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 cowâ€™s milk, I just add lemon juice or vinegar to it to make it sour milk. I prefer milk from almonds to that from cowâ€™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 Hurtâ€™s documentary, â€œSoul Food Junkies,â€ 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 parentsâ€™ household, and to his fatherâ€™s reaction. Hurtâ€™s dad took his sonâ€™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 momâ€™s lead—but I remember my paternal great-grandmother and grandparents exchanging concerned and bewildered looks when I told them I donâ€™t eat pork. My motherâ€™s parents were used to this, but I was staying with my fatherâ€™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 itâ€™s hard to get along with people when you canâ€™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 canâ€™t choose the restaurant. Iâ€™ve tried, and itâ€™s always disastrous. They complain that the food isnâ€™t just regular food and they donâ€™t see anything on the menu they want to eat. If I visit my dadâ€™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 Iâ€™ve had a good, healthy lunch and leave before Iâ€™m famished, because processed food and salt will be the only items available there. And because they live in a food desert, Iâ€™ll be waiting until I get closer to my house before I can even stop and get something.
And if Iâ€™m at a community event and thereâ€™s nothing on the menu but burgers and hot dogs â€¦ Well, itâ€™s unspoken, but people wonder why the food they eat and like isnâ€™t good enough for you, just like Hurtâ€™s father did. Dietary preferences create a barrier that can hinder important working relationships.
I think Hurtâ€™s documentary presents a way to get around this. â€œSoul Food Junkiesâ€ isnâ€™t just about food traditions; itâ€™s about health and food justice. Itâ€™s a reminder that itâ€™s not that these southern fried, slave-perfected delicacies arenâ€™t good enough for â€œenlightenedâ€ people, or that youâ€™re not black enough to enjoy them. Itâ€™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.