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Musings

The Thrill and Difficulty of Decolonizing my Family’s Diet

I have spent years abusing my body with the types of food I’ve put on my plate (or eaten straight from a box). The typical Western diet is sugary, fried, doused in salt and sprinkled with a powdery sugar finish. Did I mention that we consume a lot of sugar? Here’s a short video about what consumption of too much sugar does to one’s body:

Does that mean I’m going to cut sugar completely from my diet? Not a chance. It just means that I recognize the need to reduce my intake. All things in moderation, etc., etc. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel some level of guilt, or anxiety, whenever I see my youngest reach for a third heaping teaspoon of white sugar, mindlessly dumping it into her rooibos. At only 8 years old, she is already sporting an impressive dad-bod belly.

Netflix runs two series called ‘Chef’s Table’ and ‘Cooked’ that have really begun challenging my perceptions about food. Depending on your social/economic status, food is either scarce or ubiquitous. It can nourish you or slowly poison you over time. It can be consumed for pleasure or withheld as punishment. And regardless of how or who prepares our food, the one thing that unites us all as a species is that we all need food to survive. The food industry is the most powerful on Earth – bigger than Bid Pharma, in my opinion – and it is rapidly what kinds of foods we have access to globally.

I began watching Chef’s Table with the aim of creating more interesting meals for my family. Our dinner choices tend to skew towards quick and easy meals: Lots of pastas, pan fried chicken breasts, the occasional burger on the grill if we’re feeling fancy. KFC is Plett’s only drive-thru, a prospect I once found abhorrent but now serves as my go-to option when I can’t muster the enthusiasm required imagining our next meal. A lot of our eating is unimaginative, and mindless, quite frankly. We aren’t unique in this regard either. One day I looked at my plate and asked myself, WHAT am I eating? The answer was: Somebody else’s idea of what food is and ought to be. Something you picked off a shelf and poured from a can or a box.

Though my motivation in watching both shows was a search for ways to expand our gastronomy, what I found instead was that I was compelled to interrogate my understanding and relationship to food in my current environment, which is in the Western Cape of South Africa. Why was I so many leagues away from Atlanta, GA and still eating the same food – the peculiar taste of South African beef aside – as I had since I moved to the US? The answer was that my pots and my plates had been colonized. Now, that may sound dramatic, but it’s a fact.

I think Enrique Olvera, head chef and owner of Pujol, explained the dilemma that many of us experience best. When he started his restaurant serving Mexican food as haute cuisine, people told him that he was crazy. Mexican food was not French food. It was cheap, street food. There was no prestige to it. His restaurant was failing and he was about to quit until one day, a highly respected chef said this to him: “What you are cooking is not Mexican food. You are cooking with Mexican ingredients, but it is not Mexican food.”

Enrique Olvera on GMA

That was the mindset shift he needed. He began to pattern his menu after the geography and history of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Today Pujol is ranked 13th in the world. That’s the difference between haute cuisine and ubiquitous chain restaurants: authenticity.

I am fascinated by the idea of decolonizing my family’s food, but when I consider what that entails I’m intimidated. Cooking authentic food – food that reflects the land on which I live – is labor intensive and time consuming. If I were in Ghana, (or any part of West Africa) I think the task might be easier. A large variety of food grows in tropic zones; myriad yams, plantain, two or tree types of rice, fruits whose names you’ve never heard…whereas in South Africa, most of the land is scrubby and dry. The produce that grows here, things like legumes and pumpkins, do not require much water and do not carry much complexity of flavor. Before Dutch immigrants pushed them out, the Khoisan and Griqua people once called the portion of the coast where I currently reside their home. Their diet consisted mainly of seafood (including seals) and whatever edible flowers were found inland. I surmised that if I wanted to decolonize my plate to mirror South African life prior to the arrival of the Dutch, English and the influence of Asian slaves they shipped in, it would have lots of sorghum, sour milk, some fish, ostrich…and no chocolate.

Left overs would have to be done away with as well. Pre-colonial cooking means only taking what one needs from the land and nothing more. This sounds hard-core, and believe it or not, a growing number of people are beginning to feed themselves in this way. How well it gels with the demands of modern life will be left to your imagination.

While I’m not ready (or equipped) to fully commit to a pre-Industrial Revolution, I do think it’s important that my family begins to think in that direction. On Cooked Ep 1, an Aboriginal elder in her 80s talked about life before her people were forcibly removed from the land, put in “orphanages” and fed on a Western diet. Like many other Australians, Aboriginal and white alike, she quickly became overweight and had to take medication to manage her diabetes.

“Sugar made us weak,” she said. “Before this, we used to eat bush sweets to satisfy our cravings.” She didn’t say what those bush sweets were, but I can guarantee that they did not come with the tooth decaying effects of a Twizzler.

 

Do your food choices do a good job at reflecting your culture or the land upon which you live? What will be on your dinner plate tonight? We had such an exhausting debate about all of this earlier this afternoon that we’ve just settled on having a salad… no Ranch, of course.