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Black Food Energy

Excerpt from “Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America”

Photo by Uriel Mont via Pexels

Organic markets, health-food stores, and farmers markets are curious sites in my studies on food. Whether I happen upon them while out for a walk or am more deliberate in seeking them out because I intend to shop, sometimes I enjoy going to these places for the variety and options, but not the prices. These spaces are instructive for helping people to understand food inequities while also being valuable sources for food acquisition. But they are not the be-all and end-all that they are often touted to be by well-intentioned advocates. In fact, these sites for food shopping can be outright problematic. On one occasion, I was in a southern city to deliver a presentation, and my host took me to a local farmers market located in the epicenter of the city’s downtown. Among the many other reasons for our visit, I recall the market organizers had applied for and received a grant, partially to appeal to a neighboring African American community, who had been displaced by gentrification. I explained to my host that I saw this effort as an undeniable symbol of white guilt and that thus the market on its face was problematic. Moreover, the goal of the grant was to get African American customers to come to the market—another obvious and fundamental flaw in the application. Because if your intent is to appeal to a group of people, the first thing you do is find alliances among the community of people with whom you are seeking camaraderie and make the effort to go to them. It may take months or even years before an invitation is extended, but what you do not do is ask them to come to you. 

As we walked and chatted during the pre-opening setup, I noticed that most of the vendors were selling the same kinds of foods: free-range eggs, pesticide-free produce, responsibly raised meats like grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork. There was a variety of swiss chard, snap peas, bok choy, carrots, and kohlrabi. Lots of kohlrabi. And there was a table that held literature and hardware for taking EBT/SNAP. As I walked through the market watching the vendors set up, I thought to myself, Where are the African American retailers who look like the people to whom they are trying to sell? More importantly, where are the foods familiar to most African American people—maybe half of the intended audience and those to whom the grant was directed? What I saw was a “yes”/ “and” scenario. African Americans do eat swiss chard and bok choy, (YES!)/(AND) I was curious about the absence of sweet potatoes, collards and other greens, squash, cabbage, leeks, purple peas, peppers, and so on. I was searching for the foods more familiar to various classes of African American people.  

In an article by Kristen Aiken, “‘White People Food’ Is Creating an Unattainable Picture of Health,” the author quotes Natalie Webb, a Black registered dietician and nutritionist in the D.C. area: “My clients absolutely associate healthy eating with eating like white folk.” Webb goes on to say, “I think it stems from what people see in marketing and what they associate healthful eating with, and it often doesn’t include foods they’re familiar with. When you change folks’ food—especially people of color—it’s like you’re asking them to change who they are. That’s why it’s so important as a dietician to start where folks are and introduce foods that are going to be familiar but maybe in a little different way.” Charmaine Jones, another Black D.C.-based dietician, is also quoted in the Aiken article. In a short paper she wrote titled “Do I Have to Eat Like White People?,” Jones describes the belief that “white people food” is salads, fruits, yogurts, cottage cheese, and lean meats, the standard low-fat, heart-healthy foods promoted by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. But what few people may realize is that these guidelines are put out by a fourteen-member advisory board. This board, which dictates what the average American should eat to maintain a healthy lifestyle, sometimes has very little to no representation from non-white racial and ethnic groups. Another contributor to the Aiken article, Erica Bright, a forty-five-year-old management analyst who sought Jones’s help to make some dietary changes, sums it up perfectly: “The thing that bothers me about eating healthy is that in the media, people appropriate different ways of eating to different people. . . . And so I don’t necessarily feel like black people eat as unhealthily as people would assume that we do. If you think about Italian food, which I love, it’s just as fatty [as soul food], but it doesn’t have that same reputation.” Bright rightly points out that the origins of southern food took root at a time when it was necessary to cook with less-than-ideal ingredients. She explains,  

 

Some people think all black people eat is chicken and collard greens, and that’s not necessarily true. However, out of utility and necessity, we ate a lot of that down South back in the day because that’s all that was available. It’s not like we didn’t know what carrots or Brussels sprouts were. Stereotyping is extremely frustrating. We all have to find an approach to food that still respects and honors our culture. We can still respect our ancestors for how they had to eat out of utility. Now, I have a lot more choices than they did. I shop at Whole Foods, I can go to Trader Joe’s.  

 

Baruch Ben Yehuda, the owner and CEO of Everlasting Life Restaurant, an African American vegan restaurant in the D.C. metropolitan area observes, “African-Americans might say, ‘I don’t want to eat like white people.’ However, at the end of the day, it’s not eating like white people, it’s actually eating the way we used to eat before we were brought to this country.” All of the comments here are spot-on. I also contributed to the Aiken article and emphasized,  

 

I don’t think there’s such a thing as white people food. But I think there are foods that have been assigned to black people, and there are foods that have been more in line with white communities. And I think soul food is largely what gets short handed as black people food, and things like veganism and vegetarianism get short-handed as white people food. Quite frankly, African-American people have been eating “white people’s food” since we arrived on this continent. But a lot of folks don’t know that because the food we tend to get associated with is almost always soul food.

