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The nourishing power of Black food traditions

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Deeply delicious and rooted in Africa, Black food traditions traversed the Atlantic Ocean reaching the shores of what is now America more than 400 years ago. These foodways, which sustained our ancestors, have been passed down through generations and modified into a cuisine of its own. For some, it’s called “soul food”—a monolithic term used to unite Black people stemming from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. However, there are regional Black food traditions that are also meant to heal our communities. And incorporating some of these tried and true traditions can be the meal that heals you.

For instance, back home in Oklahoma, I enjoy every kind of bean or pea. Give me a warm bowl of pinto beans and cornbread muffins any day. That bean dish became a go-to staple during the pandemic. The healthfulness of this traditional dish is the rich fiber. (And most Americans don’t get nearly enough of this nutrient.) Next to pinto beans, a bowl of hoppin’ John, a black-eyed pea dish, is just as delicious and nutritious cooked with the onions and peppers found in the Lowcountry region.

Now, I am all for equal opportunity when it comes to greens too! My mama often made a pot of the holy trinity of these emerald-colored vegetables: collards, mustard greens, and turnip greens—a tradition I carry to this day. Drinking the pot likker, the boiled green juice leftover in the pot, is a must. That green juice is worth its weight in nutritious gold. Because of the water-soluble vitamins found in green leafy vegetables, the boiling process leaches the vitamins into the water. So drink up!

Hailing from Texas, Beyoncé is not the only one who loves hot sauce so much that she sings about it. From pepper sauce to pepper soup, this spicy sensation is quintessential in the Black food tradition. Beyond turning up the flavor and heat in dishes, the health benefits include vitamins C and E, as well as carotenoids—and they may even give your metabolism a slight boost from the natural chemical capsaicin. So if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, I hope you can take the heat with your next meal. Because it is through these traditions that we honor our Black food roots while reclaiming our health.

Besides the meal itself, bringing good vibes into the kitchen like the late writer and culinary anthropologist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor did is essential in unlocking the nourishing power of Black food traditions. Sitting down to eat the dish our mothers or grandmothers made, we can taste the love. When we recreate that next bowl of greens or beans, we should be mindful and savor it and the good intentions that heal us. So reflect and connect the next time you are preparing dinner for yourself or gathering your friends to celebrate life and love.

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