This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
We "know better" than to eat deadly traditional Soul Food, says Nation of Islam* minister Abdul Hafeez Muhammad interviewed in a new documentary aired on PBS called Soul Food Junkies. I was hoping for an in-depth exploration of the history of soul food, but unfortunately most of this documentary was self-deprecating in a rather familiar way. It's no coincidence that one of the trailers is titled moralistically "Soul food: sacrament or sin."
Filmmaker Byron Hunt's father suffered from obesity and died relatively young of pancreatic cancer. Influenced by the health advice from The Nation of Islam, Byron blamed soul food for his father's health problems and switched himself to a plant-based diet, cutting out all pork and red meat.
It is hard to talk about Southern food without talking about soul food, which is why I can identify with this story a bit. As the documentary notes, many white Southern children were raised by African-American slaves and later servants. The food they cooked for these children influenced their taste, which is why Soul Food and Southern food are so inter-twined. In my own family, there was a great-grandmother I never knew, who was obese and died young. It was the era of Ancel Keys, the era in which the zeitgeist was to blame fat. Also there were class-based considerations, Abdul expresses the sentiment that traditional soul food existed only because our ancestors were poor and didn't know better or have better choices. Many upwardly mobile white rural Southerner's shared this disdain for their ancestral food, deeming it "poverty food." My grandmother and her sister adopted what they believed to be a healthier more modern diet, a low-fat diet excluding things like pig's feet and real butter.
They threw the babies out with the bathwater. Just because you aren't fat doesn't mean you are healthy- different health problems started plaguing people in my family, inspring me to adopt a more traditional, as in 1700s, diet that has helped me conquer many of these problems.
Early on, Byron introduces traditional soul food as things like "ham hocks, collared greens, and fried chicken". One of those things is not like the other, one of those thing does not belong- and that thing is probably the most persistent item in both Southern and Soul Food. That's fried chicken. Minister Abdul says that while he eats lots of colon-cleaning salads, he just can't give up the fried chicken. How could he? It's the bane of many members of my family as well. It's so damn delicious- crispy, salty, sweet, fatty. It hits every damn button in our brain.
One time someone I know well told me that they had eaten a healthy meal of just protein. What was it? Well they had fried chicken for lunch. I hate to break the news, but fried chicken, as delicious as it is, is not a traditional food of our ancestors or a high quality protein or fat source. Older relatives have often told me of the days in which chicken was a luxury item, something special. It wasn't until the industrialization of chicken farming that it was economically feasible for lower and middle class Southerners to buy up wings and legs to fry in batches. Also, the other essential ingredients of modern fried chicken- large amounts of cheap fat (mostly refined vegetable oil these days) and refined flour and sugar, were not part of our great-great-great grandparent's diet. I've made fried chicken from heritage hogs and chicken raised on pasture and battered with heritage corn meal. It's damn expensive. And furthermore it's hard, which brings us to another point- that so much of the so-called traditional soul and southern food is eaten out, at restaurants that basically feed us hyperpalatable sugar-coated soybean-oil drenched factory-farmed garbage. It's nothing like the original African variants fried chicken, which is not battered in wheat or sugar, and is fried in palm oil, though some argue that the Southern propensity for fried food came from the Scots-Irish.
I didn't have high hopes for this documentary based on what I'd read on blogs like The Salt.
As the film recounts, soul food was survival food in the black South. Dishes were inspired by a need to make do with what slaves could access: greens they grew themselves, leftover meat parts like pig ears and feet, and cheap foods like rice and yams loaded with calories to fuel a field slave's work. Some of these recipes had origins in Africa. (Gumbo, we learn, was the West African word for "okra.")
While it's easy enough to eat a bucket of fried chicken. I'd really challenge anyone to get fat on a diet of locally-sourced pig offal, rice yams, and greens. That seems like a difficult challenge. And the problem is that the film does NOT recount the history of soul food. It is extremely confused. It spends a lot of time on rambling and guilt and very little time exploring the heritage of actual Soul Food. It's about as accurate as if you hired Paula Deen to do a documentary on traditional Southern food.
How did things like fried chicken, white bread, and mac&cheese get to be "traditional" soul foods? This documentary does not explore this at all.
In this documentary about soul food, fried chicken is mentioned and shown at least ten times. Never is there any mention of the fact it is a side-effect of industrialization of food ,and the same kind of pseudo-tradition that harms cultures as Indian fry bread. Offal and other soul food staples are derided as unhealthy, but no one explains why. It's no coincidence that one of the only scientific explanations about what makes food unhealthy in the documentary comes from Dr. Rodney L. Ellis who mentions the unhealthy properties particular to fried foods and foods with added sugar.
