For years, there has been much debate by economic historians, researchers and food culture pundits over what might be the cultural foundations of African American food, or “soul food” as it is typically called. Is the typical African American food culture rooted in fried foods, fatty meals and overcooked vegetables as a result of a poverty-driven post-slavery survival tactics, or is our food culture actually built on nutrient-dense, homegrown food and a rich history of being “green?”
But more to the point, we should ask: does it really matter?
It is true that African Americans have a rich farming history. We toiled tilling the soil for others and later for ourselves, and farms and small gardens continue to be a part of the Southern legacy. As slaves, we reportedly 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.
It is also true that decades later, 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 wanted.
In fact, some African Americans take much pride in having created a cuisine partly based on turning items nobody wanted into tasty meals. Making something of nothing is one of our cultural legacies.
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 helped raise them; it also represents a connection to the past that many blacks desperately seek.
I get that too.
Meanwhile, we are bombarded with Hollywood images that repeatedly distort African American fare. Any movie or television show portraying a typical Sunday dinner will surely pan over a table of fried chicken, fried fish, fried okra, macaroni and cheese, collard greens (probably cooked in pork fat), and other less-healthy food items. That messaging is powerful in reinforcing stereotypes about who we are and what we eat.
But whatever our food history, our disconnected past or our need to feel connected to our roots, the truth of the matter is that blacks have the highest incidence and the highest mortality rate for nearly every disease, and diet plays an integral part in those trends.
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, and 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 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 born too soon and dying too early.
Our new food culture must embrace breastfeeding as the best first food for infants, and include fresh fruits and vegetables; actually cooking our food; avoiding fatty and highly processed foods; shopping at the farmers’ 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.
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 recall all of the 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.
Like my Granny’s cooking, our culinary culture is deeper and much more complex than the media or the commercial food manufacturers would like us to believe.
But whatever our distorted past, we have to forge 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.