One thing I know for sure: black folks love to eat. I mean, we love to eat a lot. And nobody loves food more than my grandmother. She learned to cook in the deep south where butter, lard, grease, and fat were considered seasonings. When I was growing up, she was a staunch member of the “Fat tastes good!” school of cooking where ham hocks in the collard greens, bacon in the green beans, and gravy on the rice was just the Way Things Were Done.
I remember sitting at her table one night, staring at a huge plate of fried pork chop, gravy and mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. I was just a little thing then, no more than 8 or 9, and she’d given me a plate big enough for two adults. I pushed the plate out of my way. “Grandmama, I’m not hungry for this. Can I just go outside and play?”
My grandmother hunkered down next to me. “Hush up girl. You best eat them pork chops. Don’t you want to grow up big and strong like Grandmama?”
I gave her a wary look. She was big all right. I wasn’t so sure about strong.
“Eat up,” she said, pushing my place into my chest. “You ain’t going nowhere til you clean your plate like a big girl.”
Even as a child I knew it was important to eat in order to be healthy. What I didn’t understand then was that it wasn’t just important to eat, you had to eat well: Vegetables without butter. Lean meats with the fatty parts cut off. If my grandmother was really concerned about my health, she would have been done better to send me outside to run around with the neighborhood kids instead of forcing me to swallow down a plateful of heart-attack-waiting-to-happen.
But it wasn’t really my health my grandmother had in mind. It was economics. Money. If I didn’t eat my food, I was wasting it, and wasting food meant wasting money. It didn’t matter that the food she served wasn’t good for me or that she’d given me way too much. It only mattered that she’d bought it and cooked it and now I was going to eat it. And so I learned a lesson that stuck with me (and to my thighs, and to my hips) my whole life: saving money, or at least not wasting it, was more important than eating healthful foods.
Come Here and Gimme Some Sugar
Any time I ran into a family member I hadn’t seen a while, they stuck a cookie in my mouth. “Ooh, baby girl! Look how big you got! Come here and gimme some sugar!” Kisses and hugs were followed by actual sugar: everything from suckers to gum to a brownie as big as my head. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends of the family could be counted to pinch my cheeks and plop me down in the kitchen with a slice of cake, or a piece of pie, or a bowlful of ice cream. And if someone didn’t offer me sweets, I’d wonder what I’d done wrong. After all, giving kids desserts was how my family showed love. It was how we showed affection. We all did it. Our parents did it. Their parents did it. It was part of our culture.
And so we kept doing it. Passed that tradition down. We kept giving each other fudge, and candy, and sweet potato pie. We just didn’t mention that we were also giving each other diabetes, heart disease, and depression along with it. Passing down diseases that would kill us right along with our time-honored traditions.
Well, how could we tell each other? We didn’t know. Nobody told us. Or they didn’t tell us in a way we would listen to. We were not trying to hear that peach cobbler or collard greens with fat back was gonna make us fat. Fat? White girls got fat. Black girls got back. We all had big legs. Big butts. We wore our curves with pride, and if an extra helping of spare ribs ended up more junk in our trunk, what did we care? We were workin’ it. We looked good. Our booties were the talk of the town.
But then the sickness started. Aunt Telma got atherosclerosis (hardened arteries). Cousin Alvin got type 2 diabetes. He was only 17. Uncle Percy got diabetes, too. He didn’t treat it, because he said taking insulin wasn’t player. He got real sick, and they had to cut off his leg. That wasn’t player, either. Then he died anyway.
Disease wasn’t sexy. Isn’t sexy. And we started to realize all the big butts in the world weren’t worth losing our families over. Worth losing our limbs over. Worth dying over.
So we had to change how we ate. My grandmother had to learn to cook with margarine when granddaddy got sick from high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The bacon and ham hocks disappeared from the vegetables. We found out what vegetables actually tasted like, and we learned that real spices–like pepper, and cardamom, and cumin, and paprika–could make for some slammin’ greens, and without all the heart attack on the side.
My family’s never gonna be skinny. We’re big people. But now we’re big people who think about what we put on our plates. What we put in our bodies. We’re people who show love with the kind of sugar that doesn’t rot your teeth or force you to stick yourself full of insulin every day. We spend a couple extra bucks on the ground turkey instead of the ground chuck. We still love to eat, but we eat less. We walk more. We live healthier. Wealthier.
After all, health matters. After family, it’s really the only thing that does.