I am a self-described foodie. And, yes, I am one of those people who takes pictures of her food, to the annoyance of some. I’m not sure where my appreciation for good food developed, but I know I have always been the type to try anything once. In fact, I’m willing to try anything at least three times before I decide I hate it. And then I’m still willing to give it one more chance.
I was raised in the South on traditional southern fare. Collard greens, butter peas, neck bones, and chitlins were staples in my home. I remember waking up early to go to the wholesale market and my grandmother buying bushels of veggies. Depending upon the season, we’d sit in her living room watching TV and shucking peas, cutting the spines away from collards and mustard greens, or cutting tomatoes in quarters for stewing. We’d mix the veggies flavored with ham hocks in large pots. What we couldn’t eat would be frozen or canned for eating in later months. I was raised on red velvet cake that had frosting made of Crisco. I had grits for breakfast every morning, and there was a can of bacon grease on the stove.
One of my favorite foods was chitlins doused in hot sauce. Now, anyone who is a chitlin connoisseur knows you can’t eat just anyone’s chitlins. You have to go to someone you know who has cleaned them well. When chitlins are cooking, they unleash a God-awful smell that literally drives you out of the house. But they are well worth the wait. I wouldn’t say I was a Soul Food Junkie, but growing up, I don’t think I ever ate a vegetable that didn’t have some meat added for flavor.
Interestingly, enough, I did have exposure to a lot of different cuisines. When I’d visit my father after my parents’ divorce, we’d go for Greek, Puerto Rican, and other international fare. A Korean-American friend’s mom introduced me to the world of cold noodles and kimchi — which I consider a staple of my diet now. I keep a jar of kimchi in my fridge when I get the craving for something hot, and it’s my go-to home remedy when I feel a cold coming on.
When I’d visit my aunt in Atlanta, there were a few restaurants we’d visit. There was a Jamaican place that had the best meat and veggie patties. Then there was the great Soul Vegetarian in Atlanta, which introduced me to vegan food. During the 70s and 80s, I didn’t even know veganism was a thing. I just knew I was eating really good food.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I met people who called themselves vegetarians. Because I’d already been exposed to so many different types of cuisines, vegetarian food was a just another type on a long list to try. Most of the people in college who were vegetarians and vegans choose to do so because of issues around animal rights. This perspective was all very new to me. My first experience of going vegetarian for a significant period of time was while I was on a study trip to Nepal. Meat is very expensive in a many so-called underdeveloped countries. My host family’s meals were composed primarily of a lot freshly grown vegetables with heavy spices, rice, and beans. After my dysentery and Giardia became somewhat manageable, I began to really enjoy the food.
When I left college and finally starting cooking for myself on a regular basis, I used the kitchen as a means to explore different cultural cuisines. I wanted to see what cuisines felt right for my body. One of the first cookbooks I purchased was The African News Cookbook. This cookbook had recipes from almost every country on the continent, and it was fun to note the similarities and differences to Southern cuisine. One month, I cooked nothing but Ayurvedic cuisine. I tried macrobiotics, Thai, and Indian. I did the Eat Right for Your Blood Type diet and did a host of cleanses.
Although I am not afraid to experiment when it comes to food choices, some people are just dead set against it. Food can be very personal and, when you go against what is traditional, there can be opposition. I was a vegetarian for a few years, and this choice enraged my mentally ill mother when I would come to visit. She wasn’t the most rational person anyway, but she would rail about having to buy me different food. When I said I could just buy my own food when I got there, it only upset her more. When others heard I was a vegetarian, they’d ask with true puzzlement, “Well, what do you eat?” Even as a new vegetarian, I found this question bizarre. If you go into a grocery store, the meat section makes up a very small percentage of the edible goods. Vegetables and grains make up the bulk of the food items.
Even though I am no longer a vegetarian, I opted to go vegetarian for several reasons. Like many African-American families, my family has a history of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes — most of which I think is food related. I didn’t want to follow in those footsteps. Even though I still love my bacon and believe duck fat makes everything better, I know that food can be flavorful without it. I also learned about how animals are treated in factory farms. Not having access to “humanely” raised meat, I began to find the consumption of it problematic.
I was a vegetarian and was moving toward raw food veganism when I moved to Arizona. Something about being in the desert reinstated my taste for meat. I held out for a year, but my cravings became extreme. I had to go to Colorado for a summer graduate school program and became really ill. I don’t know whether it was the altitude or what, but I was exhausted and drained. I went to see an acupuncturist who happened to be from Germany. She asked if I were a vegetarian. I said yes but that I’d had all these cravings. She said she had been a vegetarian for several years and had developed similar cravings after moving to the U.S. At one point, she was invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving.
In a very clipped accent, she said, “And there was turkey on the table. And I ate it.”
I said, “You mean, you had some of it?”
She said, “No, I took it whole in my hands and ate it. If you have a craving, your body needs it. Moderation is good.”
A few days later, I had my first steak in years, and it was delicious. This isn’t to say that vegetarianism or veganism is bad. In fact, I know people who have been meat free for over twenty years — and some, for all their lives.
For the past few years, I‘ve gotten back into the garden. It was something I loved as child, and now I have a plot in a community garden right in the heart of Hollywood. Urban gardens are rising up in communities known to be food deserts. Another great thing about living in California is access to so many farmer’s markets where I can get seasonal fresh produce and humanely raised meats. What I eat changes with the seasons. During the spring and summer, I eat mostly vegetarian and raw vegan. A guava tree in my community garden was overflowing last year and, for several weeks, I was making guava smoothies with homemade almond milk in the mornings. But when fall and winter come, I need something hearty. Breakfasts after a workout consist of bacon, eggs, and grits. I’ll throw some lettuce greens on there to get my veggies in. Every now and then, I’ll splurge and get some traditional soul food or some curried goat from my favorite Jamaican restaurants.
In this fast-paced world, we rarely take time to slow down and to think about where our food comes from, how to prepare it, or even how to eat it. I recently attended a dinner in which all the food was foraged in Los Angeles parks and forests. With some of the dishes, the host encouraged us to eat in silence, and I was able to take in nuanced flavors in foods that I had consumed many times before. Paying attention to what works for my body means being more conscious and mindful about what I put in my body.
Being mindful about what we eat and taking those moments to slow down is just the type of self-care that every black woman needs. So, if you have the means, try out a different way of eating to see what works for your body. You might be surprised.
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[Headline image: The photograph features a smiling person with long black hair and brown skin wearing a white top over a black top and preparing food at a kitchen counter.]