As a child, my weekend breakfast menu was consistent: Aunt Jemimah buttermilk pancakes—with whole milk and margarine in the batter, and fried in more margarine—on Saturday; bacon and/or sausage patties, two buttermilk biscuits, and scrambled eggs with whole milk and lots of salt in the mix on Sunday.
These days, if I eat pancakes at home, I make them from scratch using white whole wheat flour, and if I use cow’s milk, I just add lemon juice or vinegar to it to make it sour milk. I prefer milk from almonds to that from cow’s any day. If I eat bacon or sausage, it comes from a bird instead of a pig, and I put little more than a sprinkle of salt on anything.
Watching director Byron Hurt’s documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” last night on PBS Independent Lens, I could relate to the culinary traditions he grew up with, to the dietary changes he made once he left his parents’ household, and to his father’s reaction. Hurt’s dad took his son’s rejection of pork personally; it was a rejection of his culture. I had stopped eating pork before I went to college—I was following my mom’s lead—but I remember my paternal great-grandmother and grandparents exchanging concerned and bewildered looks when I told them I don’t eat pork. My mother’s parents were used to this, but I was staying with my father’s people for a week, and they had prepared a breakfast much like that of my usual Sunday. They were caught off guard. When I watched my great-grandmother make yeast rolls from scratch using a cup of lard, I hid my horror, and when she served them, I ate them.
This is because it’s hard to get along with people when you can’t break bread with them. Southern hospitality requires the host to serve and the guest to accept. It shows appreciation and respect for the host. It feels uncomfortable if nobody is eating or drinking anything, and the munching encourages people to relax, talk and stay around for a while.
Not eating what the family eats means not hanging out very often. If my extended family wants to go out to eat, I can’t choose the restaurant. I’ve tried, and it’s always disastrous. They complain that the food isn’t just regular food and they don’t see anything on the menu they want to eat. If I visit my dad’s remaining family members, who live in the same city I do, I have to plan the visit according to meal times. I need to arrive after I’ve had a good, healthy lunch and leave before I’m famished, because processed food and salt will be the only items available there. And because they live in a food desert, I’ll be waiting until I get closer to my house before I can even stop and get something.
And if I’m at a community event and there’s nothing on the menu but burgers and hot dogs … Well, it’s unspoken, but people wonder why the food they eat and like isn’t good enough for you, just like Hurt’s father did. Dietary preferences create a barrier that can hinder important working relationships.
I think Hurt’s documentary presents a way to get around this. “Soul Food Junkies” isn’t just about food traditions; it’s about health and food justice. It’s a reminder that it’s not that these southern fried, slave-perfected delicacies aren’t good enough for “enlightened” people, or that you’re not black enough to enjoy them. It’s a reminder that black people and poor people are worthy of good, healthy, and affordable food, too.
If you missed it, check your listings.
What were/are your family’s food traditions? Tell me in the comments. Also tell me if you like food/health posts. I’m experimenting in 2013, and “Fat Tuesday” might become a regular feature.