General Dietary Influences

In 1992 it was reported that there is little difference between the type of foods eaten by whites and African Americans. There have, however, been large changes in the overall quality of the diet of African Americans since the 1960s. In 1965, African Americans were more than twice as likely as whites to eat a diet that met the recommended guidelines for fat, fiber, and fruit and vegetable intakes. By 1996, however, 28 percent of African Americans were reported to have a poor-quality diet, compared to 16 percent of whites, and 14 percent of other racial groups. The diet of African Americans is particularly poor for children two to ten years old, for older adults, and for those from a low socioeconomic background. Of all racial groups, African Americans have the most difficulty in eating diets that are low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This represents an immense change in diet quality. Some explanations for this include: (1) the greater market availability of packaged and processed foods; (2) the high cost of fresh fruit, vegetables, and lean cuts of meat; (3) the common practice of frying food; and (4) using fats in cooking.

Regional differences. Although there is little overall variability in diets between whites and African Americans, there are many notable regional influences. Many regionally influenced cuisines emerged from the interactions of Native American, European, Caribbean, and African cultures. After emancipation, many slaves left the south and spread the influence of soul food to other parts of the United States. Barbecue is one example of African-influenced cuisine that is still widely popular throughout the United States. The Africans who came to colonial South Carolina from the West Indies brought with them what is today considered signature southern cookery, known as barbacoa, or barbecue. The original barbecue recipe's main ingredient was roasted pig, which was heavily seasoned in red pepper and vinegar. But because of regional differences in livestock availability, pork barbecue became popular in the eastern United States, while beef barbecue became popular in the west of the country.

Other Ethnic Influences. Cajun and Creole cooking originated from the French and Spanish but were transformed by the influence of African cooks. African chefs brought with them specific skills in using various spices, and introduced okra and native American foodstuffs, such as crawfish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and pecans, into both Cajun and Creole cuisine. Originally, Cajun meals were bland, and nearly all foods were boiled. Rice was used in Cajun dishes to stretch out meals to feed large families. Today, Cajun cooking tends to be spicier and more robust than Creole. Some popular Cajun dishes include pork-based sausages, jambalayas, gumbos, and coush-coush (a creamed corn dish). The symbol of Cajun cooking is, perhaps, the crawfish, but until the 1960s crawfish were used mainly as bait.

More recently, the immigration of people from the Caribbean and South America has influenced African-American cuisine in the south. New spices, ingredients, combinations, and cooking methods have produced popular dishes such as Jamaican jerk chicken, fried plantains, and bean dishes such as Puerto Rican habichuelas and Brazilian feijoada.

Holidays and Traditions. African-American meals are deeply rooted in traditions, holidays, and celebrations. For American slaves, after long hours working in the fields the evening meal was a time for families to gather, reflect, tell stories, and visit with loved ones and friends. Today, the Sunday meal after church continues to serve as a prime gathering time for friends and family.

Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits of the harvest," is a holiday observed by more than 18 million people worldwide. Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration that focuses on the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement. The Kwanzaa Feast, or Karamu, is traditionally held on December 31. This symbolizes the celebration that brings the community together to exchange and to give thanks for their accomplishments during the year. A typical menu includes a black-eyed pea dish, greens, sweet potato pudding, cornbread, fruit cobbler or compote dessert, and many other special family dishes.

Folk beliefs and remedies. Folk beliefs and remedies have also been passed down through generations, and they can still be observed today. The majority of African-American beliefs surrounding food concern the medicinal uses of various foods. For example, yellow root tea is believed to cure illness and lower blood sugar. The bitter yellow root contains the antihistamine berberine and may cause mild low blood pressure. One of the most popular folk beliefs is that excess blood will travel to the head when one eats large amounts of pork, thereby causing hypertension. However, it is not the fresh pork that should be blamed for this rise in blood pressure, but the salt-cured pork products that are commonly eaten. Today, folk beliefs and remedies are most often held in high regard and practiced by the elder and more traditional members of the population.

blood pressure: measure of the pressure exerted by the blood against the walls of the blood vessels hypertension: high blood pressure

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