Black History Month: Let's revive healthy soul food. It's more than just fried chicken.
A lack of food diversity threatens our health and global food security. Bring these vanishing soul foods back to our memories, our meals and our land.
Mention "soul food" and many people picture crispy, golden fried chicken and catfish, tender collards with ham hocks, smoky barbecue ribs and cornbread, rendered moist and rich with a stick of butter.
Those iconic foods are just a sliver of what historically made up the traditional foods of African Americans. Why did these “celebration foods,” as I call them, become ubiquitous at Southern restaurants and church suppers, while other historic — and more nutritious foods — have faded? And how can we bring the full range of traditional soul food back to our plates?
Many of the dietary staples of African Americans, from the time of slavery, to emancipation, to reconstruction to the great migration were plant-based and nutrient-rich. West Africans bound for enslavement carried sorghum, millet, cassava and red peas. On Southern plantations, slaves cultivated and ate yams, okra, black-eyed peas and turnip greens. These foods are every bit as vital to the history of African American food culture as the fried and heavily salted foods that dominate what people think of today as soul food.
The disappearing soul foods
These lesser known, healthier foods are at risk of vanishing from our memories, our meals and, in some cases, from the very land where they grow. Today, we cultivate, cook and consume an ever narrowing band of the food spectrum. This homogenization of our diet not only threatens the health of our people but also of our planet. A lack of food diversity puts the food security of people across the world at risk.
I am blessed to be a chef whom people trust to help them make delicious meals. With that trust comes a responsibility to teach and inspire the people who look to me for recipes and culinary knowledge. I believe it’s my duty to both honor our food culture and history while moving our community toward a more balanced and nourishing diet. I want to help people realize that there’s so much more to soul food.
When I started doing research for my latest cookbook, I wanted to explore the ingredients that my great-great-great-great-grandmother might be carrying with her if she arrived by ship today in Jamestown, Virginia, or Charleston, South Carolina. I wondered how we could get those foods back in our kitchens.
I fell in love with sorghum, one of the ancient, nutritious and sustainable grains that came from Africa. I developed recipes using this vitamin-rich, gluten-free whole grain, from porridge and biscuits to grain salads with seasonal vegetables.
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My mother talks often about when she was in boarding school in Camden, Alabama, the students' diet consisted mostly of vegetables. Meat was expensive, so on a typical day, she would have collard greens, baked sweet potatoes and cornbread with buttermilk.
The same was true in African American communities. But as incomes rose, and food prices dropped, people like my parents could afford more, and they didn’t want their children to eat “poor people’s food.” They gravitated toward meat — the celebration foods became everyday foods — and further away from wholesome grains and vegetables.
We’re now seeing the consequences of that diet: the devastating toll of weight and diet-related disease among African Americans adults, 3 out of 4 of whom are overweight or obese.
Another is the near disappearance of some of the foods people historically enjoyed, as there’s less demand for them. Farmers worldwide migrated toward monocultures of crops that were guaranteed to sell.
A shrinking diversity of food supply
Globally, 60% of our calories come from just four crops — wheat, rice, corn and potatoes. We eat less than 1% of crops that exist in the world, and we are losing ancient foods each day to industrial farming, urban development and the effects of climate change. Dependence on such a limited and shrinking range of crops means our food supply is vulnerable to the consequences — drought, floods, pests and disease outbreaks — of a rapidly changing climate, and our bodies are missing vital nutrients that a more diverse diet provides.
My efforts to educate people about the historic healthy side of soul food mesh perfectly with my work with the Food Forever Initiative. Food Forever is an awareness-raising campaign supporting Target 2.5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to inform us about the importance of food diversity for ending hunger. Through this initiative, chefs like me have learned about the urgency of conserving crop and livestock diversity for future generations, thereby feeding and nourishing a growing world population.
At Food Forever Experience, a global series of tasting events, chefs share samples of dishes they have created using diverse and sustainable “foods of the future” (which in many cases are synonymous with foods of the past) with legislators, the news media and others in positions of influence. Food Forever is also working with chefs on a campaign called 2020 for 2020, which aims to get 2,020 chefs to commit to using more diverse foods by the end of 2020.
As chefs, we have a platform to reach consumers and advocate for the importance of these foods. By creating interest in and a market for a wider range of ingredients, we can support farmers’ livelihoods, improve diets and strengthen our food systems to forestall a world food security crisis, much like a modern-day potato famine.
As I discovered in exploring my community’s ancestral foods, the foods of the past point us toward a healthy food future. And that, to be sure, is good for our collective soul.
Carla Hall is the author of "Carla Hall’s Soul Food." She is best known from her appearances on "Top Chef" and for her years as a co-host of ABC’s "The Chew." She is the culinary ambassador for Sweet Home Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and is a champion of the Food Forever Initiative. This year, she will be on Netflix's "Crazy Delicious." Follow her on Twitter: @carlahall