Holiday Eating Rooted Deep in Our Communities

Photo credit: Bearden/Flickr

Photo credit: Bearden/Flickr

Christian Gardner, The Black Bear – With the holidays right around the corner, families are starting to prepare for the host of events that come along the season. Gifts are being bought. Decorations are being placed around homes. And perhaps, most excitingly, meals are being planned.

African-Americans have a number of different food traditions when it comes to cooking for the holidays. A lot of these traditions are deeply rooted in the history of slavery in the United States.

Since slaves did not have their own land, they couldn’t raise their own livestock. Because of this, during the time of the antebellum south, a slave master restricted the diet of his slaves, especially in regards to meats.

The pig, which a lot of African-Americans tend to use parts of in a variety of holiday dishes, has a unique story of these restrictions. The slave master would take parts of the pig that we’re considered to be the scraps and leave them for the slaves to eat. These parts of the pig included the snouts, ears, feet, tails, and neck from the joints of a pig are often used to season vegetables, and perhaps most notably, pig intestines or chitterlings, have become a staple of holiday dishes in the southern black community.

Dr. Johnny Washington, an African-American studies professor at Missouri State University, grew up in Alabama in the mid-twentieth century, eating traditional black southern food. He explained how these traditions, that began in slavery, carried on through the decades.

Washington stated that after slavery, many blacks were able to own their own land and raise their own livestock; they still ate what were considered to be the worst parts of the pig.

He went on to say that the ability for blacks to own their own land did give them the ability to grow their own fruits and vegetables; a privilege that was not allotted during slavery. Some of the primary vegetables that are seen on the tables of black families during the holidays came out of what was commonly grown in these southern gardens.

“Turnip greens are easy and cheap to grow and they can still grow through the cold of the winter,” Washington said. He also said the same thing about cabbage. Both of these forms of green vegetables have become staples within the black community according to Washington.

“I don’t even believe they sell greens in the grocery stores of predominantly white neighborhoods,” Washington laughed. “Blacks tended to cook their vegetables, while whites tended eat them raw with salads.”

Dr. Denise Hooks-Anderson is an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. She said a variety of traditional foods African-Americans tend to eat during the holidays tend to be very nutritional in nature, while the preparations of the food can be very unhealthy.

“Greens are very high in calcium and iron, but a lot of us will cook it in ham hock or some grizzle of a pig, which is totally unnecessary,” Hooks-Anderson said.

Hooks-Anderson gives a healthier alternative to the pig and suggests using smoked turkey instead. She also goes on to talk about the excessive amounts of sugar African-Americans tend to put in certain foods, like sweet potatoes. She further explains how this can aggravate certain health conditions already prevalent in the black community.

“I can’t imagine one family function where no one has diabetes,” Hooks-Anderson said. She suggests using some form of a sugar alternative for these dishes.

Most of the patients Hooks-Anderson sees suffer from obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. She often sees a weight gain in her patients over the holidays. She says one way to overcome this is for African-Americans to eat five to nine serving of fruits and vegetables during the holidays, while making sure to eat smaller portions.

She says the best thing however, is to get enough exercise. “After dinner, instead of sitting down and watching the football game, this would be time to go take a walk as a family,” Hooks-Anderson said.

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