Monday, January 15, 2007

searching for our soul

Mrs. J
Hudson Valley, NY
3 children - girl (4), boy/girl twins (16 mo)

I'm a Northern black woman who grew up in a family whose idea of a traditional meal was spaghetti with meat sauce. No soul food savvy matriarchs have graced either side of my family tree since the great migration. So when my own kids were born, I was determined to raise them as part of a clan that ate traditional African American food throughout the year, not just on holidays. 

The exploration of my culinary heritage began with a simple weeknight dinner of collard greens, yams and black-eyed peas. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when my four year old appeared at the kitchen door.

"Mommy? What is that...smell?" she stood in the doorway frozen, face shielded by her sleeves.

"Black eyed peas, honey. Mommy's making black eyed peas tonight."

She clamped her angelic face tighter. "They smell horrible."

My husband glanced up from his computer. "It's black people food, honey."

Did we really want her to associate our culture with what she described as "a horrible smell?" I tried not to roll my eyes and began setting the table. "It's what we're having for dinner tonight." 

The meal got off to a good start until we asked her to actually start eating. There were tears, followed by threats of timeout. There was squealing, followed by threats of slightly more severe forms of punishment. In between plea bargains, my husband helped himself to seconds and I fought back tears of frustration. My fifteen month old twins sat contentedly in their highchairs, licking fingers and smacking lips at the first taste of their culinary birthright. How could my eldest child possibly grow into a strong African American woman without ever having tasted black eyed peas?

I was nauseated the mere thought of my firstborn daughter making a quicker mental association with 
BEP's Fergie than the cuisine of her very own culture.

Maybe I just needed to accept the fact that my child had a somewhat eclectic, international palate. After all, she tried risotto at nine months and enjoyed it. Other international foods like hummus and (cooked) sushi are regular requests. At least she was an equal-opportunity eater. I picked up the dish she'd just poked at, the black eyed peas stared back at me forlornly. It burned me up that if those poor legumes had been edamame, she probably would have cleaned her plate.

It wasn't until my beloved was in bed for the night that I stepped down off my pedestal and realized where I might be falling short. Even broken down to a preschooler's level, there was really no clear reason why an African American four year old should be obligated to eat black eyed peas (aside from nutritional value). If slaves were forced to eat what we now know as soul food because they just didn't have another choice, does that mean their free descendants should have to? Grown-ups do it all the time. Nobody (at least nobody I know) starts salivating at the thought of boiled pigs' feet. But sweet potato pie is a whole different story altogether. And I'm the first one to turn my nose up at chitterlings before taking a second helping of baked macaroni. 

Maybe it's time I let her celebrate the right to pick and choose from the rich diversity within our cultural palate. Maybe it's less about the food, than our freedom.

*Mrs. J writes about Pop-culture, politics and playdates at Our Kind of Parenting

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Blogger KarateCritic said...

Interesting. I have been thinking alot about soul food lately. I enjoyed it.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Marilynn said...

Hilarious! Try something easier on the eyes (and nose) than beans maybe? Greens and cornbread with sweet potato pie...or risotto? LOL

Thanks for this. Nice morning laugh.


8:58 AM  
Blogger Aly Cat 121 said...

yeah my girls don't eat beans either (or peas), well my older 2 don't (the baby eats anything except meat). Of course when their Granny coooks ANYTHING they eat like they're starving. Go figure. I think maybe it's just cuz "mommy" cooked it.

4:34 PM  
Anonymous jasai said...

I find it interesting that you felt that "pull" to share a culinary tradition that you didn't even grow up with. I think it speaks the the power of culture and community. I have felt this very same pull.

I would say - like the other mamas - let her forgo the BEP's and maybe try greens or yams. Everything ain't for everybody.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

I don't cook any soul food but yams and cornbread and my boys like both of those. They hate greens but I did too at their age. Half the time I don't like them now, especially if they come drenched in salt and pork grease. I don't eat meat so I'm not going to be cooking them that way anytime soon. I figure the most important thing is exposure. They eat some things from Chinese and Thai, some things from middle eastern cuisines, so if they have a few of the healthier things from traditional soul food recipes, that's all I can hope for. I will admit that sometimes I do get jealous of cultures that have healthier options for eating.

3:20 PM  
Blogger The Sonflower said...

I agree with the importance of giving your children soul food. If for nothing else it is a social bridge with people that are just like them.

It might not be the most nutritional, but when they go over their grandmother, auntie, or even friend’s picnic it is what's for dinner.

It connects us.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember when your oldest daughter was an infant? Remember when you first introduced her to baby food and then to solid foods? Use that same approach, that is, one new food at a time. Especially a food that is easy to like. There is so much variety in Soul Food (meat, veggees, breads, desserts, etc.) Why not try a sweet cornbread with melted butter one night with dinner or as a snack or banana pudding as a dessert? Or how about some fried or baked chicken with biscuits and gravy? What about corn on the cob (boiled with smoked turkey necks in the water.) Talk about flavorful!!!

There is so much you can offer your family in the way of Soul Food. Just don't force it. Remember, one new food at a time and before you know it, your daughter will love several different Soul Food dishes. At that time, you will be able to prepare a whole Soul Food meal that your daughter can enjoy with the rest of the family.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Kim said...

What is this 'more nutritious than soulfood' thing people are on? Peas, bread, greens, sweet potato pie. What's the problem?

There are as many traditional, as well as new-age savvy, ways to prepare these foods as there are hues on the faces of the people gathered about the table where they are placed.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the record, I am 31, and do not eat pork ribs, barbecued chicken, candied yams, greens, black-eyed peas, chitterlings, peach cobbler, banana pudding, and I could probably list a few more soul food delicacies. I did grow up in a household where these dishes were the traditional holiday fare, but my parents also had a penchant for take-out and restaurant eating, so my palate is very different than many of my peers. And I don't think I'm any less "black" because of it. I do think that that soul food is symbolic of black history and heritage, but if you're going to stress yourself out about your daughter's sense of racial identity, do it by trying to teach her crucial facts about the black experience. I teach high school students who have told me with a straight face that Martin Luther King Jr. freed the slaves. That's way more troubling than refusing to eat black-eyed peas, in my humble opinion.

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