Interestingly, this interview with one of the people featured in the documentary, Bryant Terry, whose vegan cookbooks I enjoyed as a vegan and still find useful now (though admittedly I often add meat stocks and butter to the recipes >:) ), was interviewed in the past and expressed exactly this distinction between the monochromatic pablum of mac & cheese, bread, and fried stuff that dominates the screen in this documentary:
In reality, soul food is good for you. In order to understand why, you have to understand grits. As seen with instant grits, mass production and distribution has diminished the product's superb quality and has obscured the distinctive characteristics that make down-home hominy so darn desirable in the first place. The taste of instant grits boxed up in a factory can never compare to the complex nutty flavor of grits stone-ground in a Mississippi mill. So it's understandable that those who have only had that watered-down stuff (read: many of my friends in the Northeast) scoff at the mention of grits.
Similar to instant grits, instant soul food is a dishonest representation of African American cuisine. And to be clear, when I refer to instant soul food, I'm not just describing the processing, packaging, and mass marketing of African American cuisine in the late 1980s. I'm also alluding to the oversimplified version of the cuisine that was constructed in the popular imagination in the late 1960s.
The term "soul food" first emerged during the black liberation movement as African Americans named and reclaimed their diverse traditional foods. Clearly, the term was meant to celebrate and distinguish African American cooking from general Southern cooking, and not ghettoize it. But in the late 1960s, soul food was "discovered" by the popular media and constructed as the newest exotic cuisine for white consumers to devour. Rather than portray the complexity of this cuisine and its changes throughout the late 19th and 20th century, many writers played up its more exotic aspects (e.g., animal entrails) and simply framed the cuisine as a remnant of poverty-driven antebellum survival food.
To paraphrase food historian Jessica B. Harris, "soul food" was simply what Southern black folks ate for dinner.
Sadly, over the past four decades most of us have forgotten that what many African Americans in the South ate for dinner just two generations ago was diverse, creative, and comprised of a lot of fresh, local, and homegrown nutrient-dense food.
Most self-proclaimed soul food restaurants, a considerable amount of soul food cookbooks, and the canned and frozen soul food industry reinforce this banal portrayal of African American cuisine. Moreover, film and television routinely bombards viewers with crass images of African American eating habits and culinary practices that further distort and demonize soul food.
Unfortunately the documentary does not clearly make any distinction like this. I can imagine a lot of people not really familiar with Southern or Soul food watching this and it playing into their stereotypes about this kind of cooking.
One of the strangest reaction I get among the more conventional eating-healthy crowd is that traditionally-raised meat is too expensive. Yet these people often maintain that meat is unhealthy anyway, so isn't that a good thing? When price increases, demand decreases- people would have to eat less meat if they switched to buying from local pasture-based farms. But there is also a myth that people in the past were healthier because they ate less meat. In the South this is not true- before urbanization and industrialization Southerners, even the poorest, had access to meat. Economic historian Robert Fogel examined records and found that many plantation owners gave meat rations on an average of 6 ounces a day, not terribly different from meat consumption levels today. The little time spent with the excellent food historian in the documentary mentions that they were often able to hunt and fish, utilizing traditions from their original homelands.
It would have been very interesting to explore some of those further-back traditions, to explore why the health problems African-Americans disproportionately suffer from are almost absent in the people left behind in Africa and to explore the rich diversity of African food culture. How people used to get flavor from a large variety of plants, stocks, and fermented foods instead of from massive amounts of sugar or processed fats. Instead, they give screen time to people like former comedian Dick Gregory who rants that "Soul food will kill you!"
Later in the documentary Byron admits he wanted something to blame. His mother and sister point out that his father had food addiction caused by a lifetime of stress and eating fast food, not "soul food addiction."
Towards the end of the documentary there is a nod towards more systematic causes of some of the health problems African Americans disproportionately suffer from, but it gets a bit derailed. For example it goes from growing your own food (though with an emphasis on produce, which may not be the savior people think) to showing a raw vegan woman preparing some veggie rolls with imported nori and talking about how good she looks. There is an emphasis on creating new interpretations of soul food that are plant-based rather than probably the much simpler and more acceptable task of getting back to real traditions and cutting out processed industrial foods. There isn't much mention of other factors involved such as pollution and access to health care. For example, many African Americans are not screened for hemochromatosis, despite the role it plays in type 2 diabetes, and yes, pancreatic cancer. Many do not get regular screenings of important biomarkers and are only treated for things like heart disease and hypertension when they end up in the ER.
