By Lizzie Grabowski
“Who cooked on the slave ships?”
Psyche Williams-Forson stared out into the crowd of faces that filled the pews of Allison Hall. The irony was obvious. Williams-Forson, a self-identified PK (Pastor’s Kid), stood behind the lectern in a church hall delivering a lecture on cultural importance. The crowd had been eager to participate in call and response, but now she met with silence.
“Who cooked on the slave ships?”
The obvious answer was enslaved women. But the question wasn’t asked to prompt this quick answer. Instead, it was meant to evoke curiosity, self-reflection, and self-critique. Why haven’t we ever considered who cooked on the slave ships before? In school, we were taught the history of the slave trade, the establishment of plantations, the battle for justice that wages on long after the end of the Civil War. We learned slave spirituals in music class. We made our own Underground Railroad quilts. We learned about Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln. But we never talked about food. Psyche Williams-Forson was at Dickinson to talk about food.
Food History is a new genre of study and Dr. Williams-Forson is a new genre of scholar. Food holds a unique place in culture as something that is among our most primal needs but evolved into a cultural mainstay. However, in our increasingly globalized and industrialized world, food heritage has become a target of critique. Particularly in the wake of the “Foodie” movement, traditional foods viewed as unhealthy or obesogenic are demonized. Disproportionately, these foods are part of African American culture.
Fried chicken. Macaroni and cheese. Chitterlings. “Comfort foods” culturally associated with black people, that “stick to your ribs” are policed by (predominantly-white) modern food reformers. Those who indulge in these foods are described as fat, lazy, and stupid for choosing to put themselves at risk for lifestyle diseases. However, what white critics fail to realize is that these foods carry much more importance than calories or fat content. They are culturally important, the result of recipes developed in different eras and under different circumstances but that have survived for generations. Preparing and eating these foods is a way for individuals to connect to their families and experience cultural independently as well as part of a larger group. Sure some meals may not be the picture of health, but other cultures have equivalents. Beer-battered fish and chips from across the pond surely can’t be classified as a diet food. Poutine would never make it onto a nutritionist’s meal plan. However, these foods don’t carry the same negative stigma as Southern-style pig tails. They aren’t touted as health foods but they aren’t marked as dirty, lazy, or stupid either.
Therefore, it is not surprising that African-Americans often experience public health efforts, blanket dietary guidelines, and federal and state programming as invasive. Plans that seek to police African-American diet also threaten African-American culture. Dr. Williams-Forson suggests, and I agree, that efforts to introduce healthier diets to historically African-American communities must recognize the strong place food holds in culture. Recipes and an appreciation for cooking were some of the only things slaves and later migrant workers were allowed to carry with them after being ripped from their homes. The only way that health programming can succeed is by modifying existing diets rather than completely replacing them. Communities can be shown how to or can decide to make healthier versions of traditional dishes or augment them with other nutritious meal components. Public health plans can be catered to specific communities in order to be more culturally-responsive and, eventually, more effective.
This is not to suggest that culture trumps our health or the health of our environment, or vice versa. Rather that people who are serious about food reform have to compromise to produce solutions that are socially, biologically, and culturally sustainable.