Soul food for the next generation

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Meera Bowman Johnson

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.

Meera Bowman Johnson is a freelance writer and full time mom who is also the former Associate Art Director of Essence Magazine. Her work has been featured in HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness, Code: The Style Magazine for Men of Color, Black Issues Book Review, Mommy Too! Magazine and Honey. She lives with her husband, Mat Johnson, and their three children in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Her online alter ego, Mrs. J, blogs about race, pop-culture and parenting.

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