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Soul Food

Fellowship Story Showcase

Soul Food

Picture of Kevan Carter

This traditional and culturally-linked cuisine remains popular to many but is moving to more healthy dishes and styles.

Urban Living, an Observer Newspaper
Thursday, March 25, 2010

Because of pervasive health disparities in the Black community the culturally popular Soul Food diet, enjoyed by many African American families and others, continues to be a questionable diet. Will it continue to be seen as a staple of Black culture and tradition? Or, is it a contributor to a myriad of health concerns afflicting African Americans?

When talking with experts in health nutrition and or culture, the answers vary. “I don’t like the term Soul Food,” said author, Bryant Terry. Terry is the co-author of “Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen,” which he co-authored with Anna Lappa’.

Terry represents a generational change emerging from Black communities across the country with respect to diet. Nutritionist and teacher, the late Jewel Parker, also spoke to us about the history of Soul Food. “Soul Food is the food that Black people created during a period in our history when we were enslaved - it was a survival food,” said Ms Parker.

She shared an acronym that reflects the evolution of the Soul Food diet. “S-is for seasonal, O-is for organic, U-is for unprocessed and L-is for locally grown,” she said.

Most culinary experts do agree that Soul Food is generally high in fats.

Chef Glenn “Gator” Thompson is looking for alternatives to Soul Food items that are high in fats. A native of Oakland, Chef “gator” developed his interests and inspiration in Soul Food from cultural and culinary roots native to the deep South. He later fused his Southern culinary traditions with his knowledge of California cuisines. Thompson is the owner of the restaurant, Gator’s Neo Soul Food located in San Mateo, California. “To prepare Southern food one has to have an understanding for the richness of the earth,” he said. “In the South the food is organic; it is bought directly from farmers and included: collard greens, spinach, cabbage and beans,” stated Chef Gator during an interview. “These foods are enriched in the healthy soil. Our food at Gators is cooked with the right fats, carbohydrates and proteins. It’s a better way to prepare this cuisine,” the chef said.

Meanwhile a major contributor to health disparities in the Black community is heart disease and stroke, diseases linked to diet. These diseases kill more African American men and women than any other diseases, according to medical experts.

In an effort to better understand health disparities, and longevity in Black communities, the National Institute of Health developed a study called the Jackson Heart Study. It is the largest study in history to investigate factors that affect high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Dr. Herman A. Taylor, Jr. is the director and principal investigator of the study. “A good percentage of our current health concerns are heart related,” stated Dr. Taylor. “We’re looking at things that contribute to the excess number of deaths among Blacks,” Dr. Taylor said. “We have found that 83,000 excess deaths relate to poor heart health amongst blacks annually and we are examining the factors that contribute to these proportions. We do know that obesity is a major contributor to heart diseases,” he added. Dr. Taylor acknowledged that not all persons who consume Soul Food are going to develop heart disease or other chronic health conditions.

One very classic case was that of the late, George Rene Francis. Francis, a Black man born in New Orleans, who loved to eat ‘Soul Food.’ Francis recently passed away after living to be 112 years old. For the majority of his years Francis lived a relatively healthy life. Prior to his death Francis was known as the nation’s oldest living male. When I was growing up we ate a lot of beans and a lot of rice,” Francis told this reporter before passing away. “Black eyed peas, lima beans, pinto beans, red beans, cabbage, all sorts of greens, including collard greens, mustard greens, dandelions and turnips, were the staple of our diets,” Francis shared during our interview.

Despite Francis’ longevity and relatively healthy life, Dr. Taylor sees him as an aberration.

“To Live that long an to be eating so many of the foods that we attribute to poor health outcomes is really amazing, “ Dr. Taylor said. “We have to be mindful however that many things have changed since Mr. Francis was born in 1896,” stated Dr. Taylor. He attributes many of the problems he sees today, at the Jackson Heart Study, to the sedentary lifestyles among African Americans over the last 40 years. Dr. Taylor notes that the rise in computer technology and the growth of a more service oriented economy have literally changed “the way we live and the way we eat.” He stated that today’s issues like stress, inactivity, poor diets, smoking and limited exercises all work against an individual’s health status. “Today, many of our people get up in the morning; they turn on their televisions. They get in their cars and drive to work. Once at work, for example, they sit in front of the computer all day,” Dr. Taylor said.

It is the mission of studies such as the Jackson Heart Study to change attitudes in the Black community in a positive way about diets and lifestyles. It is not that Soul Food will fade but the public is demanding that it evolve into food less dependent on saturated fats, sugar and meats - greasy foods that contribute to obesity and a myriad of other health concerns. Organizations across the country are working to get whole communities off their couches, away from their television sets, computers and sedentary lifestyles. Ironically Soul Food must look to the past and examine its traditional roots and benefits in order for it to continue to be an icon of Black life, culture and the culinary tradition it has been, into the future.