I’m gonna eat the macaroni: black family, black food, and black health
Thanksgiving is three weeks from today, and I’m already planning my menu. While, I’m beyond excited about this season of food, I remember the first time I hurt my grandmother’s feelings around food. She’d made breakfast for me, grits, thick-sliced REAL bacon, and eggs. At my first bite, I said the grits were gross because the butter tasted funny. Little did I know that she’d used real butter, and I was accustomed to Country Crock! She was crest-fallen! I saw it in her face, nearly immediately. Cooking was her pride and joy, and she was quite good at it; I just didn’t like the butter! Who ever would’ve thought all these years later that real butter would be a staple in my own kitchen. A few years later, I finally came to appreciate what cooking and food meant to her when I told her that I was coming home from college for the weekend. Well, I did go home, but I partied all weekend and didn’t plan to eat Sunday dinner. I got my rockstar on that weekend and essentially used her house as the first AirBnB. Again, she was hurt. She had spent her time and money cooking and grocery shopping. Moreover, it wasn’t just the food, but it was also taken as a sign that I didn’t value her company.
Food meant the world to Birdie because she didn’t have money to give me. To give you context, I was the first in my family to attend college in 1995! When my family took me to campus (Gooooooooooooooooo Dawgs!), my great grandfather offered to buy my books and pulled $10 from his wallet. Bless his heart. On his meager earnings, he had managed to provide for nine kids and a wife, but he had no idea that books were approaching $100 each. In the same spirit of striving to improve the black family and community, have you heard the story of Ms. Georgia Gilmore? She was an Alabama cook who helped to fund the Civil Rights Movement by selling food and donating the proceeds.
Fast forward 20 years and the kitchen and food represent many things to me. First, I am now the queen of pound cake, the diva of peach cobbler, and the mistress of all things butter! I love to bake! I share cake as love offerings, peace offerings, and just something to go with the coffee (or wine). I will bring a cake to your girlfriend gathering, and I will bring one along with other stuff when your mama dies. Even if I don’t like you, I will feed you when your mama dies. I’m a tried and true black southern belle, and I will feed you because food is the common bond of humanity.
I embraced food as love and a way to build bridges when I realized that the geographical distance between my siblings and I meant that I would likely never get to be the favorite auntie that I always wanted to be. I also resented the idea that giving to my nieces and nephews had begun devolving into merely sending money. So, for many years, I baked and sent them Christmas cookies. Now, when I bake or cook, it is the quintessential statement of value and love because of time. As a business owner, time is my most precious resource. When I give my time to something, I’m giving up something, whether it’s rest, play, or income. More than anything, food has come to represent something else, connection. If I want to eat with you, I’m also saying that I’m interested in you. I’m saying that I want to be in that moment with you. I’m saying that I value sitting across the table from you, and I want you to want to be there and enjoy.
Unfortunately, however, food has also come also represent something complicated. While no other cuisine tastes better to me than soul food, the food of my family and childhood has also come to represent hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and premature death. While soul food isn’t the only contributing factor to these health problems, these high fat, high sodium foods combine with genetic and lifestyle factors that result in statistics like these: diabetes is 60% more common in black Americans than in white Americans. Blacks are up to 2.5 times more likely to suffer a limb amputation and up to 5.6 times more likely to suffer kidney disease than other people with diabetes. Blacks develop high blood pressure earlier in life — and with much higher blood pressure levels — than whites. Nearly 42% of black men and more than 45% of black women aged 20 and older have high blood pressure.
But to talk about this complexity, the foods I love can also kill, is hard. It’s hard because it makes people feel like one of the few easy joys they have in life is being diminished. In looking for the balance, I learned that soul food used to be reserved for special occasions. Who knew! As black people left the South, they did what any other immigrant group does: they tried to re-create home. If you think about immigrant food in this country, it’s usually the celebration of food of the old country. It’s not the day-in-and-day-out stuff, it’s usually the stuff they ate on special occasions that, now that they’re more prosperous here, they eat more regularly. That’s the story of soul food. Fried chicken, these glorious desserts, fried fish—that stuff was originally celebration food. But once you get to a point where you can prosper a bit more, you start to eat it on a more regular basis.
I’ve decided to adopt limiting my soul food consumption to special occasions. I like the idea of making soul food special again by not being overly familiar with it. Away with daily or even weekly consumption of it: the trade off is just too great. I can’t control my genes, but I can manage what I eat. I want to make a big deal of soul food when I get an opportunity to cook it and eat it. More than anything, I want to pass along my joy of food, community, and robust family gatherings. I cannot do that if I am not here. I loooooooooooooove my family, culture, and heritage. I cannot begin to explain to you that I would never trade who or what I am; however, I love my health, too. I’m committed to dying with my toes.