Black Sustenance: Paying Homage To Historic Struggle Food
Now that Black History Month is officially open for business, we can get to the heart of a different matter. If y’all are anything like me, you’re probably Black as hell on a daily basis. If you’re not like me then chances are you ain’t Black’n right. Now, you can atone. The next 18 days is your opportunity to get right with Harriet Tubman ’cause she is Black Jesus and will absolve you for sinning against Blackness. She rode hard for your Black ass. She put her life on the line, ’til the wretched institution of chattel slavery was dismantled. The least you could do with your unearned Black privilege is pay homage to some of the Blackest shit ever. I know many of y’all nilgrims consider yourselves evolved—aka on “some new negro shit.” Y’all out here eating right, eating clean, eating trees and grass. I respect that (lies), yet I imagine your palate has descended to the sunken place. Not only has Black soul food blessed our lives, but it also has historical and sentimental value.
Our ancestors survived so much with so little. They transformed meager meals into delicacies worthy of the cultural canon. So mind your manners—and your mouth. Click To Tweet
Cornbread: Don’t just put warm sweetened butter on it; put some respeck on it, too. This bread has sustained our households since the day we started building the American economy and securing white wealth (also known as slavery). Depending on what state our ancestors were auctioned off to, it is prepared and eaten differently. Cornbread in the northern states damn near tastes like freedom—I mean pound cake. It’s served plush, moist and sugar rich. The south has a bit of variety; perhaps that is why Slave apologists thought slaves were content in the south. In the Carolinas, crackling bread is the shit. It is cornbread mixed with crumbles of salt pork. Do consider this high culinary art. Ain’t nothing about it taste lowly. Parts of Tennessee makes cornbread, literally: kernels of sweet corn is mixed in the batter and baked. Folk in St. Martinville, Louisiana, consume cornbread with a spoon. It is eaten from a bowl with milk poured over it, much like cereal. The best I’ve tasted is made in Georgia and parts of lower Alabama, where the cornbread was cooked with hot water on the stove top.
Fried Chicken: Most people do get it right—Popeye’s, your mama, your auntie, the lady who sells dinners out her back door. My granddaddy fried amazing chicken well into his 90’s. Most people think the secret to frying chicken is in the seasoning or the batter. I beg to differ and the ancestors would, too. The key to exceptional fried chicken is mainly the prep. Clean that damn chicken. Soak those bird parts in vinegar and a lil’ salt. Scrub off the layers of dead yellow skin with a halved lemon. Snatch that icky poultry slime. Trim the fat and I beggeth you: burn off the cotdamn chicken hairs. Those are feather remnants for Chrissakes. I repeat: clean that damn chicken.
Whiting: My grandpa used to fish in the Jamaica Bay, near the Rockaways and not far from New York City’s JFK Airport. When I was young, I imagined it was a hobby that allowed him escape. As I grew older and more wise in Black ass life, I understood that, for him, fishing was a tradition born out of duty. My granddaddy had nine children to feed and he made meals closer by catching fish. Whiting was his game of choice. He carried with him a 10 gallon bucket and usually returned with it mostly full. It was my job, along with the other grandchildren, to scale them, behead them and gut them. It was a disgusting undertaking. Compensation was golden. When two perfectly pan-fried whitings—crusted over with cornmeal—doused in Franks hot sauce—are laid between two pieces of soft white bread, it’s a party in your mouth.
Government Cheese: U.S.D.A. Pasteurized Process Cheddar Cheese is the top dog of cheese. I ain’t lying. If someone tells you it is not, they lying—and they cannot be trusted. On a trip to Milwaukee, I dropped into the infamous Cheese Castle, a place known for having the best cheese in the nation. They was aiight, but the gubment cheese got the drop on ‘em. This cheese was divine. It was easy to cut and melted like ice cream on the hottest day in July. I get teary-eyed thinking about those moist chunks, and them thick grilled cheese sandwiches, and the effervescent macaroni & cheese. Many people associate free cheese with poverty and welfare, but that’s not wholly true. The federal government helped the farming industry by buying and storing an overwhelming surplus of dairy products that farmers could not sell quickly enough. When the abundance became too expensive to maintain, they distributed the cheese, butter and powdered milk through non-profit organizations under the guise of feeding those in “need.” Everybody had dibs. Our palates, and bellies, were blessed by default, but blessed nonetheless.
Chitterlings: In the tradition of turning shit into sugar, our ancestors are unmatched in their sorcery. See, white folks lived high off the hog; after slave masters took the best cuts for themselves, chitlins, along with other pig scraps (ribs, neckbones, feet), were transformed by enslaved skinfolk. Their culinary prowess made this exquisite dish the delicacy that it is. I was so moved by their resilience, spirit led me to clean and cook a batch for myself—a mission that connected me with my ancestors. Chitlins are pig intestines; they have a shitty stench—but so does your fancy asparagus, and turnip greens and rutabaga. I soaked them shits 24 hours, in a bucket, outside, thrice. After turning them inside out, I set them in soapy dish water and scrubbed them with a kitchen brush. I rinsed; I repeated; then peeled away remaining fat and residue. From a 5 lb. bag, I was left with a third of its content. I scrubbed those down again. Rinsed and repeated. I cut them up and threw ‘em in a pot of onion, vinegar, Lawry’s seasoning salt and pepper. They stewed four hours, before resting on a plate of white rice–covered in hot sauce, of course.
Hog Head Cheese: This is yet another pork product, listed strictly ‘cause your grandma liked it and you probably liked it, too—till you decided to switch teams on us. Some things you just gotta take at face value and hog head cheese is one of them. It is, indeed, hog head cheese. Now before you start yucking people’s yum, think about your grandma and your grandma’s grandma, and your grandma’s grandma’s grandma. Our ancestors survived so much with so little. They transformed meager meals into delicacies worthy of the cultural canon. So mind your manners—and your mouth.
Word to Muva.
Ida Harris is a journalist and cultural critic covering a range of topics that intersect with Blackness, including art, activism, pop culture, parenting and womanhood. Ida is especially known for her critical writing on sexual assault against Black women and girls. Her work is featured in ELLE , DAME , Blavity, Teen Vogue , and USA Today.
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Great article! I never thought of the most prized and favorite foods like that have so much history.