Is African-American Soul Food a Cultural Lifestyle or a Disease Trap?

Photo: Olean McCaskill in her celebrated soul-food eatery, Olean’s.

The roots of soul food run deep within the annals of African American living. The South reigns as king of soul food cuisine. Its origins can be traced back to slavery when plantation owners allowed enslaved Africans to cook and eat only what known as the hog’s undesirable leftovers, the ears, feet, tail, stomach and the intestinal tract known as chitterlings or in the Southern vernacular, simply “chitlins.”
African Americans exhibited resourcefulness and took what was deemed scraps – along with plants native to or domesticated in West Africa, such as okra, yams, black-eyed peas and rice – and created a menu of delicacies that would become soul food staples.

Pork parts were cooked down for hours and seasoned with salt, onion and garlic. Chicken and fish were deep fried in vegetable oil, and collard-green leaves as big as elephant ears were cleaned, cut and seasoned with smoked meats. Yams were candied with generous amounts of brown sugar and butter, while macaroni and cheese was prepared with abundant portions of eggs and butter.

The Cooking Gene

“When, in the history of humankind, has an enslaved people revolutionized how the people who enslaved them ate, drank, believed the way Africans did in America,” ask culinary historian Michael W. Twitty?

Twitty is the author of the forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, his memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture. It traces his ancestry through food from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom.

For all of its delectable glory, though, eating soul food comes with a price. The sodium, sugar, and fat in traditional dishes are also the catalysts for debilitating diseases. Many African American elders do not enjoy their golden years because of ailments caused by poor eating. Some, especially black men, never reach the age 60.

According to the U.S. Administration on Community Living, [] which include the Administration on Aging, older people have at least one chronic illness and many have multiple conditions. Some of the most frequently occurring conditions among African Americans age 65 or older are: hypertension (85 percent); diagnosed arthritis (51 percent); all types of heart disease (27 percent); diagnosed diabetes (39 percent); and cancer (17 percent).

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SOURCE: Florida Courier/New America Media
Penny Dickerson