The imagination and desperation of enslaved Africans forever changed the way the American South cooks and eats. But there’s an unhealthy price to be paid, ironically by their African-American descendants.
BY PENNY DICKERSON
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 was known as the hog’s undesirable leftovers. Included were its ears, feet, tail, stomach and the intestinal tract known as chitterlings, or in 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 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 its own abundant portions of eggs, cheese, and butter.
In the process, the survivors of American slavery changed the ways of eating, particularly in the South, forever.
“When, in the history of humankind, has an enslaved people revolutionized the way the people enslaved them ate, drank, believed, the way Africans did in America?” asks 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 that traces his ancestry through food from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.
From delicious to disease
For all of its delectable glory, eating soul food comes with a price.
The sodium, sugar, and fat used to flavor traditional dishes are also the catalysts for debilitating diseases. Many elderly African-Americans do not enjoy their “golden years” because of diseases cause by poor eating. Some, especially Black men, never reach the age of 60.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Administration on Community Living, most older persons have at least one chronic condition and many have multiple conditions.
Some of the most frequently occurring conditions among older African-Americans are hypertension (85 percent); diagnosed arthritis (51 percent); all types of heart disease (27 percent); diagnosed diabetes (39 percent); and cancer (17 percent).
Oxtails and ‘chitlins’
In Tallahassee, soul food aficionados can find Olean’s, a 22-year community institution that is owned and operated by Olean McCaskill and her husband, Johnny. It’s a quaint establishment with just 10 tables and brick walls that are covered with autographed photos of both famous patrons and everyday people looking for a home-cooked soul food meal.
If long lines are a good sign, the 66-year-old entrepreneur is pleasing a whole lot of folks with her diverse offering of Southern fare. From oxtails and chitlins on Wednesday and Thursdays, Olean’s also offers an array of sides, including black-eyed peas, cabbage, green beans and her specialty – collard greens.
“I season my collards with bacon,” said McCaskill. “I used to use ham hocks and learned that from my mama and my grandmama, but over time I just started using bacon ‘cause it just made them taste better.
“And you know you have to pour a little of that good ol’ grease in there, too,” she mused.
The fried ‘special’
Elderly customers are regulars at Olean’s, as are college students from neighboring Florida A&M University. They all know the specials, says McCaskill.
Her Black History Month special includes fried chicken (leg and thigh), a choice of two sides, corn muffin, and a 16-ounce fountain soda for $5.99.
Mindful of the health pitfalls associated with Southern cooking, McCaskill notes that she cooks a case of chicken per week and while most is fried, some is prepared baked. McCaskill says she doesn’t put any meat in her vegetables (obviously other than the collards) to accommodate customers who don’t eat pork.
“If you eat something you know you are not supposed to, then you know tomorrow and the next day and the next day you’re going to have to do something different,” McCaskill advised. “I cook to make people feel loved and happy and if it’s good, it makes them feel good.’’
McCaskill says she eats at home whatever she cooks at Olean’s.
“I don’t go home to do anything. I go home to sit down,” McCaskill quipped.
She noted that neither she nor husband Johnny have had any health problems, and she praises the Lord for that.
Research reveals risk
Some aging seniors like McCaskill are spry and boast no debilitating ailments. However, other aging African-Americans are not as lucky.
In a report published by AARP, University of Alabama researchers think they know why. It’s all that fried chicken, bacon, ham, pies and sweet tea.
The researchers, who presented their results at an International Stroke Conference in 2013, found that those who ate typical Southern food six times a week had a 41 percent increased risk of stroke over those who ate it only once a month.
Participants in the same study who ate a very non-Southern diet also had a lower risk of stroke.
eople whose diets were high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish (but not fried fish) had a 29 percent lower stroke risk.
Lead researcher Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., a nutritional epidemiologist at the university, said the study is the first large-scale effort to look at stroke and the typical Southern diet, which is heavy on salty, fatty foods and sugary drinks.
The high amount of salt in deep-fried food raises blood pressure, a known stroke risk factor, Judd said. And sweet drinks can contribute to diabetes.
One man’s plight
Willie James Cousar says he was “raised on the hog.”
The 68-year-old Jacksonville native is a Vietnam War veteran whose mother bore 14 children – seven boys and seven girls. Money was scarce, meals were stretched, and pork was plentiful. The children never complained.
“We ate the food that White folks didn’t want,” said Cousar, who has been an avid fisherman since age 14 and a proficient hunter who can kill, skin, and grill any raccoon. “I caught fresh fish that we would eat, and it was always fried.
Following his honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1972, Cousar returned to Florida. He was gainfully employed, but said he drank a fifth of Tanqueray gin every day along with an embarrassing amount of Schlitz Malt Liquor.
While his drinking days ceased in 1998, he says he continued to drink sodas and devoured sweets, including his own homemade pound cake and special recipe cookies.
“A recent visit to the doctor really alarmed me. My glucose levels were elevated and I was overweight,” said Cousar. “I stand five feet 11 inches and have weighed as much as 225 pounds, so I’ve stopped drinking soda, stopped eating fried chicken and fried pork chops and cut back on portions.
“I also try not to eat after 7 p.m. unless it’s something light like a salad,” he added.
Diabetes and strokes
The Administration on Aging reports that in 2014, there were 46.2 million Americans aged 65 and over and 6.2 million aged 85 and over.
In the same year, African-Americans made up 9 percent of the older population, and by 2060, the percentage of the older population that is African-American is projected to grow to 12 percent.
And according to statistics published online by WebMD:
•Diabetes is 60 percent more common in African-Americans than in Whites. Blacks are up to 2.5 times more likely to suffer a limb amputation and up to 5.6 times more likely to suffer kidney disease than other people with diabetes.
•Strokes kill four times more 35- to 54-year-old Black Americans than White Americans. Blacks have nearly twice the first-time stroke risk of Whites.
•Blacks develop high blood pressure earlier in life – and with much higher blood pressure levels – than Whites. Nearly 42 percent of Black men and more than 45 percent of Black women 20 and older have high blood pressure.
•Cancer treatment is equally successful for all races. Yet Black men have a 40 percent higher cancer death rate than White men. African-American women have a 20 percent higher cancer death rate than white women.
In the gym
Cousar, a divorced father of three, currently visits the gym every day with his companion, Annie Fason. His current weight is 200 pounds. If he continues his current fitness regime, he’ll reach his goal weight of 180 pounds.
“I have to check my glucose every day,” said Cousar. “My work at BAE Systems – a ship building and repair company – is very physical, but I’m not trying to body build. I mostly do cardio on the treadmill and stationary cycles.
“I just want to be in good shape and live long.”
For more information on the history of “soul food,” go to Michael W. Twitty’s blogsite, https://afroculinaria.com.
This article was written and edited with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP.