Earth Day 2017: What’s for Dinner?

71. So, last month (April 22), we celebrated another Earth Day. What did we learn?

In our last post, we looked at some possibilities for the future of soul food. One of the perennial objections is that soul food is unhealthy, especially for African Americans, who are more likely to be overweight, diabetic, hypertensive, and so on. We’ve noted these health concerns before in the entry “Killer Soul.”

About a year ago, our “soul food scholar,” Adrian Miller, raised the question for a panel of experts in the field. Imar Hutchins, a vegan, and owner of Washington, D.C.’s famous Florida Avenue Grill, said, “If you ask the average black kid when is the last time he or she had soul food, the answer will probably be a year ago at a family reunion, cookout, or funeral.” He said, “I think the truth is that junk food is killing black people.”

The items that most folks would put on a soul food menu would qualify as “celebration food.” Dishes like candied yams were never meant to be eaten every day. If you eat the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner every day, then yes, you will get fat and perhaps be more likely to develop some sort of disease or debilitating condition. But to paraphrase Hutchins, nobody eats Thanksgiving dinner every day. It’s the junk food that’s killing us, no matter what our complexion or ancestry may be.

That’s especially true when we add in the rest of the response: Nobody said that it’s only “soul food” if you pour in a box of salt, triple the bacon fat and sugar, and eat every hog in Iowa. There are a lot of ways to cook chicken besides frying it. There are a lot of ways to cook pork chops that don’t involve smothering them  (and yourself) in gravy. After all, traditional African food was vegetable-centered rather than meat-centered, and there are lots of reasonably healthy ways to make collard greens, for instance.

We think of ourselves as people of science, people who depend on advanced technology. My youngest grandson, Reggie, isn’t even two yet, but knows how to work the DVR on our cable box.

reggie 4 8 17

(Reggie also loves Grandpa’s ribs)

Yet when it comes to food, we are remarkably superstitious. We have an ever-changing list of food do’s and dont’s. Is coffee good for you? Depends what week it is.

Earth Day is a good time to remember that health is complex, and that it’s determined by far more than food scruples.

Environmental pollution has a greater proportional impact on African Americans and other minority groups than on the majority white community. Robert D. Bullard, the “father of environmental justice,” has devoted his career* to demonstrating how racism creates environmental injustices that have a significant impact on the poor in general and African Americans in particular.  (*Local interest note: Bullard received his Ph.D. from Iowa State.).

Many were shocked when the Flint Water Crisis came to national attention in 2016, but those familiar with how environmental racism and injustice work wouldn’t have been surprised. We are also not surprised that three years after state officials made the initial decisions about water treatment that triggered the lead poisoning, the situation remains unresolved.


If you’ve got lead in your drinking water, you may not worry about the extra pat of butter on your sweet potatoes

In his classic work, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Bullard mentions how air and water pollution are associated with “diseases of adaptation,” diseases and chronic conditions triggered by toxic pollutants and the overall stress caused by the environment. These include conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.


From a food justice perspective, it’s easy to see how environmental racism impacts food choices and availability. People who have the means to escape heavily polluted neighborhoods will do so, leaving behind an even poorer community, and shrinking the tax base. Business costs increase, driving away new businesses and shutting down existing ones.

Soon, entire neighborhoods are left with fast food places and with convenience stores that offer few options, and at higher prices. Many use the problematic term “food deserts” to describe the situation.

The most recent edition of Dumping in Dixie came out in 2000, but there’s little indication that things have gotten any better. The current Administration seems to be working to make things worse. Air and water quality regulations are being vacated almost daily, and it appears that even the EPA’s days are numbered. The President’s misplaced zest for coal and tolerance for pollution seems to point us back to the 1950s, and these will have a disproportionate impact on the poor in general and minority groups in particular.


On Feb. 28, 2017, the President ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to “review and reconsider” clean water regulations enacted by the Obama Administration. Earlier that month, the “Stream Protection Rule” that created a 100-foot buffer between coal mines and streams was revoked as well.

Nutrition issues are also part of the current debate on possible health insurance reforms. Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, for instance, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “People who lead good lives” don’t acquire pre-existing health conditions, and should be able to pay less for health insurance.


From the conservative side, Brooks’ words reflect the GOP’s dominant Social Darwinist theology. But if we went ahead and specified that “People who lead good lives” practice good eating habits, quite a few liberal elitists would agree. Even in 2017, we have not quite escaped the superstitions of our pagan ancestors. We may cloak it in different language, but many still tend to believe that if you’re sick or unhealthy, it’s because you have done something to offend the gods.

An event like Earth Day helps remind us that healthy nutrition is more involved than reducing our intake of soul food from twice a year to never. It involves food policy, housing policy, employment opportunities, and a concern for the environment: the soil in which we grow our crops, the water we use to prepare our food, and the air we’re breathing as we eat.


Salt and Midwestern Slavery

67. Salt is life. That’s not romantic hyperbole. If we have too little sodium in our blood (hyponatremia), all sorts of nasty things can happen to us, including seizure, coma, and death.

Of course, most folks worry about getting too much salt. The average American ingests about 3.5 grams of sodium a day. That puts us only in the middle of the worldwide pack. The world average seems to be about 4 grams. Some countries, from Central Asia to East Asia, eat much higher amounts. In Thailand, for instance, the average intake appears to be 13.5 grams per day, and in Kazakhstan, it’s 15.2 g.

Intake is much lower in sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, it’s at or below the intake considered necessary. This may explain how High Blood Pressure (HBP) became a special problem for African Americans. According to the American Heart Association, more than 40% of non-Hispanic blacks are hypertensive. HBP seems to hit blacks harder, and it seems to start earlier in life.

It appears that African Americans may be genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to salt. Their ancestors were forced, through enslavement, to live in an environment that encouraged excessive salt intake, far beyond what was typical in sub-Saharan Africa. Salt pork or bacon was an essential part of the Southern diet for whites and blacks alike. But the ancestors of European Americans were accustomed to eating significant amounts of salted fish and meats, especially during the winter months. Before refrigeration, anything not consumed fresh was probably salted. Today, even with our concerns about sodium intake, we get only about half of the sodium that the average American consumed in 1800.

Many components of “soul food” dishes are high in sodium, from sausages, to fried bologna sandwiches, to ribs prepared with salty rubs. One teaspoon of Louisiana brand hot sauce equals 10% of your recommended sodium intake. A whiff (¼ teaspoon) of my favorite seasoning, Slap Ya Mama, provides 13%. Half a cup of Bush’s canned baby butter beans is 20%. It all adds up, and quickly.

Where does all that salt come from? It became a strategic issue in the Civil War. The Union’s Gen. Sherman declared that salt was as important as gunpowder. “Without salt they cannot make bacon and salt beef,“ he said, and thus, the Confederate “armies cannot be subsisted.”

It takes about one pound of salt to produce nine pounds of bacon, and even more to preserve beef. So Union troops attacked salt production points on the North Carolina coast, at Saltville, Va., and other spots, while the Union Navy’s blockade kept out a lot of the salt the rebels tried to import from Wales.


Salt was a strategic mineral. One important site of salt production was in the southern tip of Illinois, the Great Salt Springs along the Saline River, in Gallatin County, near the Kentucky border. The main springs were Half Moon Lick and the repugnantly-named “Nigger Spring,” which points to the issue at hand:

Salt from saline springs is extracted by evaporating brine. But of course it takes water a long time to evaporate on its own, especially in a temperate climate. So the water must be boiled off in large evaporation pans. That, in turn, required large amounts of firewood (and later, coal). The whole process was arduous and labor-intensive.

Before English settlement, the French, who had learned about the saline springs from the Native Americans, worked the saline springs using enslaved labor brought in from the Caribbean. By the end of the 1700s, the French were using enslaved workers all the way up the Mississippi valley, as far as northeast Iowa and the lead mines of Julien Dubuque.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had forbidden slavery in the territory that included Illinois. But the enslaved held by the French who were already there were exempted. Meanwhile, slaveholding settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky had brought in their own enslaved people, and flatly refused to free them. In 1805, the Indiana Territorial legislature passed a law specifically allowing enslaved labor to be brought in to man the salt works. By 1820, the census showed 500 enslaved people in Gallatin and Randolph counties.

Slavery in Illinois finally became illegal in 1825, but a loophole was created for the salt works, which were leased from the state. The biggest salt works, covering 30,000 acres, were leased to John Crenshaw (1797-1871), who had more than 700 enslaved people working the salt furnaces and adjacent coal mines.

Crenshaw became incredibly wealthy, and the state of Illinois profited as well. At one point, the enslaved workers he held were generating one-seventh of the state’s budget.

Crenshaw’s mansion, Hickory Hill; now known as the Old Slave House. 

In addition to the profits from the salt works being generated by enslaved labor, Crenshaw was also interested in generating more enslaved workers to be sold. His slave quarters included a room known as the “breeding room” or “Uncle Bob’s room.” Crenshaw had imported a enslaved man named Bob, who had a reputation for fathering strong and healthy babies, and would force enslaved women to have sex with him.

Hickory Hill was also a station on the so-called Reverse Underground Railroad. It is said that Crenshaw used the third floor to house captured escaped slaves, as well as kidnapped free blacks, before they were taken into the slaveholding states for sale. The small cells are said to have ring bolts in the floor, for shackling his prisoners. In 1848, Crenshaw lost a leg when some of the enslaved men attacked him while he was beating the women.

Crenshaw was indicted at least twice for his slave trading and kidnapping activities, but he seems to have escaped conviction. Under the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, northerners were legally required to catch and return escaped slaves, which essentially legalized Crenshaw’s slave trading activity. In that same year, he and his family moved into the nearby town, ironically named Equality. A German family was hired to move into the house and run the farm. Since then, it is said that some 150 visitors have reported that the third floor is haunted.

The house was given to the state in 2000, but it is closed. Its morbid historical significance is clear, but no one quite seems to know what to do with it.

It’s one of the sickening ironies of America’s slave-based economy that enslaved African Americans were forced to produce salt, a product that continues to shorten their descendants’ lives.

The Crenshaw House also raises questions of reparations and social justice. Salt production was a vital industry, and the State of Illinois profited directly and significantly from creating loopholes to legalize the use of enslaved labor, in violation of the spirit of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.


Map of Minnesota Territory, c.1850. Minnesota Territory was created in 1849. It reached as far west as the Missouri River, including land that would become Dakota Territory in 1861. Wisconsin, to the east, became a state in 1848. Iowa, to the south, became a state in 1846. Nebraska Territory, to the southwest, was not created until 1854

Illinois was not alone. Many of Iowa’s earliest settlers in the 1830s came from slaveholding states. Some, including territorial officials, brought enslaved people with them, on grounds that they were “personal property.” Kidnappers and slave hunters from Missouri ventured into Iowa’s fledgling towns along the Mississippi.

Enslaved people were held by Army officers at Fort Snelling, in Minnesota Territory. The most famous enslaved Minnesotan was Dred Scott, of the infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision that declared, against Scott, that “Blacks had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”

In Wisconsin, the French fur traders held enslaved workers as far back as the early 1700s. Later, in the lead mining district in the southwest corner of the state, the territory’s first white settlers, many from the south, brought enslaved workers with them. Even the Nebraska Territory, with only a small number of white settlers before the Civil War, nonetheless counted 15 enslaved residents in the 1860 Census. That same year, in November 1860, only months before the Civil War, the Otoe County sheriff advertised the sale of Hercules and Martha, apparently to settle the debts left by a slaveholder.

Resolving the legal problem of enslaved people living in free territory caused harm in other ways as well. Some slaveholding settlers did free enslaved people, but others tried to ship them back to the south for sale. Being “sold down the river” to the misery of the huge cotton plantations in the deep south was especially terrifying. An 1842 case against Illinois’ John Crenshaw concerned the fate of Maria Adams and her children, who had been shipped off to Texas.

Slavery in the Midwest was controversial, of course. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became the law of the land, Missouri slaveholders stirred up trouble in the southeast corner of Iowa when they insisted that Iowans help them track down escaped slaves. The Texas Ordinance of Secession complained about Iowa as one of the states that was not upholding the “rights” of slave owners to their “property.” Many in the southern states were particularly angry that after the creation of Kansas Territory in 1854, Iowa’s Gov. Grimes had given aid and protection to Free Soilers crossing Iowa in order to enter Kansas.

Obviously, slavery was rare in the Midwest, but it did exist. And, as the case of John Crenshaw and his salt works reminds us, it could be every bit as cruel as the worst Simon Legree on a deep south plantation.

Killer Soul?

36. When Jonell Nash passed away last year at the not-so-old age of 72, it gave us pause to think about the relationship between “soul food” and the health of African Americans, a subject to which she had devoted much of her career. In any case, just as when a jogger drops over from a heart attack at 45, we can’t help but be struck by the irony that an advocate of healthier eating died prematurely.

The media had a hi-ho time back in 2012 when Paula Deen revealed that she has Type-2 diabetes. Deen, whose fame rests on recipes bearing a close (and largely unacknowledged) relationship to traditional soul food, was accused of hypocrisy, and many asserted that there was a direct link between her apparent diet (and love of butter) and the disease.


Does soul food kill? Byron Hurt‘s compelling (and entertaining) documentary “Soul Food Junkies,” (2012) is built around the story of his own father’s passion for soul food and his premature death.

byron-hurt 2012

Yet in the end, as Hurt acknowledges, there isn’t the same kind of A –> B causal link between soul food and bad health that there is, for instance, between smoking and lung cancer or drunk driving and fatal car crashes. Noticing correlations is one thing (people who eat food also die); discovering causations is quite another (this food killed you). Eating a second helping of banana pudding is not the same as getting e coli food poisoning or the norovirus from a contaminated burrito.


Nonetheless, special health issues face the general African American community, and there are undeniable and shocking disparities between African Americans and non-Hispanic whites. For instance, African Americans are 40% more likely to be obese, 30% more likely to have heart disease, 40% more likely to have a stroke, and 60% more likely to have diabetes. Blacks are much more likely to develop high blood pressure, and do so earlier than whites. Nearly half of African American women age 20 and older have developed high blood pressure.

Specific sub-group differences are even more startling. African American children are 73% more likely to be obese than their white counterparts, and almost twice as many African American women are considered obese or overweight.


But again, is soul food the chief culprit? There are other disparities that must be considered. For instance, African Americans are far more likely to live in towns that violate clean-air standards, or live near toxic waste dumps. Even with the improvements under the Affordable Care Act, African Americans often have less access to health care. Thanks to economic disparities and crime, African Americans who live in the inner city may have less access to safe places for exercise than their white counterparts safely ensconced in the suburbs.

So-called “food deserts” in inner cities and rural areas may make it difficult for the poor to have access to more nutritious food choices, a problem compounded by inadequate public transportation. Neighborhoods may lack supermarkets, so that folks either have to rely on the limited and pricey choices available at convenience or liquor stores, or turn to fast food. A 2011 CDC study found that over 30% of Americans lack reasonable access to healthier food retailers.


The issue gets even more complicated. Fast food restaurants typically charge far more for healthier menu items, such as salads, especially on a calorie-for-calorie basis. Less-healthy fast food is cheap in part because of heavy government subsidies. Farm subsidies make the grain that’s fed to cattle or turned into High-Fructose Corn Syrup much cheaper than fruits and vegetables.

The government also helps make fast food cheap by subsidizing corporate labor costs, allowing them to pay lower wages, which in turn allows the companies to maintain lower prices. Workers’ low incomes are propped up by governmental nutrition programs and health care assistance. Over 52% of fast food workers’ families receive public assistance, more than twice the rate of the general public. Bloomberg’s estimated that in 2013, this amounted to a $7 billion subsidy for the fast food corporations.

burger salad

After the 2012 elections, John Schnatter, the CEO of Papa John’s fast food pizza, became notorious for asserting that if the Affordable Care Act were not repealed, his franchisers would retaliate by cutting employee hours and by jacking up pizza prices. He claimed pizza would go up by 14 cents. (Others calculated that if the entire cost were passed on to consumers, it would be in the 6-10 cents range.)

Time is also a factor in nutrition and health. Eating at home involves making time for shopping, cooking, and cleanup, a luxury poor families may not have. If a working parent has two part-time minimum-wage jobs, she or he may not have time to cook. As a result, many families turn to pricey, highly-processed “convenience” foods, such as frozen dinners or entrees that are laden with salt, sugar, and fats. (Yes, I spend a lot of time in the grocery store reading labels.)


Ever since frozen “TV Dinners” were introduced in the 1950s, they have been marketed as time savers. This ad promises that, even in the days before microwaves, you’ll be able to pop fried chicken dinners out of the oven in 25 minutes, with “No work before, no dishes after!”

Some analysts, such as Julie Guthman, question the connections between diet, obesity and health. Is “fat” really an objective medical condition or merely the expression of an aesthetic preference? The poor tend to be fatter than the rich, and so the rich see obesity as a moral defect rather than a product of social and economic policies: fat people lack self-control.

The issue has come up in the 2016 Presidential race. In a controversial New York Times article concerning Donald Trump’s relationships with women, it’s alleged that Trump has engaged in body shaming women who have gained weight. Whether the specific details are true or not, it certainly reflects a common attitude, especially among the wealthy.

If we buy into that Puritanical streak, we may believe that cutting dietary fat will make us thinner and thus more acceptable. It’s a belief reflected in our multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry, even though it’s fairly clear that dieting is at best ineffective and at worst, counterproductive. We lose some, only to gain back more, as seen in even someone with Oprah Winfrey’s unlimited resources.


On an anecdotal basis, it’s the age-old question of why some people can eat like hogs and stay thin, while others can merely look at food and gain three pounds. My 96-year old father still puts away twice as much food as I do, yet has remained at an appropriate weight all his life, while I…have not. One’s weight may not just be the product of calorie intake, but also of environmental toxins, animal antibiotics, the release of stress hormones, etc.

Nonetheless, “soul food,” i.e., traditional African American cooking, has been a handy target. It’s had a major impact on the restaurant industry and on soul food menus, as chefs and owners try to adjust to changing tastes. Much of the standard “soul food” menu consists of items, such as candied yams laden in butter and brown sugar, that were intended to be feast items, not daily fare. It’s true that if you eat these foods every day, you probably will get fat and may well develop all sorts of health problems. But one restaurant meal, or a big Sunday dinner, isn’t going to kill you. If food kills, you might check your other lunch choices first.


Not soul food

Bottom line? In an age of rampant wealth disparity, where a handful of people own and run most of the economy, we like to think we retain some control over our lives. Governments may do little to investigate or address outside factors, or to improve food access or health care. But, by George, at least we can stop enjoying our food! Why eat fried chicken, mac & cheese, candied yams, and greens cooked in ham hocks, and then slip into a food coma, when you can have steamed broccoli and pita chips instead?

Now shut up and eat your lunch.