I love food, especially good food, most especially the type of good food you have to eat sparingly to preserve your health. All of my favorite American Soul Food incontrovertibly falls into that category. And that is true without belaboring the point that the only truly endemic United States food is Black American Soul Food (excluding respectfully Native contributions which pre-date and coexist in parallel with the establishment of the United States as nation-state).
I’m the great-great-great granddaughter of enslaved Jamaicans whose descendants immigrated to the United States in the last 40 years and not of enslaved Black Americans. But while the culture around food is different and the seasonings we use vary somewhat— the inherent value placed on taste in both cultures, and in every Black food culture that I’ve had the privilege of eating, is unequivocal. I’ve traveled to New Orleans and Tennessee, and other citadels of Black American food to eat at Black owned restaurants that have invoked in me and my tastes buds a sense of celebration that is on par with the memories of my grandmothers’ cooking. I’ve sought the valued counsel of other people’s grandmothers on how to perfect my chicken batter or how sweet to make my cornbread or how much bacon is needed to perfectly saute savory fried corn. I know good food when I taste it, sometimes even sooner, when I watch it being prepared or smell it being cooked.
This is an unquestionable fact that people don’t talk about enough when they give fodder to stereotypes about Black people: fried chicken tastes good. It might not always be prepared in ways that are good for you, but you’d be a fool, if you are inclined to eat chicken in the first place, to question its deliciousness.
There is something about the taste of fried batter in oil that humans seem to enjoy in many elaborate forms around the world. That near universal pleasure in fried batter is practically perfected in American fried chicken. The crunch of the batter and the skin when paired with the juicy tenderness of a perfectly cooked and seasoned piece of chicken is one of the greatest indulgences that our taste buds may be fortunate enough to experience. The nuances in how it is fried, seasoned, and battered regionally and in individual homes makes the experience of eating it that much more indulgent.
To me, a hard fried spicy chicken tender is the epitome of culinary skill. Seasoning and then frying chicken to the perfect crisp on the outside while maintaining the right tenderness on the inside, without undercooking it, often without the use of fancy thermometers or kitchen gadgets, takes practice. The finished product is up there with bacon and butter for those who eat it in terms of appeal. Even the slightly greasy feeling it can leave on your fingers is part of the total scrumptious experience. If you’ve never eaten authentic southern fried chicken or fried chicken of any kind homemade by someone who genuinely knows how, do. With all due respect, you can’t get it at Popeyes or KFC.
I remember watching my skilled cousin fry dozens upon dozens of pieces of chicken in a giant dutch pot over hot wood in Jamaica. As the bubbling oil sizzled and the smoke rose, I remember my stomach doing somersaults in jubilant expectation for the delicious product and I’m someone who rarely eats meat. It doesn’t matter what race you are or what country you are from, fried chicken tastes good. I’ve never cooked it for or eaten it with anyone who disagrees. I know I’ve gone on about it here, but really, no one has to tell you that it is delicious. It’s obvious, sometimes even before you take the first bite from the pleasing aroma and delightful sizzle that a pan of hot oil can emit when battered chicken is frying in it.
One of the things that breaks my heart about the system of United States racism is that it convinces or tries to convince marginalized and oppressed people that our offerings to our social fabric are inferior and shameful, including our foods. Fragrant foods from around the world that White people aren’t accustomed to eating are deemed “stinky,” or “disgusting.”
People of color and Black people must reject the notion or the semblance of the notion that the things we love and do are bad at every turn, even in what we eat and where and how simply because they are associated with us and our race or that the things that White people eat and do are somehow inherently better or worse. That means that if White people want to eat raisins in their potato salad, we should let them without comment.
When we eat our own food proudly and unapologetically, we engage in social resistance. We affirmatively reject the notion that things that are socially associated with blackness are bad unless and until they can make non-black people, sometimes non-black people who demonstrate a hatred for blackness, money (side eye to Paula Deen). We know this to be true and must choose to consciously state it when the idea is presented.