There also isn't much of an exploration of why so many African Americans switched from growing their own food to relying on fast food for so many meals. The history of disenfranchisement that left many without the empowerment to produce and cook their own food.
Overall, I find it extremely disappointing and regressive that a documentary shown on public television would spread so much misinformation and scare-mongering about traditional foods. I don't think that is the path for helping people eat better. But if anything this documentary showcases a rather unfortunate American tradition- preaching extremes rather than balance and moderation.
"It's particularly unfortunate that communities that might be vulnerable to invidious targeting on these matters get fed, metaphorically speaking, misleading information, like traditional Southern food being bad for you," says Paul Campos, a University of Colorado sociologist and the author of "The Obesity Myth."
Certainly healthy food advocates face an uphill fight in changing perceptions across the South. Take the scene at Arthur Cato's House of Southern Food in Hogansville, Ga., where the waitresses write in Magic Marker on wide pads. The grits come topped with butter. Lots of it. Fried catfish comes out of the kitchen in schools. The smoked sausage is dished out in large proportions.
"This is roots food," says Mr. Cato, wiping his hands on his apron. "I've never eaten anything else. I'm 77 years old, and I'm skinny as a rail."
At the Autagaville Cafe, a cinder-block restaurant in the heart of the Black Belt, Mary Wright shrugs off the food controversy, too. "No matter what we do, we're all going to leave here one day, so we might as well go happy and full," she says.
According to Wilson, the low-fat diet at Selma's gothic-looking high school caused a lot of "belly-achin' " as well.
Sorry, but a diet of foods like grits (not corn bread made with white flour), rice, crayfish, venison, muscadines and other berries, collards, mustard greens, pickled pigs feet, crab, offal-rich boudins made with rice, sweet potatoes, oysters, and other truly healthful traditional foods is not going to kill you, it may even make you healthier, as they foods are extremely nutrient dense. It is a shame that people might abandon these already threatened food traditions out of mis-placed fear. I will say though that there are some things they didn't know about that we understand a bit better- namely that re-using cooking fats for high-heat frying might lead to unhealthy oxidization of fats. In the rare cases I fry, I do not re-use the fat.
*I guess that religion is a bit like Seventh Day Adventism in terms of plant-based dietary holier than thou and since I criticized David Duke in my last post, it's worth pointing out that their psuedo-scientific views on racial separatism are not dissimilar
One of the most hilarious articles I've come across lately is by low-fat vegan diet promoter Dr. McDougall. It's titled The Paleo Diet Is Uncivilized (And Unhealthy and Untrue). Who the hell uses words like "uncivilized" these days? The whole time I was reading it, I imagined Dr. McDougall as a snobby British gentleman with a tophat and monocle, as well as a Richard Dawkins-like scowl, pontificating on the savages.
Part of the blame can be placed on Loren Cordain, who is the paleo diet paradigm that McDougall chooses to attack. You can tell that both are actually quite uncultured when it comes to food.
Dr. Cordain writes, “For most of us, the thought of eating organs is not only repulsive, but is also not practical as we simply do not have access to wild game.” (p 131). In addition to the usual beef, veal, pork, chicken, and fish, a Paleo follower is required to eat; alligator, bear, kangaroo, deer, rattlesnake, and wild boar are also on the menu. Mail-order suppliers for these wild animals are provided in his book.
More than half (55%) of a Paleo dieter’s food comes from lean meats, organ meats, fish, and seafood. (p 24) Eating wild animals is preferred, but grocery store-bought lean meat from cows, pigs, and chickens works, too. Bone marrow or brains of animals were both favorites of pre-civilization hunter-gathers. (p 27) For most of us the thought of eating bone marrow and brains is repulsive. But it gets worse.
Seriously what is wrong with these people and where do they live? Where I live in Chicago, there is LINE in the rain to eat at places that serve bone marrow and liver. The bone marrow at Au Cheval goes for around $20. In NYC, Montreal, San Francisco, London...any major city, these are common menu items. They are damn delicious and I refuse to take any dietary advice from people who clearly do not enjoy life. Although in my experience with such wretched diets, I eventually stopped desiring everything as I succumbed to being a catatonic libido-less appetite-less zombie.
Sorry, people in the centers of civilization are eating bone marrow, not disgusting veggie burgers or lean chicken breast and broccoli.
