perpetuated from generation to generation among black people? One way was through the church.
...As noted by Joyce White, in her cookbook entitled, Soul Food," we have always cooked: at our homes, at other peoples home, at work and most significantly at church. Today there is a kitchen and fellowship hall or dining area at almost every black church in the nation of every denomination." 3 She further explains how many church-goers don't just go to the church service and leave, but stay half of the day socializing and most importantly, eating. This tradition dates back to weeklong revival meetings that swept through the South in the early 20th century. These revivals would usually be followed by large churchyard feasts where the favorite dishes of the congregation would be served. As years progressed, these churchyard feasts have simply moved inside. The church both sustained and "sanctified" the meals of many of our elders. As a result, it has built traditions and tastes very difficult to give up.
Soul food has also survived in the black community because of the harsh reality of segregation. Because of Jim Crow, most of our community remained completely isolated from the knowledge, habits and customs developing outside our world.
So as we can see, our eating style was conditioned by the force of a hostile outside world, first through slavery, then by Jim Crow. We never chose to eat this way.
...Yet, soul food is now embraced, practically, as a national treasure. From a family viewpoint, to deny the wonders of this diet would be to deny our very grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles. Some of our cultural writers elevate it as a tribute to our ancestors. "This was the food that helped them survive", is a common refrain. Others explain "soul food is a testament to the resourcefulness and creativity of our ancestors." But we must ask, is that a reason to continue to eat it and feed it to our children?
Imagine that our ancestors were left to die on a deserted island. Then imagine that years later, through their ingenuity and creativity they put together a makeshift raft from the scarce recourses on the island. Suppose they just barely made it to the mainland, hanging on to the tattered raft for dear life. Now imagine that the mainland manufactured effective seaworthy ships and vessels. Would it make sense years later for the descendants of those survivors to do all of their sailing on tattered, makeshift rafts in tribute to their ancestors? Would it make any sense, especially in light of the fact that those same rafts were responsible for the deaths of a significant number of these people? Would it make any more sense if they claimed that using these rafts was is a part of their heritage? Obviously not; a much better tribute to their ancestors may have been made by first simply memorializing the original raft in a museum and then by applying their inherited ingenuity toward building better ships.
Obviously, there is more than one way to pay homage to the sufferings and sacrifices of our elders besides holding on to their diet. Further, which ancestors are we actually paying tribute to? We cannot forget the first generation of Africans to arrivein this country; members of African tribes and families who partook of a more healthy diet. Author Chef Randall remarked: "[t]he pre-colonial African diet in many ways resembled the much-lauded Mediterranean diet, in that it was basically healthy, country cooking utilizing fresh ingredients." 5 We must also keep in mind that the southern coast of the Mediterranean is African. Our people, in fact, contributed many elements to the Mediterranean diet. In the 11th and 12th centuries, through our ancestors, the Moors, many foods previously unknown on the European side of the Mediterranean were introduced. These foods included rice, oranges, bananas, maize and coconuts, as well as new forms of cereals, beans and olives. 6 Thus, the Mediterranean diet is one we can clearly re-adopt as our own. In Africa, our ancestors consumed mostly vegetables and fish. They enjoyed all types of vegetables and fruits, including yams, wild greens, okra, dates, watermelons, and more. Jollof rice and other rice dishes, lentils, and various legumes contributed to the wholesomeness of the pre-colonial African diet. Our ancestors also used many spices in their dishes, such as cumin, cloves, coriander, fennel, garlic, ginger, mint, saffron and sesame. The majority of our ancestors in upper Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal and other parts of Africa were also Muslims and were well aware of the scriptural injunctions against eating pork and other prohibited foods, such as game which dies of itself (carrion) and blood. By the time of the slave trade, Islam had been developing in Africa for at least seven centuries since taking root in West Africa around 689 A.D. Thus, when paying "homage" to our predecessors, we would have to acknowledge the shock, frustration and indignities they experienced upon being cut off from their homeland and forced to eat an inferior, unbalanced and in some instances unlawful diet.
So which ancestors do we pay tribute to? Those who were living according to their own codes, customs and will, or those who, even though forced to eat an unhealthy diet, managed to survive by their own wit, creativity and resourcefulness?
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