By making up asinine songs (google the origins of the ice cream truck song if you don’t know what I mean) about one of the most widely accepted to be delicious and refreshing fruits on earth, racism has made generations of Black people ashamed to eat or self conscious about eating watermelon in public. The shorthand association between Black people and watermelon is well known. Recently, a popular meme, based in part of an article in the Atlantic a few years ago, addressed how the stereotype arose as a way to cripple black business prospects during Jim Crow. The very fruit that Blacks hoped could ensure their economic freedom has been and continues to be used as a tool against their self worth. The watermelon may have elicited such ire and attention not because it was inherently a poor or bad quality food or wasn’t delicious, but because it would have allowed free Blacks economic opportunity.
I have heard educated Black people discuss refusing to bring watermelons to BBQs and being self conscious about enjoying fried chicken a little too much in mixed company — not wanting to seem “like that,” when we all mostly agree it is delectable, maybe the singularly most delicious food ever created in the American South. We do this without consciously articulating exactly what it is about the association we fear. We are collectively offended when Black History Month is celebrated with fried chicken and not just because it so often doesn’t live up to our standards of taste. Memes about President Obama, who himself is not the descendant of American slaves, and watermelon were splashed across the internet during his administration including one very high profile political cartoon that featured him being offered watermelon toothpaste. When Black people experience these things, knowing their intention, we bristle, but I rarely hear anyone ask the question we must ask if we believe that both Black people and watermelon are not inherently bad even if he or any other Black person loved watermelon more than any other food on earth: so what?
This persistent stereotyping and the impulse to avoid reinforcing it has caused an invisible harm on the Black psyche. We fear being associated with even good things of our own creation and enjoyment. Historically middle class and upper class Blacks, and this is as true in Jamaica and elsewhere as it is here, have been taught to eschew things of our own invention or cultural relevance that we have every right to love — rap music, vernacular and dialect, style and dress, and good food in favor of whiter, less Black options. Why should we? Why shouldn’t we be proud of the cultural legacy that includes incomparably good food that has been left to us by the enslaved people of the Americas and their descendants who took what were by all accounts scraps and the legacy of African seasoning, and created culinary masterpieces. We should cherish their gifts, not shy from them.
What is shameful is the underlying hatred and ill intent that engender the stereotypes, not the food we eat or that our ancestors ate. As with so many Black cultural artifacts, when it comes to Soul Food in particular, we should celebrate the miracle that something so good, even if it must be enjoyed in moderation for health purposes, could have genesis in a system so disgraceful.
When the Transatlantic trade was in full effect, White Americans feasted on Black American cuisine with its solidly African influenced cooking methods and spice. Of course they did. Imagine smelling or tasting Soul Food for the first time after years of eating colonial and early American food. The cornbread, the mac and cheese, the collard greens that we associate with Black America have become selling points for purveyors of high end food even when they are remixed to produce a more healthy or less spicy result. Nowadays, Nashville hot chicken and chicken and waffles are on menus at top tier restaurants around the country, with varying degrees of authenticity and quality, without nary a mention of the Black American and African roots that bequeathed our palates with the delicacies. The same foods Black people have been shamed for eating for generations without any fanfare in our homes are now amongst the most desireable and marketable.
We don’t have to eat or not eat or associate or not associate with things because they may signal our race or stereotypes about our identities because choosing to do that etches away at our culture and identities themselves. When we reject the stereotypes, we embrace, celebrate and normalize our culture and ourselves. We challenge assumptions about what kinds of Black people like Soul Food and we make room for the next Black person to do the same. Enough is enough. Bring a watermelon to a BBQ on a hot day. And, if people snicker, don’t share with them. They won’t snicker then.
As Black people, we must embrace the ancestral gifts that are well seasoned chicken, fruity drinks, and the enjoyment of hot pepper. This isn’t to say we should indulge in things that aren’t health affirming. I’m grateful to food creators like Tabitha Brown for finding healthier ways to produce the tastes that we love in Soul Food and other Black foods.
For me this type of celebration has risen to the level of commandment. I intend to enjoy Black things, including food in moderation, at every turn regardless of whose company I may be in. I try to opt for water when I can, but it doesn’t mean that the pitchers of Kool-aid my grandmother made us when we summered with her because it was the most affordable way to keep us hydrated and happy weren’t delicious. I don’t care much about what anyone thinks about that admission or my unabashed enjoyment of it when it is offered to me at a BBQ, and you shouldn’t either.
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