Usually, when I don’t know where to begin with a post, it winds up being ridiculously long and winding. Let’s see if I can avoid that, today… because again, I surely don’t know where to begin.
A couple of years ago, John McWhorter wrote the most ridiculous thing I’d read in a long time for The Root, attempting to refute both basic Capitalism and common sense by implying that “food deserts don’t exist and, therefore, are not the reason why Blacks in America are fat” because, basically, “Blacks don’t want healthy food, y’know, since they’ve always eaten fried chicken and fritos since they’ve been free in this country.”
And, no, I’m not overexaggerating:
Culture, too, creates a palate — and to point that out is not to find “fault.” Example: Slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had, and Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes North (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried-chicken dinners). Fried food, such as fried chicken, was also easy to transport for blacks traveling in the days of Jim Crow, when bringing your own food on the road was a wise decision.
But that did help create what has lived on as a palate even after the circumstances that created it have changed.
And ever since I wrote my post in response to that, this has been on my mind. Where does this idea that all soul food has ever consisted of was fried food, cheap food and garbage? Why is it so easy for us to assume that obesity is “so prevalent” (I use those quotation marks for a reason) in the Black community because of something inherently wrong with Black culinary culture? Why is it so easy for us to believe that the flaw was, immediately, us and not, say, food manufacturing in this country? It was us – our fault, the fault of our culture – for why we are, collectively, fat. Nothing else is even worth considering?
McWhorter says, “Culture, too, creates a palate – and to point that out is not to find ‘fault.'” No, it’s not to “find fault,” it is to “lay responsibility at the foot of culture,” or to “place blame” in said culture’s lap. To try to head me off at the pass by saying that blaming culture is “not to find fault” doesn’t make it so.
“Salt and grease were what they had,” “Fried food, such as fried chicken, was also easy to transport for Blacks traveling in the days of Jim Crow, [because, since you knew that no restaurant would be willing to accept your little colored money,]”… statements like these both astounded and intrigued me.
When I think back to my almost 100 year old great grandmother and her garden in Selma, Alabama, I don’t remember all-fried everything. I don’t remember “salt” and “grease.” I don’t remember “fried chicken,” and am pretty sure she’s never cooked it for me. I got that from my Mother, arguably 50 years younger than Aunt Sissy.
Then, I listen to what my peers are saying around me. Such denigration for what they’ve identified as stereotypical “soul food,” a culture rich in flavor, skill and – yes – nutrition. After reading approximately 9 books on African, Caribbean and diasporic African foodways as I healed from an annoying leg injury last year, I can straight up and down say that most of these people have no freaking idea what they’re talking about.
How do you go from gumbo, crab cakes, deviled eggs, and roasted pork (possum?) to “soul food wasn’t nothin’ but salt and grease?” How do you go from a plant-based diet (yes, our ancestors, despite the drop ins of pork and other meats, ate a plant-based diet) rich in fruits and vegetables, light on meat (because, hey hey, they couldn’t afford it), and supplemented with unprocessed grain as a filler, to having some man in an Ivory Tower tell you that the reason your people don’t eat healthy food is because they have a hereditary slave palate that determines whether or not they are healthy eaters?
Let’s get something clear. Black Americans aren’t the only ones overweight in this country. Black Americans bought into the same swindle that the rest of the country bought into and were hurt even more because, while the rest of the country had enough money to pull itself out of the rabbit hole of processed food and obesity, Black Americans by and large did not. Two thirds of Black America may be fat, but guess what? Two thirds of America is fat, too.
Soul food is not to blame for our nutritional woes. A willingness to blame soul food for Black America’s current ailments resulted in complaints about “vegetables being boiled to death” replacing what used to be excitement for receiving a plate of braised string beans with corn bread. Why corn bread? Simple: the corn bread was used to sop up the “pot liquor” from the string beans. (“Pot liquor” is what’s left in the pot after vegetables have been treated. Studies – studies, mind you, that were done long after our ancestors were doing this – show that vegetables that are boiled actually have the vitamins and minerals boiled out of them, resulting in a vitamin-rich broth left in the pot after all the servings.