And does anyone else think it's hilarious that he says we should dismiss the paleolithic diet because there is some evidence for cannibalism and then says "Men and women following diets based on grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables have accomplished most of the great feats in history." His example? Genghis Khan. Yeah, because that guy never participated in bloodshed. Also we should refrain from eating any cuisines from cultures where people have resorted to cannibalism in hardship...which basically throws out almost all of them.
I'm all for starch, but like Genghis I'd love some butter on my potatoes.
But guess what? People like different things. They do well on different diets. I've met people who had success on McDougall's high-starch diets. But I guess it's hard to sell a dogma if you admit that.
Also this is a perfect example of how diet guru doctors are so manipulative. Even though McDougall is linking to sources, if you follow the trail, you will find many are not good sources. They are in scientific journals, but they are letters or commentary. Or they don't support his assertions.
Jonathan Safran Foer is an excellent novelist who unfortunately has become the media's go-to guy for meat criticism despite that fact that his credentials on the subject at that he is a vegetarian (or vegan depending on his mood when you ask). Like most such meat critics, he has a very limited understanding of economics or biology. Take his recent interview in the latest issue of Edible Manhattan
EM: What do you make of the whole-beast, nose-to-tail phenomenon? The person at the next table might be eating—
JSF: Brains and eyeballs. There’s a strange combination of refinement and gluttony. This movement toward eating less likely parts of the animal, and sexualizing it, doesn’t point to comfort that has been achieved but rather a discomfort that won’t go away. Meat takes on these weird exaggerated forms, [becomes] a fashion statement. The movement of eating ecologically gave rise to this other way of thinking about food—which I think granted people permission to become excited by tangential issues. Food shouldn’t be wasted, but that doesn’t mean that we need to pose with it. It doesn’t follow that there’s anything cool or trendy or intelligent about eating the weird parts, or about having a picture of some 20-year-old hipster in New York magazine with a carcass over her knee that she’s spanking...
My point is that we shouldn’t pretend we’re being hippies because we’re eating the snout of the pig.
His point is that eating nose to tail is just for personal extravangance and doesn't do anything good. That's true if you are eating factory farmed meat. Contrary to public perception, factory farms use every part of the animal, often for industrial products rather than food.
But for small scale farmers who are not able to sell to glue manufacturers, selling the offal is hard. Sometimes people buy all the steak and they are left with a freezer full of neck bones they can't sell. More people eating these sort of things = more income to small farmers, who are often just breaking even.
I never signed up to be a hippie though...
He's just jealous.
The seminal cookbook on cooking offal. Many of the recipes are perfectly easy for the home cook- particular those for heart and bone marrow.
Bets asks "Where does one even buy an eye or a nose to eat? The thought of peeling a tongue invokes pain to my core. That said, I never say never and am game."
From Offal Good's store
Offal can be scary, but it can also be mind-blowingly delicious. I hate to admit it, but if I had started out on offal with a bag of bloody livers bought from the farmer's market, I might not be writing this blog (the same goes for fish...I'm never would have tried shrimp or lobster if I didn't eat out). Let a good restaurant usher you into the wonderful world of offal, starting with the least-scary things- cheeks and marrow bones, which are so delicious they probably don't qualify as offal. Tongue is also delicious, but hard to cook right. If you are willing to eat non grass-fed meat, most authentic Mexican places serve it, but it's increasingly found in upscale restaurants. Liver you might not need to go to a restaurant for, since pates can be found at a good butcher or grocery store.
Eating food prepared by an expert can give you a taste of how great offal can be when prepared properly, which is a great motivation to cook it yourself. When I started cooking from Nose to Tail, I knew what I liked about offal and was able to modify the recipes accordingly. For me, the route to a great offal recipe is tons of spicy chili and lime.
I also admit to being very inspired by the offal adventures of one Anthony Bourdain.
Another reader pointed out that most of my advice seems cleared towards people in major metro areas, but I started out eating offal in Champaign, IL, which is three hours from a major city. You might have to travel some, but supporting a good chef and eating great food is worth it. Also, sometimes ethnic restaurants in American towns will have offal items not on the menu, so it might be worth asking.
My latest offal adventure was at Traif with Rhys Southan & friends. I admit I was a little scared to try the sweetbreads, but both of us have reputations as adventurous eaters to uphold and we bravely ordered them. Thankfully, they were absolutely delicious...who knew they would have so much delicious fat! I remember when I was a kid and I thought sweetbreads were cinnamon rolls and asked for some. When my grandma told me what they were I was totally appalled and couldn't believe anyone would eat such a horrible thing. Hehe.
