A few months ago, at about 4 PM, Pete sent me an email saying something about soul food. I was rushing to end my day so I overlooked the attachment that would have filled me in on the details and why he thought this might be of interest to me. I dismissed the message quickly.
That evening though, as fate would have it, I got another message on my email informing me that I had a new follower on Twitter. This was big news given that it is a rare occurrence. As Pete assures me that I am right behind Lady Gaga in terms of followers, I must assume that she might have like twenty-eight. So, I decided to check out my ignored little bird account and see who my new follower might be.
Once there, I stumbled upon a flurry of activity on the feed from someone I follow–chef and food activist Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen and Urban Grub. The excited conversation was about a PBS documentary Soul Food Junkies which was apparently being aired right then. The praise was pouring in for this film by Byron Hurt, about his exploration of the historical and cultural roots of soul food cuisine and its relationship to the current health crisis with its impact on the African-American community.
Ah, now I got it. I ran upstairs to the TV room and grappled with the remote. Attempting to master its controls, I pushed that channel button frantically. I must mention that I have about as limited a relationship with the television as I do with my Twitter account–and relying on an old antenna like apparatus, have access to about seven channels. Still, I knew I did get PBS. Round and round I cycled through those seven channels, three PBS stations and still could not find the show I was looking for.
Instead, what I found was a program about a guinea worm eradication program sponsored by Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center in Africa. It was rather fascinating though quite gruesome to watch. Apparently, water-borne guinea worm disease which has plagued a wide swath of Africa and Asia for thousands of years is poised to be eradicated. In 1986 when the Carter Center began its campaign with the partner countries, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in 21 countries. By 2012 there were 542 cases left in just four African countries.
Guinea worm disease is contracted from drinking unclean water contaminated with larvae that once inside the human abdomen grow into worms up to three feet long. These worms eventually emerge from the body through excruciatingly painful blisters on the skin. I guardedly watched as health workers painstakingly exorcised these worms from the legs of screaming children and stoic adults, wrapping the worms around little sticks that were slowly turned. One worm, one person at a time. The success of this amazing eradication program has been due to water treatment and filtration programs and community education at a very grass-roots level.
A few days later I was able to watch Soul Food Junkies on pbs.org. It is an excellent film and I have been talking it up with a lot of my clients–and others as well. Many of my clients are African-American and my daily consults revolve around discussing this interface between food as cultural identity and health. Soul food is not the only problem area. Many cultural cuisines that have sustained people for millennia are causing problems in the context of our modern existence. This is due to various reasons including agricultural alterations in the actual foodstuffs that form the basis of these cuisines, more processed versions of these dietary staples being substituted for the real foods, traditional diets being padded with the excess of sugars, concentrated carbohydrates and other addictive substances that infiltrate our beings and a massive increase in sedentary lifestyles and stress. The vulnerable communities that are more exposed to poverty and its attendant health disparities are experiencing greater discord between their food and their health.
This is multi-layered stuff that claws at the core of who we are as eaters and which reveals how deeply connected we are to our heritage. Food is clearly not just an extrinsic matter. It communicates intimately with our cellular makeup. And, it is a heavenly sacrament. I remember as a child listening to my mother and my aunties trying to sever the relationship between my hypertensive grandfather and the heavily salt-cured foods of his Russian roots. Little did I know I would one day be standing between an African-American man and his beloved fried chicken or an Asian woman and her dear little grains of rice.
But yes, there I am. Standing tall at five feet one, holding firm with my big professional tweezers before every diabetic who sits in my office. With exact precision, I try to extract each granule of sugar that has gone rogue in the bloodstream, wreaking havoc on the body–sort of like a guinea worm. Just as guinea worm disease takes hold in unsuspecting individuals so does diabetes. Persons consuming available foods for the purpose of sustaining survival and attaining some pleasure, awaken one day to learn that they are infested with massive globs of excess glucose.
I have been doing this work for a long time and I can tell you that the diabetic epidemic is getting worse. My daily roster is full of newly diagnosed cases of diabetes. This morning I woke up to some crazy NPR story about the woes of candy makers due to the relatively high price of sugar–the price regulated by the Farm Bill. Apparently, the makers of Dum Dum lollipops require 100,000 pounds of sugar for the daily manufacture of ten million Dum Dums–and they are having a hard time affording it. Can those numbers be for real? Well, please don’t tell Dum Dum that I have some sugar stockpiled in my office–mounds of the stuff that I have removed from my clients. I know they will just try to recycle it right back into the very folk I took it from.
Diabetes might not seem to be as bad as guinea worm–but one can actually make many metaphorical if not actual comparisons. Diabetes leaves many physical and emotional scars. My clients look at me through eyes that plead to spare them from this scary disease–that comes complete with implements that stab and jab and symptoms that pain and worry–depleting the soul. I scurry furiously to help pull them out of the sinkhole of this very complicated condition. If a disease caused by a swarm of microscopic larvae can be eradicated from the planet, it is hard to believe we can’t do better to minimize the incidence or increase the reversal of diabetes. The methods employed essentially would seem to be the same–access to ‘clean’ food, governmental responsibility, respect for human dignity, caring, education, and cultural adaptation.
And so, that is why the work of Bryant Terry and the film of Byron Hurt are so important–and why folk should watch Soul Food Junkies and align it with their own food foundation. Time is of the essence and Jimmy Carter deserves a rest.
Thank you for reading, really. As always, thoughts, tweezers, and twitter followers welcomed.
In health, Elyn
Related Recipe: Bryant Terry’s Citrus Collard Greens with Raisins Redux
(Update February 2020: Bryant Terry has just published a gorgeous cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes. From the Introduction: Vegetable Kingdom is inspired by my daughters, Mila and Zenzi. They have blessed this book like my ancestors blessed meals, by humbling me to that which is greater than myself.)
(Update June 2020: Bryant Terry prefers that his book(s) be purchased from independently-owned bookstores (check indiebound.org & bookshop.org) and ideally, from Black-owned bookstores like: @marcus.books, @esowonbooks, @peoplegetreadybooks, and @unclebobbies.)
My Plate Haiku
This isn’t steroids
It’s Collard Greens.
from Ballin’ at the Graveyard (Documentary on an Albany, NY neighborhood basketball game)
“It includes the authentic voices of men working to do what’s right—for themselves, their families, and for the larger community. If you want to better understand our City’s character and come away feeling good about it, this film is a must-see.” Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan