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May 31, 2019

Food and Culture


Today, the diet of the USA population is a combination of numerous cultures and cuisines. Currently, Mexican Americans, Asian Indians, and African Americans are among the most widely spread and numerous ethnic groups of the US society, defining American nutrition. African Americans make over 15 percent of the total population of the USA. African Americans have their traditional nutrition habits, which are mostly different from the typical American diet. Nutrition traditions are best understood through the prism of the cultural context. Simultaneously, a better understanding of African American nutritional habits may provide avoidance of ethnocentric assumptions. In this regard, traditional nutritional habits of numerous minority groups of the USA, their common food habits, and interaction between the chosen cultures have to be examined in detail.
Traditional Food Habits
The nutrition habits of modern African Americans are based on certain health beliefs traced from generation to generation since their early settlement on the territory of the USA. Traditional African American food, which is also called "soul food", has been developed on the basis of numerous practices and traditions. Core commodities of the African American diet are represented by cornmeal, pork, and molasses, along with wheat flour and lard. Representatives of this ethnic group use flour for baking their traditional biscuits. However, flour has become cheap enough for regular purchases just recently. The most popular type of pork is commercially packed bacon, but a fat one.
Some families prefer to cook simple meals. For example, they slice a bacon or salt pork thin and cook it in fireplaces. Mixing bacon grease with molasses, they make a so-called "sap", which is eaten with meat and cornbread. Cornbread is made of cornmeal and water and baked on a griddle. In most cases, African Americans bake bread and fry meat. The preference for meat frying is usually given due to a short time of cooking; in summer, this feature is rather practical. Sometimes, in winter or late autumn, African Americans eat sweet potatoes and pork. Some families cook an opossum dinner. The carcass is seasoned with red pepper and baked with sweet potatoes in a pot. People of this ethnic group prepare crackling bread by frying it till a brittle condition. Then, they mix it with water, cornmeal, salt, and soda and bake it all. Oftentimes, African Americans eat turnips or cabbage boiled with pork fat.
Talking about spices, it should be mentioned that most African American dishes are heavily seasoned and salted. Members of the African American community widely use chilies and hot peppers, along with garlic, curry, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, and sesame seeds. Seasonings made of ground seeds (for example, cotton and melon) and dried mushrooms are also rather common in the African American food. In the African-American community, breakfast meals are commonly light and lunch is usually represented by fast food. The dinner meal usually consists of one or several traditional dishes. Studies have shown that African Americans have from four to five meals per day with the largest one in the afternoon.
African Americans brought to the USA some foods, which are associated with superstitions. For example, the African diaspora brought black-eyed pea to the New World. Until today, a celebration of the New Year without black-eyed peas is deemed inferior and at least not lucky. Dried black-eyed peas have two physical properties, which symbolize good things: a significant increase in size when cooked and the guarantee of germination when planted. For historical reasons, eating black-eyed peas ensures good fortune, as stated in the Jewish Talmud.
Besides their beliefs into the good fortune of some products, modern rural African Americans also believe that some foods are capable of healing various illnesses. For example, in order to treat diabetes, they consume such dietary products as vinegar, lemon juice, teas made of roots and leaves, and herbal supplements from healthy food shops. Vinegar and lemon juice, for instance, are applied in order to reduce the level of sugar in the blood. Besides, many other natural remedies are used by African Americans for the treatment of numerous diseases. In order to treat the urinary tract infection, bearberry is used. Rheumatism, menstrual pain, and discomfort are eliminated by means of black cohosh or black snakeroot, while blue cohosh is appropriate for uterine contractions during work. At seizures, it is advised to use wild comfrey in the African American community and chamomile is used for poison ivy treatment and sleep aid. Sweet potato provides nausea relief during pregnancy.
Being an ancient ethnic group, African Americans have their own feasts and holidays, for which peculiar celebratory dishes are characteristic. For example, dishes containing peanuts, seeds, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and spicy sauces are traditionally cooked for Kwanzaa, one of the major non-religious holidays intended to honor African culture and inspire African Americans, whose labor has made a great contribution to the progress of the USA. In addition, the celebratory table also contains vegetables, fruits, and nuts symbolizing the harvest, which nourished the African people. African Americans also cook appetizers from black-eyed peas, peanut soup, fruit salads, and coconut pie and drink green tea with mint or ginger beer.