Hell, the corn bread of today isn’t even the corn bread of yesterday – is your corn meal organic? Your ancestors’ corn meal was. Is your corn meal from genetically modified, hyper-processed corn kernels? Your ancestors’ corn was not. Do you have a propensity for “sweet corn bread?” That’s neither a “North” nor a “South” thing – that’s a processed food thing. You can thank “Jiffy” for the popularity of sweet corn bread.
You can also thank processed food for the increase in saltiness in soul food, too. Sure, soul food always used cured pork, but it was used so sparingly (very rare was the occasion that a Black family had access to the “better” parts of the pig and, therefore, were reluctant to squander what they had access to by eating whole parts at a time.) that it would’ve never had the same effects it had today. (And, while there are studies out regarding hypertension in the early 1900s, there are far more mitigating factors in blood pressure than simply “salt” and “smoking.” Think “factory conditions,” for starters.)
You know what else you can thank processed food for? Your “fat” tooth. Fried chicken was fried, not deep fried nor triple battered. It also wasn’t fried in genetically modified oils, replete with omega-6 and considered to be deleterious to one’s health. We didn’t stick solely to the “fat parts” of the animal. Hog jowls, pig’s feet, sweet breads, pig intestines? All low in fat and incredibly high in protein. And before anyone brings up “macaroni and cheese” to me, let me make life easier on you: macaroni and cheese, though it is a soul food staple now, did not originate with African Americans.
Who is cooking soul food seven days a week, three times a day? No one, that’s who. For all of you people who consistently advocate for “cheat meals,” isn’t your “cheat meal” that Sunday dinner when Big Mama throws down for the whole family? Isn’t that Sunday dinner the only meal you’re eating that big throw down? And, furthermore, aren’t you eating Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets, Whoppers, Lean Cuisines and goodness knows what else during the week? The height of processed food? But it’s Big Mama’s “cheat meal” every Sunday that you want to blame. The rest of America isn’t sitting at Big Mama’s table, but they’re certainly in line at the drive thru… and they’re just as overweight as the rest of us. Mexicans that come to America and eat their traditional dishes using American ingredients? They’re gaining weight, too.
Neither our pies nor our cobblers had two crusts – again, processed food. (I am totally guilty of this.) Manufacturers were eager to sell us the idea of a two-crusted dessert because it’d require us to use up our butters and flours faster, thereby needing to purchase more at a faster rate. Our banana pudding wasn’t made up lazily of “nilla wafers.” It was pound cake, with arguably less sugar. We didn’t use white sugar – couldn’t afford it – we used molasses, far easier on the blood sugar levels and still could be reduced to be made sweeter. The sugar we did use, was purified with ox blood, lime, egg whites and a blanket. Not dimethylhexachloroferodextrol. (I completely made that up, but damn if it doesn’t sound an awful lot like what’s in the food now.) Our rices were, by default, brown and wild – there was no hulling of rice grain, thereby making it “white,” until around 1902. Processed food, processed food, processed food.
The willingness of the Black community to assume that the reasons why we are experiencing unfortunate circumstances is because of something inherently wrong with ourselves and our culture, instead of acknowledging that those same unfortunate circumstances have befallen everyone in society… as cliche as it is to say “that’s self hate,” I don’t know what other way to put it.
I started the month off with the lead in from “The Problem With Processed Food” because, quite frankly, there is a lot of road to hoe, here. Just last week, I attended a seminar for personal trainers [insert innocent face here], and one of the only other Black women in attendance approached me and, after lengthy conversation, said “Man, it’s that soul food. It’s killing us.” All I could do is smile and say, “I don’t know, but whatever it is, we’ve got to do something.”
I just… I wanted to hug that woman. Hug her and tell her, our culture didn’t do this to us. The disparaties in income did this to us. The availability of fresh produce, or lack thereof, did this to us. The trust we placed in food processing and manufacture did this to us. The same things that did this to the rest of our country, are the same things that did this to us, and it’s time that we stop pretending otherwise. Stop buying into a mentality that says Blacks are inherently bad and wrong, and any problems that affect us specifically (regardless of whether or not they affect others) are our fault as Blacks and not as Americans or even as human beings. I’m over it, and I hope you are, too.