HomeDebunking The Myths, Social Construct, The Op-EdsNeither Soul Food, Nor “Slave Food,” Made You Fat

Neither Soul Food, Nor “Slave Food,” Made You Fat

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.

Hoppin’ John, the Black New Year’s staple of black eyed peas and veggies (yes, veggies…)

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 usour 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.

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes health, fitness, nutrition, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss from the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and crtified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because lol why not.

40 Comments

  1. Jennifer W February 6, 2012 at 12:40 PM - Reply

    Great post! I agree, its all the processed food. When I was young, my grandma, who’s truly a country girl from Mississippi, made all the ‘soul food’ for us, and we never gained weight. It was actually very healthy, everything was made from scratch, and she didn’t believe in anything premixed. When I got older, got lazy, and started eating fast food, the weight packed on quickly. Now I’m back to eating healthier and not eating all the processed stuff, and the weight is falling off. Also, big fan of the site, love it!

  2. Ebonie B February 6, 2012 at 1:14 PM - Reply

    You hit the nail right on the head with this blog, I’m telling you….SMH. I grew up on soul food and now that I think about it, the meals always consisted of mainly veggies . My favorites were my grandmothers cabbage, greens and rudabegah’s (turnips for the uninformed). Meat was present but no where near as plentiful as the veggies and grain. I loved the pot liquor and the corn bread. My mother cooked the same way and still does, she also adds some healthier alternatives. Fast food was a very rare treat for my brother and I, Nd don’t you dare brng any boxed anything into my grandmother and mothers kitchen, Lord have mercy. My weight didn’t come on me until my teen years when I could make choices about that I ate. I find it amazing how society never really wants to talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, but will run down the little house fly the flew in the window….unbelievable…..

  3. Eva February 6, 2012 at 1:16 PM - Reply

    Great post. My mother used to tell me how when she was a child in the 1930’s, breakfast was eggs and brains (I guess cow brains); everything had gravy poured on it because that was how you stretched meals. I had family members who did cook fried chicken, but they also had baked chicken and vegetables too. Soul food wasn’t bad why? Because it was REAL FOOD.

    The reason people are fat today is because we’re not eating FOOD. Food deserts do exist. I knew a woman who lived in an area where there wasn’t a supermarket in walking distance and you had to walk 5 blocks to the subway and then ride three stops to get to the nearest supermarket. I live in an area where I can walk to three supermarkets and if I really want to stretch myself, I can get to Path-Mark on foot as well.

    Now I do believe in personal responsibility and admitting your part in what goes on in your life. But it’s not fair to glob 100% of the blame on yourself. It’s not right to beat yourself up.

  4. Jas February 6, 2012 at 1:51 PM - Reply

    AMEN!!!!!!

    • Khary Allah November 5, 2015 at 9:46 AM - Reply

      COOL! I’m gonna follow up a bit but your argument looks Air-Tight! I hate believing in fast, usually inaccurate (and foreign) critiques of us and our experiences, so thank you for killing this latest one!!!

  5. Shana February 6, 2012 at 5:42 PM - Reply

    Hello Erika,
    I have been reading your blog for about a year. I love all the info and tips you give out. I have a question for you. I know you are not a medical expert but I would like to know if you have written any articles on Fibriods? My doctor told me I had them when I was pregnant with my daughter. My daughter is now eight. They don’t bother me but the doctor told me she is going to watch them because they are growing. My question is do you know any types of food that I should be eating or staying away from? Anything that you can dig up would be a big help. It seems that Black women get it twice as much as any other race and they are not sure why it happens. Thanks!

    • FredBee June 21, 2013 at 8:24 PM - Reply

      RE: Fibroids

      A close friend had trouble with bad results on her mammograms. A busy mother of small children, she also drank lots of diet cola–lots of it. The problems diappeared when she swore off the soda (and all caffeine).

  6. Jame (@jameane) February 6, 2012 at 9:11 PM - Reply

    I highly recommend the book “The Jungle Effect.” It talks about how ‘indigenous diets’ have a lower incidence of western diseases. The book is a bit travelogue and case studies. The case study on colon cancer focuses on west African foods. The case study for the chapter later went to ask he Carolina-bred dad about the “soul food” he had growing up. The dishes were things like greens, whole grains, hopping john, beans and meat as a condiment, and fruit for dessert. Celebrations included cakes and fried stuff on an occasional basis. Most days he ate beans and greens.

    • Eva February 7, 2012 at 3:02 PM - Reply

      Very interesting. When you think about it, “soul food” was mainly veggies. Why? Because people might have grown their own vegetables; plus meat was expensive. Cookies and cakes were for birthdays and other celebrations. Today, if you want cookies or cakes, you only have to go down the street. That’s what is making us fat, food being industrialized.