Undoubtedly, understanding of the interconnection between religion and food can help better understand the African American community, especially taking into account the fact that African Americans are very religious Christians and Catholics. Scientists mark that Christian faith makes significant transformations in their diet habits of the African American community. For example, eating crackers is an important part of Christianity because they are transformed into Christ's body. The Christmas Day breakfast usually contains such traditional for this ethnic minority dishes as eggs, ham, biscuits with butter and syrup, grits, and sausages. Other core dishes served for religious holidays usually include baked ham, green vegetables, candied yams, baked macaroni, baked chicken, cornbread, rice, and fruitcakes or apple pies for a dessert.
Adaptation of African American Diet to the USA
Several studies have shown that in the African American community the process of acculturation to the USA culture plays a crucial role in shaping their attitudes, cultural behavior, and, undoubtedly, dietary habits. Scientists have noticed that acculturation to the American culture is associated with unhealthy diet behaviors among African Americans. Acculturation to the American culture has led to shifts from traditional healthy foods containing whole grains, meats, and vegetables to more sugary, processed, and high-fat foods, which are currently rather popular and widely spread in the U.S. community.
Acculturation to the U.S. dietary style was not a difficult process for a long time. From the beginning, acculturation was inhibited by the elderly generation of African Americans who honored and highly valued their native traditions. However, new generations of the African American community strove to adapt to the cultural environment they were born and lived in. As a result, African Americans' acculturation to the U.S. dietary habits supposed partial or total acceptance of foods classified as "American". Thus, eating fast-food, for example, pizza or hamburgers and frequent ignorance of traditional long-cooked dishes, has become a consequence of these ethnic minority members becoming American and assimilating to their peers.
Experts argue that the dietary habits of African Americans are likely to take a turn for the worse due to the increase of the African Americans' length of residency on the territory of the USA. Eventually, African American ethnic minority groups will assimilate with the U.S. culture because with the course of time they obtain a broader variety of food options, thus becoming more likely to eat both healthy and unhealthy native and American foods. Moreover, African Americans have obtained more opportunities to expand their traditional menu and try exotic foods, which were unavailable for them in their motherland. Nonetheless, African Americans are likely to change their dietary behavior if they are limited in access to ingredients required for cooking their national dishes. As a result, they will slowly assimilate to the American unhealthy diet, straying away from homemade meals.
Food and Health Relations
The preference for a certain type of diet, a so-called "soul food", has caused numerous health problems among African Americans. Soul food usually includes a lot of fatty meats, sugar, and fried foods served with rich gravies, regular consumption of which leads to high rates of cardiovascular diseases, stroke, and obesity. In comparison to the white American population, the African American ethnic group is characterized by higher incidences of hypertension, diabetes, heart diseases, and cancer. High incidences of cancer among African Americans are caused by low consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Thus, obtaining lower amounts of vitamins, magnesium, and calcium and consuming a great number of calories from the saturated fat, members of this community have the highest rates of obesity in the USA. Moreover, some studies have shown that African American men experience the most frequent incidences of hypertension and prostate cancer in the world.
Like any other diet, soul food has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, this type of food is rich for nutrients since it contains leafy yellow and green vegetables (collard greens, for instance), potatoes, legumes, rice, and beans. In most cases, many products required for cooking traditional African American dishes are cheap enough in the USA and, thus, available to African Americans with different levels of income. Having brought many local products with them during slavery times from Africa to the USA, African Americans have contributed to the expansion of the U.S. food market supply. On the contrary, soul food is poor in fiber, potassium, calcium and has a high level of fat. High levels of fat and cholesterol cause numerous diseases, including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, etc. Moreover, not all ingredients necessary for this diet are easily accessible on the territory of the USA or in particular states. Experts recommend to boil or bake some products instead of frying in order to decrease the fat amount. Focusing on fruit can help to enrich an organism with fiber and necessary vitamins, hence saving human health. Moreover, some heavily available ingredients can be replaced with other products with lower prices that are healthier and easily accessible.

Taking into account the above-mentioned information, it should be noted that the African American diet represents a combination of numerous cultural influences. As a result of stable acculturation, soul food has turned from healthy dishes for early slaves to an unhealthy diet for modern African Americans. African American foods contain a lot of fat and are mainly cooked by means of frying, resulting in numerous diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, etc. Nonetheless, some products are widely used for the treatment of numerous diseases. African Americans have many dishes associated with religion, superstitions, and traditional celebrations. Thus, soul food is a cultural heritage of the people who have saved its traditions until today despite a strong influence of the U.S. community.

About the Author
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