There is no “African American diet” in the sense that African Americans do not follow a specific diet. African American culture, however, has had a significant influence on American cuisine. Food associated with the African American diet is diverse and flavorful and includes whole fruits and vegetable, tubers, beans, nuts, whole grains, fish, eggs, poultry, and yogurt. Despite cultural, political, economic, and racial struggles, African Americans have retained a strong sense of culture that is, in part, reflected in the food.
The roots of the diversity of African American cuisine may be traced back to 1619, when the first African were enslaved and were sold in the New World. In a quest to build new cities in America, Europeans actively transported Africans and West Indians (people from the West Indies) to the new land. The West Indies (in the Caribbean Sea) was part of the slave route to America. Because the West Indians' skin color was similar to that of Africans, they were not treated any differently. As a result, some West Indian food traditions are similar to those of African Americans.
African American food has a distinctive culinary heritage with diverse flavors and includes traditions drawn from the African continent, the West Indies, and North America. In the southern United States, where the population of enslaved people was most dense, a cooking culture remains true to the African American tradition. Commonly referred to as “soul food,” Southern cooking styles are considered to be based on African American recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation, just like other rituals. Some controversy surrounds the term “soul food”—many civil rights advocates believe that using this word perpetuates a negative connection between African Americans and slavery. Other people, however, assert that the “soul” of the food refers loosely to the food's origins in Africa.
Popular Southern foods, such as the vegetable okra, brought to New Orleans by enslaved Africans, are often attributed to the importation of goods from Africa, or by way of Africa, the West Indies, and the slave trade. Okra, which is the principal ingredient in the popular Creole stew referred to as gumbo, is believed to have spiritual and healthful properties. Rice and seafood, along with sausage or chicken, and filé (a sassafras powder inspired by the Choctaw Indians) are also key ingredients in gumbo. Other common foods that are rooted in African American culture include black-eyed peas, benne seeds (sesame), eggplant, sorghum (a grain that produces sweet syrup and different types of flour), watermelon, and peanuts.
In his 1962 essay “Soul Food,” Amiri Baraka makes a clear distinction between Southern cooking and soul food. To Baraka, soul food includes chitterlings (pronounced chitlins), pork chops, fried porgies, potlikker, turnips, watermelon, black-eyed peas, grits, hoppin' John, hushpuppies, okra, and pancakes. Southern food, on the other hand, includes only fried chicken, sweet potato pie, collard greens, and barbecue, according to Baraka. The idea of what soul food is differs greatly.
Cajun and Creole cooking originated with the French and Spanish but were transformed by the influence of African cooks. African chefs brought with them specific skills in using various spices and introduced okra and other foodstuffs, such as crawfish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and pecans, into both Cajun and Creole cuisine. Originally, Cajun meals were bland, and nearly all foods were boiled. Rice was used in Cajun dishes to stretch out meals to feed large families. In the twenty-first century, Cajun cooking became spicier and more robust than Creole. Some popular Cajun dishes include pork-based sausages, jambalaya, gumbos, and coushcoush (a creamed corn dish). The symbol of Cajun cooking is perhaps crawfish, but until the 1960s crawfish were used mainly as bait.
More recently, the immigration of people from the Caribbean and South America has influenced African American cuisine in the south. New spices, ingredients, combinations, and cooking methods have produced popular dishes such as Jamaican jerk chicken, fried plantains, and bean dishes such as Puerto Rican habichuelas and Brazilian feijoada.
African American meals are deeply rooted in traditions, holidays, and celebrations. For people who were enslaved in America after working long hours in the fields, the evening meal was a time for families to gather, reflect, tell stories, and visit with loved ones and friends. In the twenty-first century, the Sunday meal after church continues to serve as a prime gathering time for friends and family.
Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits of the harvest,” is a holiday observed by more than 18 million people worldwide. Kwanzaa is an African American celebration that focuses on the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement. The Kwanzaa Feast, or Karamu, is traditionally held on December 31. This symbolizes the celebration that brings the community together to exchange and to give thanks for their accomplishments during the year. A typical menu includes a black-eyed peas dish, greens, sweet potato pudding, cornbread, fruit cobbler or compote dessert, and many other special family dishes.
The benefits of following an African American diet are realized when meals are made with whole fruits and vegetable, tubers, legumes, nuts, whole grains, fish, eggs, and lean meats. Eating these foods contribute to healthy body weight and longevity. Preparing food in a heart-healthy way with lower saturated fats and sodium protects against heart disease and stroke, leading causes of death for African Americans.
The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics reported that the death rate for African Americans decreased 25% from 1999 to 2015, but it also stated that they are more likely to die at early ages from all causes compared to white Americans. African Americans in their twenties, thirties, and forties were living with and dying of many conditions commonly found in older whites, especially high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Leading causes of death were heart disease, cancer, and stroke. In fact, African Americans were two times more likely to die from heart disease and 50% more likely to have high blood pressure. They also had the highest obesity rates. Many US government agencies have created national initiatives to improve the diet quality and the overall health of African Americans. Faith-based programs through churches were also started to help parishioners improve their health, with some success.
Traditional soul food tended to include large amounts of meat, fat, and sugar, resulting in a large risk of health-related illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Yet, many traditional foods are healthy. Emphasizing greens and other vegetables, fresh fruits, and lean meats and lowering fat, salt, and sugar intake can make the African American diet more beneficial and can reduce the risks associated with many diseases.
See also African diet ; Diabetes mellitus ; Fats ; Hypertension ; Obesity ; Stroke ; Whole grains .
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M. Cristina F. Garces
Revised by Jeanie Simoncic