Ancestral Eating:Discourses on Race and Food

My feelings are simply this:

If I had listened to the lessons that my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents tried to teach me about food, I’d be a lot healthier. I’m young and, often, idealistic. This means that I don’t always listen. In fact, sometimes I rebel against traditional wisdom because I think I read some fancy study that suggested otherwise. My grandmother used to warn me, “You gun study dem books and doctors over me?” She’d then roll her eyes, suck her teeth, and walk away. When I reflect on these moments, I kind of have to suck my teeth at myself. I was wrong about a lot of things. More specifically, I was willing to dismiss a great portion of my ancestors’ knowledge systems because 1) ancestral eating can be pretty inconvenient in an increasingly Americanized space and 2) these ways of knowing had not yet been legitimated by Western science. In a nutshell, the colonized parts of my psyche were rearing their heads.

Deh old people dem wanted me to eat food, real local food. They didn’t care if it was peas and rice, plantain, callalloo, coconuts, fish, souse, whelks, yams, dumb bread, sugar cane, sugar apple, mango, soursop, tamarind, yard fowl, mutton, or oxtail. They believed that locally produced food was both healthy and nourishing. They also believed that a hot cup of bush tea was healthy for the mind, body, and soul. However, I didn’t pay enough attention. I was too busy with my schoolwork to learn how to make mauby (a local fermented beverage), identify local healing herbs, and soak my grains. Furthermore, at some point, I stopped eating tania, bitters, animal organs and bone marrow. By the time I became a vegan for ethical reasons, I wouldn’t eat any animal products at all much less fish eyes and brain. I was not consuming the foods that my elders recommended. Furthermore, I was under the impression that I needed to study books and academic journals to learn how to eat healthy.

This simply wasn’t true. My old people dem knew how to eat healthy and ecologically sustainable diets. Those who were ill were eating a lot of processed American foods in their old age. White flour, white sugar, margarine, food additives, fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides, and industrial livestock became a part of our way of life. Their voices were never centered in the academic and medical literature on health. We heard of them but not from them. Even as some of us sat at their kitchen tables and listened to them, we dismissed their wisdom because we believed that slavery and colonialism had completely destroyed their diets. We saw their illnesses and blamed traditional meals rather than industrialized ingredients.

I don’t believe that one diet works well for everyone. Some thrive on low fat diets while others need more fat. Some people can stay on a plant based diet forever while others face health challenges. We have different belief systems. Some of us live in food deserts. We each have different budgets and bodies.

This post is not a call to ancestral eating. It is a critique of food narratives. At times, our discourses on food, identity, race, and power fail to adequately acknowledge our ancestors as knowing subjects. I’ve often heard friends note that they were ashamed of their elders’ diets, which were often portrayed as exotic, unhealthy, nasty, or primitive. That breaks my heart. Our elders can teach us so much about good food and healthy eating if we studied their ideas and practices coconut treesthe way we study legitimated discourses.


This blog post is, perhaps, merely a simple meditation. I struggled with writing it. There’s so much to say and so little time to say it. I wanted to create and present a coherent argument on the topic. However, I’m tired. I have a little one and I’m sitting my comprehensive exams for my PhD program. In a nutshell, I can tell you how I’m feeling about the subject but a coherent “argument”, if that’s what you are hoping for, will have to come at a later date.


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