• By Jessica DeGore
  • In Uncategorized
  • February 20, 2019

Black History Month: Food for Thought (it’s not what you think)

If you think I’m going to talk about the emancipation of the slaves and traditional poor southern food, you’re right –but you’ll miss a lot.  Sure, who can talk about Black History Month and not reference the importance of freedom and the culinary significance of making something delicious from what you have, which historically was not much.  


As just a week in 1926, and now a month, recognition of the achievements and social contributions of African-Americans aka Black History, takes us directly to the foundation of the United States — the Declaration of Independence.  There, in permanent history, we are reminded of our belief that all human beings have the sovereign rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  


What I want to talk about goes back to this fundamental right to life for all human beings and importance of shifting our food focus to a historical recipe rooted in back history.


No one will argue that life thrives when nourished with adequate amounts of the right nutrients.  Yet, we are surrounded by obesity from too many calories that often are not very nutrient dense and know all too well the disturbing images of starving mothers and their children.  But, declaring our belief in the human right to nourishing foods is more than a matter of donating more food.


More is not better.

  • More is not better when our global food waste is approximately one third or 1.3 billion tons of what is produced world-wide.
  • More is not better when methods of food production are a major contributor to global warming, which has been record breaking since 2010.
  • More is not better at the expense of producing healthy foods.  
  • More is not better at the loss of biodiversity in an already stressed environment.  

To produce more food in our current system, leaves a future that is not hard to predict.


The challenge is profound, but the solution is within our grasp.  This simple solution’s essence was born out of servitude and is woven into the fabric of Black History. Starting with a small red bean, a grain of rice and greens, yes, what I want to talk about is freedom and the culinary recipe for survival when that right is threatened.  


To follow this thread of culinary history into the future, we have to go back to a grain of rice, a small red bean, or more correct– pea.  African rice, cultivated in paddies or fields, or perhaps growing wild, has nourished generations for over 3,000 years.  Rice along with a small red bean– one of many varieties indigenous to Africa, were smuggled into the Americas by the captured Africans.  


These ingredients were part of a diverse African agricultural system. “Heirloom varieties remain important in today’s world: many of these varieties were bred for their drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, or ability to thrive in local climates,” explains Jen Bruning Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Some may contain more nutrients than conventional counterparts of today, and retain those nutrients more effectively because of short transit times (i.e. they are harvested locally, making it a shorter trip to your dinner table!).  Needing fewer agricultural inputs like water, pesticide, and fertilizer also means a lesser environmental impact.”


The Africans harvesting these crops probably didn’t think about all this, they just embraced their heirloom varieties for their hearty ability to grow in their native region.


The marriage of rice and beans in cooking continued to nourish the African-Americans in the severely limited conditions of captivity.  These two plant-based foods completed the available protein. This in combination with fiber and other nutrients made these starch ingredients meaningful for survival.  


Only given the simplest of ingredients– dried peas, rice and greens for example, African-American slaves creatively made what they could. While some slave diets were supplemented with opossum, raccoon, snapping turtle and other wild animals, their dishes are notorious for including animal parts like fatback that were considered undesirable by the white owners.  With little meat, the fat contributed significant calories to fuel the long working hour.


In the origins of these recipes, African-American slaves didn’t realize the health benefits of eating less red meat, and filling the plate with plant-based foods, and they certainly didn’t think about the negative carbon impact of dried pea production.  Never would they have predicted that one variety of rice used-– Carolina Gold, might one day be extinct.  And waste simply didn’t happen.  


Generation after generation, the savory flavor of the buttery soft beans over rice and collard greens continued to be a comforting reminder of sustenance.  “These foods are good for the soul. But the mounting evidence and body weights from more sedentary modern lifestyles, has opened the lid to new cooking methods that don’t rely on animal fat for flavor,” explains Marisa Moore, MBS, RDN, LD and past spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  Using little or no meat, you’ll love my healthy version of Red Beans, Collard Greens and Brown Rice with the option of using smoked turkey.  


In following this thread like a road map from the past into the future—

  • We can appreciate and support the diversity of crops that makes growing require less input of energy and water.
  • We understand and can choose starches that count for more than just calories.
  • We can excite in fresh flavors and textures of plant-based foods, while not necessarily becoming vegetarian.  
  • We see the value of food for our pleasure and nourishment enhanced by it’s ability to renew the environment from which it came.
  • We observe the evolution of cooking for the sake of better health.
  • We can imagine being a child around the family table with aunts, uncles, parents and grands, to know the comfort of these foods that has been kept alive in tradition.
  • We can find our own creative ways to make these simple ingredient combinations like beans, rice and greens, our own.


Yes, rice, red beans and greens, a combination rich in history and flavor, is now a promise of a sustainable healthy world. “Returning to heritage diets not only preserves and promotes the food traditions of diverse peoples and cultures, but enhances and elevates the health of those who follow them,” says Jen Bruning.  “Plant-based is all the buzz today, but this ancient way of eating has stood the test of time as the best way to balance the health of the earth with that of it’s people.’

Can the voice of what was necessity in centuries past be the battle cry of choice for health and wellbeing in the future?


Can our personal, family, community and environmental health and wellbeing be as easy as choosing to eat less meat, making our carbohydrate choices count for more than calories, making sure carb choices have protein, fiber and nutrient density and eating more vegetables and fruits?


If we attest freedom for all, the right to life nourished with healthful foods, how can we continue to frequently choose foods that provide calories with few nutrients, foods whose carbon hoof print requires disproportionate resources and foods that perpetuate an unsustainable trajectory for our global food system?


And how can the right choices be contained at the borders of the United States?


To all contributing African-Americans, thank you for all the creative ingenuity you and your ancestors stirred into their dried peas and rice.  Thank you for keeping the recipes alive to share and enjoy. And thank you for an age-old wisdom that deliciously directs us towards a future of health.


These African-American culinary contributions cannot be limited to a week, Black History Month or even a year.  Helping satisfy our sovereign right to nourishing foods, these plant-based culinary contributions have spanned centuries and point the direction for a healthier sustainable future by which we can make a new declaration to nutritiously feed the world by 2050.

Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND is a sought-after Culinary Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics known as a food and nutrition authority.  Libby markets and teaches nutrition through scrumptiously fun culinary experiences, as well as entertaining, imaginative communication to all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.  She engages audiences with experiences from her Midwestern roots, urban living, and endless quest for healthy, flavorful, good food. To learn more about her visit DigInEatUp.com and connect on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and listen to her radio show Libby’s Luncheonette live on WCHE1520AM Mondays from 12:15 to 1:00 pm ET.




Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT – Lancet Commission Report, Alison Steiber PhD, RDN, Chief Science Officer, Research, International, and Scientific Affairs