The Culture of Food as Medicine
By Rhonda Blake, General Manager at Gallaudet University’s Kellogg Conference Hotel, Entrepreneurial Council, FLIK Hospitality Group
In this third week of FLIK’s Black History Month celebration, I am debunking the myth that Black people don’t eat healthily.
There is a history of consuming unhealthy foods, which stems from the original sin of slavery. Enslaved people were given food scraps by the white enslavers and expected to be grateful and to make do. The enslaved people did the best of what was available, and even today, in some impoverished neighborhoods, few grocery stores offer fresh produce in abundance. The frozen sections outperform the fresh fruits and vegetables by 50% or more.
But many of our forefathers, through storytelling, told us about typical diets before enslavement. Meals made up of fruits, vegetables, and ground provisions; meat was the smallest portion on the plate. This plant-forward way of life is not typically associated with Black American cuisine, but when you look at the roots of the African diaspora, you’ll find many plant-based meals especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Growing up, I recall going to my great-grandmother when I was feeling under the weather. She would say, “My dear child, you need a purge.” Of course, I knew she meant I needed some “bush tea.” She would head to the backyard and return with “bush” in hand – a collection of herbs and roots that made up Trinidad Bush Tea, a thousand-year-old remedy passed through generations of the African descendants with each diaspora community having its own version with local influences.
I never knew exactly what went into that soothing solution, so I recently rang my uncle in Trinidad to ask about the common ingredients used in Trini Bush Tea. Typically it was made of Fever Bush, Soursop Leaves, Orange Peel, Ginger, and Mint. The smell was awful and it tasted even worse, but I felt better in no time. That memory brought a smile to my face; it seemed like it happened centuries ago, and in a sense, it did.
And as it turns out, my ancestors were not far off in finding the nutritional value from these medicinal herbs. Ginger, as we know, is a very common home remedy for nausea, can also help aid digestion, and has anti-inflammatory properties. Some researchshows that soursop leaves may reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and suggest other antiviral effects, however, research is limited. Mint is rich in nutrients like Vitamin A, which is great for eye health.
My uncle and I chatted for an hour, which sparked more memories of our routine back then. Breakfast and lunch were the day’s hearty meals, and dinner consisted of tea and biscuits -- what we call cookies in America. Every evening “mama,” as we called my great-grandmother, brewed her “miracle tea,” which we drank with our tea biscuits. Sometimes it had the cooling taste of mint or ginger, and on some occasions, it was bitter. I remember holding my nose and gulping it down as fast as I could. The bitter tea, also known as “immune tea,” was a staple during flu season, also known as Carnival season, when tourists would descend upon the island.
I surmised it could have been the combination of the Vitamin D from the sun, walking every day, the community (everyone knew everyone, we were one family), and mama’s magic tea that kept strong, fit and healthy. I guess she was brilliant and way ahead of her time – she would have been a wealthy herbalist! Food really can be medicine and I am glad to carry her recipes and legacy through the tradition of storytelling.
For more plant-forward recipes, check out:
- Pan Seared Cauliflower, Ginger, Tumeric, Orange
- Farro, Broccoli Parmesan Risotto
- Buffalo Cauliflower Burgers, Zucchini Corn Relish
- Build Your Own Veg Wedge
- Mushroom Matar
Interested in reading more about FLIK's celebration of Black History Month? Check out related posts here:
- A Path Forward
- FLIK x Black History Month: On Rice & Roots
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Hercules Posey
- How Black Chefs Shaped American Cuisine
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Leah Chase
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