Feel The Spirit With Your Tongue

Zhengyi Chen

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Food is simply what people put in their stomach when they feel hungry. However, African Americans who lived under slavery often times couldn’t even accomplish the basic task of acquiring food as easily as we do today. Now I am here taking the African American Studies class and learning about all the difficulties African Americans had to go through over the years. When we were discussing the conditions of African American families and how they survived under these circumstances through subsistence production, I instantly connected it with my experience in Liberia, Africa and how precious it was to have a solid meal. After research, I encountered a food activist, Bryant Terry a soul food chef who believes in bettering people’s health by advocating healthy eating and African American cultural awareness.

Bryant Terry has published popular vegan cookbooks like: Vegan Soul Kitchen, The Inspired Kitchen, and Afro-Vegan to help the communities that lack of easy access to fresh produced and diet-related products that plague African Americans. Bryant Terry is an African American soul food chef as well as a food activist who grew up in Memphis with his grandparents who used to grow their own fruits and vegetables and eventually learned how to cook amazingly from them. Then he was appointed by the U.S. State department to its American chef corporation and traveled the world with TED style talk, demonstrate cooking about how to help people with low income in urban area buy and eat better food. Although many of his recipes are vegan style , Terry’s goal isn’t trying to convert people into vegans; he argues that diabetes and other chronic illnesses can be helped by non-meat and nondairy vegan diets. The significance about him is that he uses traditional African American cooking style and actively spread knowledge about eating healthy to intend make a difference in the world(Byrd, 68). Just like soul food, Terry’s food and action support many African American families to go through rough times.

When many people think of what slavery was like, they think slaves were fed fairly because it would have been an economic loss if some of them died. However, slaveholders did not treat their labors well;  If one died, they can get another one due to the profit existed in slave trading, supply of slaves were basically unlimited at the time. Therefore it was normal for slaveholders being cruel; they distributed food and clothes less than what slaves actually needed in order to survive(Dunaway 150-152). In that case they had to produce extra on their own. With the lack of literacy and proper devices African Americans managed to make delicious cuisines out of leftovers and “gross” animal body parts. That is the creation of African American soul food. Some of famous soul food dishes today are: “mess of greens”, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, fufu, chittering, and hoecakes and many more. Ingredients of soul food include turnips, beets, kales, and collards; in terms of meat, lards were commonly used to fry, and chittering was made of meats like chicken, pigs’ feet, oxtail, ham hocks, and small pig intestines. It might seem crazy to cook and eat some of pigs’ body parts, but it was necessary to their survival. Over time, soul food became a symbol of African American’s ability to assert a racial authenticity and pride among the African American communities because of its relation in slave diet(Thompson, 794). Bryant Terry certainly treats soul food as a symbol of racial pride; he integrates the foundation of southern cuisine(soul food), fresh fruits, preserves, legumes, health foods and rustic country cooking, in his book to deliver the beauty within African Americans’ kitchen in the world.

Despite the creation of healthy and delicious soul food, African Americans who live in the major cities are demonstrating a norm of obesity. Some of the reasons that could explain this phenomena are found to be stress and poor eating habits. Then the question is what contributed stress and limitations onto many of the African Americans families? Chicago, one of the major African American city, identified as one of the poorest environment to live in for African Americans, due to high levels of discrimination, poverty rate, and safety issues.  It is a fact that segregation still exist today even though the nearly 50 years ago, Congress outlawed housing discrimination in the Fair housing act. Real estate agents would purposely enclose special incentives that would make purchases easier, and steering home buyers into neighborhoods based on race (Rosenthal, etal). From a lecture Ruby Mendenhall presented on October 19th about African American families in Chicago, I learned that they are experiencing tremendous amount of stress because of so many African American children shooting that occurred over the years. These families can’t really move out of there because of racial discrimination in their workforce and the lack of money. According to the data from Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System 2012, there are significant correlations associated with a poor street and neighborhood and predominant fast food restaurants, which contributing high risk of obesity present in these areas, especially in certain urban city area(Diggins, 188). Therefore, these families living in Chicago are the perfect representations of African Americans who live in poor neighborhoods experiencing stress and consuming over processed food and fast food. Even though they want to fight back or change the condition, the society puts limits on them.

By closely examining African American families’ food consuming experience under slavery and today, we can see some patterns in parallel with each other. They are somehow influenced by an outside force and these experiences are literally horrible! However, they always find a way to survive, to fight, and to show their strength. Just like the origin of soul food, slave families had to be creative and strong in order to survive for another day. Bryant Terry and soul food are definitely products of this cultural effect that white society created based on race. Terry understands people’s lack of knowledge of healthy eating habits and the fact that they couldn’t physically access freshly produced food due to various reasons. Then he utilizes his talents and time to make a difference to this situation by educating people how to eat better and advocating the importance of healthy eating habits through soul food. This way, he connects with his targeted audience by creating that cultural sensitivity among African American communities that soul food was emerged during slavery which represents strength and capability. In another sense, he is messaging people that it is absolutely possible to overcome the barriers societies had always forced upon them; first of all, feed yourselves with good food before the battle.  

When I lived in China, I would always hear stories from my uncles and grandma about what they had to do back in the 1970s and 1980s in order to feed the family. They grew their own crops and domestic their own animals to sell at the end of the year and maybe eat some if there were any extra. Thus I grew up knowing food doesn’t come easily. However, knowing a fact does not affect one’s attitude stronger than experiencing it. During the winter break of 2013,

I participated in a humanitarian trip in Liberia, Africa that built a multi-purpose basketball court in a community an hour away from Monrovia. Within that 10 days, I saw the happiness when the children acquired a water bottle, I saw the smiles on their face when they receive food after starving for three days, I saw the dedication in many of the workers.

During the lecture on subsistence production, my mind couldn’t stop wrapping around how crazy and difficult for slaves to deal with all the shortage of food and clothing. The astonishing fact that they even created something that influences generations of African Americans families moves me. After all, the questions come to me, Why did they even have to go through these? Who gave the right to the whites to do such things? I hope the answers to these questions don’t come easily and superficially. I am happy for the birth of soul food because it simply tastes amazing and it represents uncountable amazing qualities within the African American communities. However, if something remarkable like soul food had to born under conditions like slavery, I would rather have it not ever existed.



Works Cited

Xu, Yanqing, and Fahui Wang. “Built Environment And Obesity By Urbanicity In The U.S.” Health & Place 34.(2015):  19-29.Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Diggins, Allyson, Cheryl Woods-Giscombe, and Sandra Waters. “The Association Of Perceived Stress, Contextualized Stress, And Emotional Eating With Body Mass Index In College-Aged Black Women.” Eating Behaviors 19.(2015): 188-192. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

“The Inspired Vegan: Favorite Ingredients, Simple Recipes, Mouthwatering Menus.” Publishers Weekly 259.8 (2012): 162.Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Thompson, Cheryl. “Neoliberalism, Soul Food, and the Weight of Black Women.” Feminist Media Studies. 15.5 (2015): 794-812. Print.

Andrews, Avital. “5 Chefs Who Are Changing The World.” Sierra 100.2 (2015): 13-15. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

BYRD, AYANA. “Food Fight.” Ebony 67.6 (2012): 68. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

“How Segregation Destroys Black Wealth.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Dunaway, Wilma A.. The African-American family in slavery and emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print

“Books.” Bryant Terry. Web. n.d. 10 Nov. 2015.

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