books

The Cooking Family

Last chance to buy tickets for Thursday’s Bellevue Farmers Market Happy Hour! Come celebrate, drink, nibble, and continue to support our community treasure from 5-7pm at Pearl.

[Photo by  Scott Warman  on  Unsplash   ]

[Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash ]

I’ve been thinking about how food brings people together, whether they want to be connected or not. In the case of chef and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, he discovered both the connections and the “or not” when he researched his family’s background and interwove it with the history of slavery and food in the American South.

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If you love to trace food history globally, this is the book for you. With the importation of slaves, the traders also brought foods (and food know-how) native to several locations on the African continent to America and the Caribbean. Once enslaved cooks were scattered across their new locations and faced with some new ingredients to accompany familiar ones, variations on tradition African dishes were adapted into the cuisine we now think of as “Southern.” Hoppin’ john, jambalaya, sweet potatoes, greens, okra preparations, gumbo spiced by a “holy trinity of bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes…that is as Senegalese as they come, or Dahoman or Kongolese” (62). Because slave food rations were so limited (all the good food they cooked landed on the slaveowners’ tables), slaves kept garden patches to supplement their diet. When Twitty hits a rough financial patch in his own life, he plants his own garden, based on family knowledge:

During those lean times I had to be strategic. Corn was tasty but carried with it too many chances to attract pests and bacterial infestation. Cabbage did too. No Southern garden was complete without either in its due time, but I could not afford to waste space on buggy plants. My father taught me how to make weak lye-soap sprays. My provision patch would be organic as much as possible, bugs picked off and squashed underfoot, with things grown together to confuse buggy pests, conserve water, and to crowd out weeds.

What does he grow? Six varieties of sweet potatoes, pattypan squash, cowpeas, herbs, peppers, pole beans, okra, greens, four heirloom tomatoes, peanuts, lettuce, garlic, onions, melons, and more! He had me wondering if such abundance was even possible in a Pacific Northwest patch, or if I’d have to buy a million-dollar greenhouse with a heating system and import soil from Virginia to recreate his abundance.

But the book is about more than food and making connections to African roots. The Cooking Gene is also a family story. The amount of research Twitty (and others helping him) have put in boggles the mind--he can name way more of his forebears than I can. The history of slavery in the South played out personally in his family's movements geographically and in their genetic makeup. While most African-Americans are about 10-15% "white," Twitty is 28%, meaning he can call a greater number of great-great-great-grandmothers unfortunate members of the #MeToo movement than most. Ouch. It’s one thing to trace genealogies when nice official records were kept, but since slaves were considered property, names and personal information were rarely written down about them. Instead, you might find a brief description, a vague age, and a “value” assigned. Uncovering so much of his background involved mighty detective work.

Nor does Twitty leave the DNA stone unturned. I was fascinated to read about the different DNA-analyzing companies and the differences between them, and what he and other family members discovered by getting their numbers done. Twitty even found the comparatively rare white female forbear in his family: a white woman who had had children with a non-white man! He conjectures she might have been an indentured servant because, heaven knew, that wouldn’t fly in many other circumstances.

The Cooking Gene isn’t a demand that white chefs quit appropriating black African-influenced cooking, but rather that Southern cooking be honest and embracing of its true origins and give respect and credit to the cuisine’s pioneers, people who were able to wring from slavery and oppression beautiful foods and a way to hold on to their lost cultures.

The Science of Mindless Eating

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I have a thing for brain books. It might be a form of human vanity. If our (relatively) giant brain sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, reading brain books might be considered the equivalent of always staring in the mirror at your favorite feature. Past favorites include:

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century

Well, this week my fascination with our awesome, complex brains and my obsession with food intersected in my reading material. For one, there was the discouraging news that, contrary to earlier reports, obesity in children continues to rise in America, as well as around the world, including rural China. And, in addition to the dual assaults of the Western diet and decreasing physical activity, traditional Chinese still favor their boys, shoveling even more food their way. On the other hand, this Vox article reiterated that decreasing physical activity may be detrimental to our health for many reasons, but weight gain isn't one of them, because exercising doesn't lead to weight loss!

One thing the experts seem to agree on, however, is that mindless eating leads to overeating. We shouldn't plop down in front of the TV with the package of Oreos or bag of potato chips because we might just find, when our show ends, that we've eaten the entire thing! How it happened, we're not exactly sure.

Here's where my latest brain book comes in.

NeuroLogic: The Brain's Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior

Author Sternberg explains that, when we engage in habitual behaviors, those repeated actions lay down tracks in the habit system of our brain, the outer section of the striatum. This is actually a feature of our awesome brains because doing repeated actions on autopilot allows our conscious brain to tackle other things. If you always had to think super hard about brushing your teeth, how could you make a list of what needed to be done before you hit the hay? If you had to think about the process of walking, how could you count your Halloween candy haul while doing so?

But the upside is also the downside of this multitasking-enabling system when it comes to eating. That is, when our habit system is engaged, the conscious mind wanders off to do other things. The habit mind keeps taking a potato chip from the bag and stuffing it in our mouth. The conscious mind wonders, on the other hand, "Is the hero going to be able to survive this situation? Did the actor not re-up his contract for next season?" Show ends. Hero survives (or not). Potato chip bag is empty. Our ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which urges us to eat when we are hungry, usually then sends out signals of discouragement when we are full. But if we're in habit-brain mode, these discouragement signals are muted and the feedback loop broken. We keep eating.

If you clicked on the Vox article above, you'll see their thesis is not to exercise more, if you want to lose weight (hooray!), but rather to eat less (boo). But it would take a lot of the pain out of eating less if we started with cutting out the mindless eating first. After all, that's just habit. We aren't even actually enjoying it! What if dessert were a small portion, savored at the table, and we developed new habits while watching TV? Knitting. Or playing Words with Friends. Or flossing our teeth, for Pete's sake.

Reasonable amounts of home-cooked, whole foods, eaten with our minds engaged. Sounds like a recipe for both health and good community around the table! And, speaking of health and good community, the Market starts next Thursday, May 12. Not a moment too soon. I'll have your shopping list next week!