  7. Aisha February 7, 2012 at 12:21 PM - Reply

    When I was in my ivory tower I was doing some interviews with young Black girls in the rural south. Two important things happened:

    1. When I interviewed them about their eating habits they actually didn’t care for homemade mac and cheese. Their palate had become trained on the blue box. It made me so sad. Soul food wasn’t the culprit in this town.

    2. When doing a literature search for African-American and hypertension I couldn’t really find the articles I needed. One day in frustration I searched for fried chicken in the database. Every article I ever needed was right there. That told me a lot about how academia views us.

  8. Cole February 7, 2012 at 6:38 PM - Reply

    Had to sleep on this one!

    I guess I don’t agree entirely. I do think that some of the Soul Food eating, particularly it’s newer incarnations are pretty unhealthy. My grandparents (they were born in the 30s and 40s) HARDLY ate fresh vegetables. I distinctly recall watching my granddad pick the pork bits out of the overcooked cabbage and only eat that. I’ve never seen him eat vegetables. NEVER. He’s had 2 heart attacks and a stroke.

    Depending on where you grew up and whether or not grams worked full-time really impacted how often fresh instead of canned vegetables were served. I’m from a pork town, so most people ate pork because it was cheap and available. I know in my own household in the 90s, fried chicken was on the menu at least 3 times a week. I guess I don’t care for “soul food” cooking because I associate it with overcooked and, yes, deep fried (though not necessarily battered). This is how my family cooks, and a lot of my Southern peers’ families cook. I don’t think Soul Food on the whole is inherently bad, but perhaps the original author’s own experience was much like my own – limited examples of fresh, lots of starchy foods, and lots of unidentified pig parts. I suppose I don’t like generalizations, but I don’t think not being on the soul food train means you’re self-hating.

    • niksmit February 8, 2012 at 12:44 PM - Reply

      But I think you do agree with Erika. Her point was traditional soul food is not the problem, the modernization of soul food cooking with processed foods is the problem. That along with increased access to meat perhaps. You both agree that the adjustments made to tradition are a bad look. Picking around the greens to get to the meat and completely discarding the pot liquor full of nutrients is not traditional. Your grandparents’ habits are modern, not traditional. They were born less than 100 years ago, after processed foods became popular and the basest starvation became rarer in this country. The history of Black people in the Americas is 300 or so years longer than that. The point is more like, should we even call the modern incarnations soul food?

      A commenter above mentioned some children’s preference for boxed pasta & cheese product. The manufacturer can call that macaroni & cheese all they want, but I personally have never recognized it as such. If I had created the original macaroni & cheese recipe, I would not want the health problems of people who eat the blue box product daily associated with my creation. What does that processed imitation have to do with the real food I made?
      [I’m also curious about where mac & cheese comes from now. Is it an American hybrid of a French sauce and Italian pasta? American variation on some traditional pasta dish? Someone drop some culinary history on me.]

      • Erika Nicole Kendall February 8, 2012 at 2:31 PM - Reply

        Thank you for your comment, and as for macaroni and cheese’s history… sit tight. 🙂

  9. Dee February 8, 2012 at 6:24 PM - Reply

    SO over it! Thanks for this post, thanks for your research on this topic. I read this blog called refusetoregain, and the author there is a doctor who focuses on obesity and nutrition, and the general history and development of food. She too believes that it’s not the DISHES that are to blame- it’s the ingredients. She recalls how her family ate in the 50’s, and it wasn’t strictly veggies and lean proteins, included alot of homemade ice-cream, and no one in their community was fat. I also appreciate how you make the link between general disparagement of black culture (including self-hate), and blaming the cultural dishes. Also, from a Mexican family I know, they go to Mexican grocery stores to get more original ingredients, and their cultural dishes don’t make them fat either. Their cheese when making cheesey dishes- I don’t think I’ve ever seen real cheese before. It has to stay in water to stay fresh. I’ve also noticed so much raw veggies and fruit incorporated in their meals, EVERY meal, so much better compared to the modern American meals. Anyway. You made so many great points, I hope this perspective gets out there and takes over the discourse!

  10. Juniysa Serens February 8, 2012 at 8:34 PM - Reply

    Excellent points, and I hope the next installments will focus on the ‘exercise’ part of the soul food/slave food debate. We (as a collective group) did a lot more physical labor back then than we do now. There wasn’t a plethora of entertainment at the tips of our fingers in history- primarily people had to create their fun to pass their free time. While processed food and manufacturing plays a huge part in changing of soul food/slave food, we can’t forget the physical/economic part either.

    The food deserts is astonishing to me. Country stores still exist but are few and far between- and they sell the old-fashioned products (which you cannot find in a grocery chain store).

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