More than mere sustenance, food rituals and customs, as ingredients and in processes of preparation, are symbolic for what they convey about who we are.

At the same time that there is no such thing as “Black people’s food” or “white people’s food,” there are markers that say to potential customers, “You should shop here.” Let me explain. As I walked further along the farmers market path during my visit to the southern city, I came upon the sole African American stall, a worm farmer or vermicomposter. This, too, struck me as odd, given that at least part of the intention of the grant was to attract African American customers. Not only was he at the very end of the curved pathway (probably because of what he was selling), but he also had no actual food. So it was not just the fact that there were no purple-hulled peas, jams, pickles, melons, peaches, lopes, oversweetened cakes and pies, and few vendors of color, but the space did not have the feel of a market meant to welcome African Americans. There were no soaps, hair products, jewelry, or clothing, all items frequently found at Black-run markets. Rather, the environment of the farmers market was sterile—meaning there was no sense of what I call Black food energy to signal “You are welcome here.”  

What is Black food energy and where does it come from? Food is a significant component of cultural sustainability. It is one of the many life rituals that help us to reinforce our social and cultural norms. More than mere sustenance, food rituals and customs, as ingredients and in processes of preparation, are symbolic for what they convey about who we are—our racial and ethnic identities, in particular. It is from cultural sustainability that we get Black food energy. Black food energy can be hard to explain, but one may know it when they experience it. It is why the combination of macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and fried chicken is familiar to many Black people, though these are arguably not “Black foods.” It is the sound of funk, soul, hip-hop, and maybe even trap music playing while Black people sell Afrocentric clothing, Black art, and pumpkin and sweet potato pies, lemon pound cake, or bean pies. It is the smell of gumbo cooking or shrimp and crab legs with butter, hot sauce, and vinegar, while the game is on, the kids are loud, and the sounds of Marvin Gaye waft in or the Migos blare in the distance—all of which is only complete with a spades game in progress.  

When you are surrounded by Black food energy, you know what it is. There are versions to the ways in which it plays out because Black people have styles to ourselves and our food cultures. We eat shrimp and grits, jambalaya, caviar, fried chicken, Cobb salad, tofu, seitan, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, avocado, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, bok choy, waakye, jollof rice, red red, Savoy cabbage, and gai lan. But even more than this, Black food markets are where networking takes place, where plans are made, where ideas about political action are discussed, and, historically, where insurrections are formulated. Black food energy, as I see it, is when women at the marketplace are talking about selling chicken. But they are really talking about other news, because we are complex like that. We are masters at riffing and borrowing, improvisation, and flow. We are shaped by multiple histories and experiences of personal agency, and these in turn effect how we move about the world. These histories—food and otherwise—are informed by our regions, socioeconomic statuses, genders, families, religions, and more. Now, this may sound somewhat reductionist, because lots of Black people shop at different kinds of farmers markets that do not have the kinds of vendors mentioned above. But in the DMV at least, what gives those markets Black food energy is the people themselves. For example, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which boasts one of the largest populations of African Americans of varying socioeconomic statuses in the state, Amish markets are a weekly, biweekly, or monthly ritual. Lots of Black people from all walks of life descend upon the market from Thursday to Saturday to get food—already prepared dishes, orders from the deli, a brilliant array of vegetables, desserts, dry goods, and more. These kinds of smaller markets are intimate spaces where you are likely to run into a neighbor as well as a foe. But for certain you will find food items that you can name, many of which are reasonably affordable, and that you will know how to cook. And here is what is smart: the markets are located in areas that are heavily populated by Black people. And while the other elements—music, jewelry, and so on—are not present, there is enough community engagement within the walls of the market to make it appeal to a broad swath of Black people. Word of mouth is a powerful advertising mechanism. These markets have been around long enough that their reputations precede them, and most Black adults, and perhaps some children, know that the Amish market is open every weekend.  

Understanding the ways in which cultural sustainability works is especially important when we set out to do good food work in communities. No doubt we do so with the intention of doing good, but we should be constantly monitoring our impact. Sometimes our goals land well, and sometimes they land with a thud so heavy it disrupts everything and turns situations upside down. Perhaps this is because we did not tap into the Black food energy, or we did not connect the foods to the histories and the contexts that inform who and where African American people are. Without an understanding of the historical contexts of the foods African Americans eat and their nutritional and cultural value, the work that is done in the name of social justice and equity could land organizations in quagmires similar to the one that had the lone African American vendor who sold composting worms.

Courtesy the University of North Carolina Press

From Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America by Psyche A. Williams-Forson. Copyright © 2022 by Psyche A. Williams-Forson. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org

This series was published with support from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.





Psyche A. Williams-Forson

Psyche Williams-Forson is professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World and the award-winning Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power. Her newest book, Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America, will be published by UNC Press in August 2022.