by Charing Ball
Normally I frown upon that kind of dismissal of my passionate soliloquy. But even the historical plight of the natives has to take a backseat to macroni and cheese and collard greens. And that folks is probably the number one reason why we celebrate Thanksgiving: we love food. But not just any food but comfort foods like soul food. How can anyone resist the delicious plates of ribs, candied sweet potatoes or yams, collard greens, fried chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, fried okra, oxtails, rice and beans, potato salad, chitterlings and pigs feet, hush puppies, black eyed peas, warm cornbread and grandma’s famous sweet potato pie? Are you hungry yet?
These soulful meals have become the backbone of the black cuisine. So much so that nutritionists have decided to create a special modified version of the standard food pyramid, called the Soul Food Pyramid, so that it is tailored to the African American diet. For many of us in the black community, soul food speaks to the sordid history we have in this country, but in some instances, acts as a connection we as American Blacks have with the African Diaspora. Foods such as yams, okra and greens can be traced back as early as 4000 BC on the African continent. However, even with all of its historical significance, the Soul food meal has not escaped the scrutiny of health and medical professionals, who blame it for the downfall of the health of the black community.
“Soul Food is a modern day slave diet,” that’s what your cousin Raheem, a recent convert to veganism will tell you. “Keep eating that fried food and grease and see how long you live,” he says, while side-eying your plate at the family dinner. Raheem has a valid reason to be concerned: black folks are outpacing other groups in the rate of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. But is it fair to blame Soul Food for the all the health ills of our community?
In order for the “it’s the Soul Food” meme to work, we would have to establish first that this is what we eat every single day of our lives. And we know this is not true as the time and energy needed to make a complete Soul Food meal makes it impractical for everyday consumption, which is why it is looked upon as a traditional celebratory meal or occasional meal reserved for big family functions like holidays, reunions and repasses. For instance, back in the day, the preparation for our soul food inspired holiday dinners would begin at least two days in advance, when my granny, grandmother, mother and I would sit around in the kitchen tearing the collards from the steams, peeling potatoes and snapping peas. Nothing we prepared and eventually ate during our family meals came from a can or a bag, with exception of the collards, which would be hauled into the house in a trash bags, picked fresh from a local farm.
However our daily diets outside of family dinners where completely different. Granny and grandma weren’t around and my mothers, who spent most of her waking hours rushing from one job to the next, didn’t always have the time to prepare meals, let alone meals with a bit of soul in it. In essence, our appetite for sweet potato, potato salad and fried chicken were often soothed with Cheetos, Tastykakes, KFC, Burger King, Pepsi and a bunch of other quick and easy dessert foods, which had become so prevalent in the community.
In fact, study after study has shown a direct correlation between one’s poor health and the distance to the nearest fresh-veggie purveyor. Likewise, the cost of fresh ingredients like fruits and vegetables, which is five times as much as processed franken-foods, has made eating healthy a luxury in many poor communities. Matter of fact, I was in the supermarket the other day and gasped when I saw them selling three lemons for $1.99. I could get a 48 ounce bottle of preservatives-laced lemon juice for half the price. Whether we like to admit it or not, those little discrepancies in prices add up. And as such, the overreliance on fast foods to fill daily dinner plates as well as the lack of access to healthier foods has made the average person more vulnerable to food-related death and disease than grandma’s made-from-scratch ham-hocks and black eyed peas ever could.
A few years back, The Root ran a story about instant soul food and how mass production and distribution has basically diminished the quality of some of the black community’s most beloved comfort foods with things like salt, processed oils, taste enhancers and chemicals to prolong shelf life along with all the advertising costs. Add all these details in with the overall lifestyle shift from intensive physical labor to more sedentary existences and you can certainly see what is truly at the heart of our health crisis.
In the long run, getting back to our family-style Soul Food dinners may do more to ensure a healthier, well rounded diet than all the diet food and tricks in the world. Not only are we forced to sit down, eat and converse together as a family unit but also forced to prepare and cook meals from scratch – without the fillers and added taste enhancers. There is a reason why Aunt Carol’s brought-from-the-supermarket apple pie never gets touched.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.
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