Culturally Appropriate Foods

This article is an explanation and conversation around cultural eating. Shalom & Polepole's Nourish and our Community Table* sections focus primarily on food justice, longevity, cultural eating, and slow foods. And so, this article is an introduction to a piece of the conversation.

*community table is coming soon


Assimilation & Health


So often we hear that eating "healthy" is the key to a long life. But healthy means so many different things. For some people, healthy means "free" - so gluten-free, carb-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, soy-free, meat-free, salt-free, etc. Then for others, it means "added" - fiber-added, protein-added, veggies-added, antioxidant- added, etc. Food trends are rampant and quickly changing.


And so for me, I like to look at what's proven— proven means looking at those that live long and healthy lives. Our article, "Cozy Book Chat: Blue Zones," discusses the similarities of centenarians. When I first started researching and talking about the centenarian lifestyle, I was consistently met with folks telling me that it was pointless. As a black American woman, there is this narrative that I could not live as long as other racial and cultural groups. If I was to try, then it would mean completely assimilating to a more Westernized "white" diet. I heard some form of "you know the black diet is too fried, too salty, too meat-heavy, too fatty, and too sweet" more times than I can name.


And there is truth to the black American diet being heavily seasoned. During slavery, enslaved Africans were given the scraps, and brown sugar and salt were added to make the scraps edible. In addition to seasonings, different methods of cooking were brilliantly experimented with. America's enslaved Africans not only made the scraps palatable, but they also created an entire cuisine.

"There is a notable failure to (1.) acknowledge that the modern world is indebted to ancient Africans for basic farming techniques and agricultural production methods; (2.) appreciate the agricultural expertise (rice production), cooking techniques (roasting, deep-frying, steaming in leaves), and ingredients (black-eyed peas, okra, sesame, watermelon) that Africans contributed to new world cuisine; and (3) recognize the centrality of African-diasporic people in helping define the tastes, ingredients, and classic dishes of the original modern global fusion cuisine - Southern Food." 
				- Bryant Terry, Afro-Vegan

But, even with our history of seasoning and frying, I still combat the narrative that African diaspora cooking is unhealthy, by sharing that four of the ten longest-living Americans are black women. The longest soldier to ever live in America is a black man. And the oldest American right now is a black woman, Hester Ford (115). Ms. Ford is replacing, another black woman, Alelia Murphy (115), who was the oldest person in the US until her death in November. Ms. Murphy said, her favorite foods were green beans, sweet potatoes, and fried chicken. She ate a traditional African Diaspora (African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-South American) diet. And then, when we look at the world at large, the longest living person in the world, Kane Tanaka, a Japanese woman (117), she does not eat a Western diet.


I guarantee that Ms. Hester and Ms. Kane do not eat the same diet. Just as their food differs from the other longest living folks - from France, Jamaica, Canada, and Italy. The truth is that eating healthy food matters. But the question is - what's healthy?

Healthy Foods

We do know that eating whole foods (plant-based) is essential to longevity. Most folks who live a long life eat a diet rich in whole foods, which means eating many vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. In fact, the most common hobby in the world's longest-living people is gardening, which produces plants to eat.


"With that, a 36-year study revealed that one hobby was most common in every person living to be 100 or more: In each community, the oldest people garden well into their old age." - Christian Carter, BDO Assignment Reporter


But outside of whole foods, the lines get blurry. Most regions with the most extended living people - eat meat, carbs, gluten, sweets, and fish. They eat their foods - cooked, raw, fermented, etc. But I think the key is eating culturally appropriate foods. And it seems as if Oldways: Health Through Heritage agrees. The nonprofit created food pyramids based on traditional cultural diets; this includes the African Heritage Diet. There are also Meditteranean, Asian, Latin, and Vegetarian/Vegan pyramids. All of the nutritional documents are so culturally unique.


For example, dairy is a tiny percentage of the African chart and nonexistent in the Asian table. This makes complete sense, because, "according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, some 30 million to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, including up to 75 percent of African Americans and American Indians and 90 percent of Asian Americans." In the same Cornell article, it was noted, "On average, Sherman and Bloom found that 61 percent of people studied were lactose intolerant, with a range of 2 percent in Denmark and 100 percent in Zambia."


"The majority of traditional African American foods came straight from the garden. Cabbage, okra, tomatoes, peppers, and greens were abundant, including dandelion, mustard, collards, and turnip greens. Pickling vegetables was a popular way to preserve food; pickled beets, radish, cabbage, carrots, and cucumbers were enjoyed—and the list goes on!"

- African Heritage Diet


When we look at folks who live a long life, their diets are as diverse as they are culturally different. There is a beauty in eating the food of your ancestors and keeping the traditions alive. Healthy does not mean assimilation and a one-size-fits-all diet. Healthy doesn't have to mean free or added - it can mean those things if it's morally important to you, your body doesn't tolerate a food group, or culturally and religiously food groups are prohibited.


And so with that, here's to eating foods that nourish your body, your mind, and your soul. Foods that bring you closer to the ones that walked the earth before you and foods that bring you back to your momma and grandmama's kitchens. Here's to appreciating and celebrating our differences through food. Shalom, friends.

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