However, Rhys and I were sorely dissapointed by X'ian famous foods. When we ordered the lamb face salad we expected it to be absolutely ghastly, full of macabre parts of eyeballs and gums, but instead it was a mixture of nice spicy fatty cheeks and vegetables. Sometimes you want your offal good, other times you want to just eat it because it exists.
It's not easy finding good chicken. In America, chicken has become almost like tofu in its blandness. It's a boring food for picky eaters who want something both low in fat and flavor. It doesn't have to be this way. A good chicken has its own flavor and holds up favorably to a good steak in deliciousness.
While poultry isn't my favorite meat, is is affordable´and relatively easy to cook well. I've bought several types of chickens this year and plan to buy more in the interests of um...research? Yes, if you are buying truly different types of breeds and production styles, the taste difference can be quite dramatic.
A good example is the cult Bo Bo chicken. I know...what the heck is a Bo Bo? It's merely a brand of premium chickens primarily raised for the traditional Chinese market. There is a stigma that meat in ethnic food is poor quality and perhaps that is true. This NYTimes article on Bo Bo notes that some Chinese restaurants reserve the high quality dark meat for Chinese customers and leave the low quality frozen white junk for other customers. Kind of bad, but also kind of hilarious. I remember when I, like most Americans, thought the white meat was the "good" meat. It's only good if you are adverse to flavor and fat, which I admit I was.
I picked up a cornish cross Bo Bo chicken at the Park Slope Co-op. Next time I'll definitely pick up their more unusual breeds, but they are much more expensive. The chickens sold at the PSFC are headless, but when Bo Bo is selling to the Chinese market they leave the heads on, as it is preferred by Chinese Buddhists to have an intact animal for prayer and to gauge the quality. Another thing they sell is stew hens. It seems like a waste of meat, but a stew hen goes intact into the stock pot. It's not a waste since the broth becomes potently flavorful and nutritious. Stew hens are typically last season's egg layers (yes vegetarians, your eggs = chicken death) and their flesh is too tough for eating. I suspect David Chang of Momofuku uses Bo Bo stew hens for his ramen broth since they are affordable and high quality. You can't get them at PSFC yet, but I think you might see them soon since stock making might be the next hipster food trend after canning has run its course.
My headless chicken had a surprise though. Tucked instead the chest cavity were the chicken's impressively muscular feet. This chicken had definitely been running around. My boyfriend was helping me and was at first shocked by how large and ugly the feet were. I was delighted. They went in the stock pot with some other chicken bones, shallots, garlic, kombu, carrots, peppercorns, and some bacon ends. The resulting stock jelled perfectly, which is a marker of high quality stock. Also present was the liver. I made a paste by heating creamed coconut and mixing into it some crushed ginger, chopped cilantro, jalapeno, and red pepper curry paste (no PUFAS, just lemongrass, garlic, hot red pepper, etc.). I sauteed the liver in that and then added lime juice. It was a fairly tasty snack. Sadly, the heart was absent and I was confused with the packet of something pink that was in the chest cavity...no idea what it was at all.
The legs and thighs of the chicken were absolutely delicious! They were full of a rich meaty flavor and just needed some salt and pepper. The wings though were a little gamey and I just don't like breast anymore, though I don't have the heart to simply throw it in the stock pot.
I'm curious to try their black chicken next...or maybe their guinea hen...there are so many types of chicken to try, it's a good thing most are delicious!
Another nutritious food that is banned in the US is haggis, the traditional Scottish sheep offal delicacy. There were some reports this week that the ban had been lifted, but alas, these were squashed.
The sheep offal delight had been banned in the United States since the ‘80s due to BSE fears, but now Scotland’s most famous dish is back on the American dinner table. (Via Andrew Sullivan) Update 3:01 p.m. PT: Sorry, haggis fans. A representative from the Department of Agriculture writes, “At this time, haggis is still banned in the U.S. The APHIS rule covers all ruminant imports, which includes haggis. It is currently being reviewed to incorporate the current risk and latest science related to these regulations. There is no specific time frame for the completion of this review.”
Sheep lungs are not legal for consumption in the US and unlike wild game, which is legal to import providing you follow a ridiculous number of rules, you also can't import it. That doesn't mean that lungs are completely off the menu. If you live in a major city you can usually find them in ethnic enclaves.