Reflection Pool: Do our values about healthy food come from our culture or our culture’s influencers
Do our values about healthy food come from our culture or our culture’s influencers?
by Lisa Quattlebaum
I became vegetarian in high school many moons ago after repetitively listening to The Smith’s Meat is Murder. Given my music reference, you can calculate that number of moons. Morrissey was a vegetarian, PETA was starting up and Kiss My Face was a bar of soap, not a dating app swipe signal. While I was in vogue, still somewhat on the fringe of popular food values, I was a total cast out within my “other” community; my Black and Brown inner-city community. You see, back in the day, according to friends and select family, broccoli was considered “white people’s food”. Or so I was told at every holiday dinner and BBQ.
In 1987, I graduated from a prestigious Massachusetts ultra liberal boarding school and after a very hot three months in West Philadelphia, I hopped, skipped, and jumped to the outskirts of Manhattan to attend a super liberal small liberal arts college. My vegetarianism traveled with me along with academic and personal inquiries into how culture contributes to our values and practices; even our culinary ones. Aside from the occasional animal rights protest, my advocacy showed up in the kitchen (a shared one with five fast-food eaters for two years) and at the dinner table. Most every dinner table I was seated at. Instead of lecturing from the gospel of veganism (it lasted a very long and slow year - Vegan 2.0 was sweeter, but also shorter) or telling folks about the pre-Instagram guru 847,000 others and I were following, I simply ate and enjoyed my food. The narrative naturally excluded the when and how I started my plant-based food journey and overflowed with juicy details how scratch-cooking, fresh veggies (even broccoli), and farm-to-table eating was a cultural long-standing and multi-generational approach to food.
Now in 2019, I could if pressed, classify my food status as pegan (plant-based primal eater - I eat plants, few grains, a bit of dairy, and select grass-fed and forested meats). This doesn’t faze most folks, but it does provoke a raised eyebrow of disappointment from many people of color who have recently discovered that broccoli belongs on everyone’s plate. These “invisible vegans” (an adopted named derived from Jasmine Leyva’s documentary namesake) are passionate about healthy food nutrition, food sovereignty, and reclaiming rich farm-to-table food histories. For many, the food shift has lead to a cultural reawakening - or vise versa. Ironically, despite having logged decades of well-researched and body-specific iterations of vegetarian/vegan/pegan eating, I now find myself being lectured to, even scolded for my food transgressions and lack of cultural allegiance. I’m thrilled that healthy eating and an interest in urban agriculture and good plant-based food pathways are becoming less a lifestyle and more a way of living well. However, I find myself sometimes equally concerned by the seemingly capricious dive into unsupervised restrictive diets based off a youtube video as I am of the alarming rates of heart disease and diabetes that plague Black and Brown communities. I want for my community as I want for myself, health, vitality, and well-considered present-day choices that reflect a deep understanding and respect for culinary ancestry. And then I think of Tracye McQuirter, a 30-year vegan, advocate, and best-selling author of “By Any Greens Necessary”, and I wonder if she too listened to Morrissey. Or perhaps like other good cultural traditions, it was passed down through story, recipes, and meal time.