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What's Food Got To Do With It?

A blog post written by Olushola Wadley

My, oh my! The state of our world has drastically changed. We entered into a new decade with setting intentions of travelling, exploring, and expanding. However that all came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. It has impacted the entire world, in particular affecting small businesses, and both personal and business relationships. As our society took the time to reflect about the state of our world in which we live, we began to open a gauntlet of underlying issues that needed to be addressed: Systemic Racism, Socioeconomic and Equity indesprancies, Police Brutality, Black Lives Matter, and Food Inequality. All of these issues came up when the world took note and witnessed the senseless slaying of Ahmaud Arbery by white supremacists, the cruel murder of Breonna Taylor, and the inhumane suffocation of George Floyd. This led to many protests, calls for action, and raising our voices on what should've been done long ago. As we continue this fight towards equality and equity, I believe that it is imperative that we tie in our history, particularly as it pertains to nourishing and sustaining ourselves. As a Chef at Red Rabbit I ensure that the meals we create and prepare are not only made with dignity, but are also culturally relevant.

I am a Proud Afro-Caribbean woman.

IMG_8392I was proud, honored, and inspired to celebrate JUNETEENTH this year by “breaking bread” with people who I love and cherish, and who are proud of their culture. It made me think about my ancestors and how much we paved the way for our world today, but also how we still have so much work to do! It also made me process how I see food, not only in my life, but in black and brown communities. When I consume food, I think about all the time it took for my ancestors to cultivate and create food out of our environment,utilizing our strengths to turn scraps into substantial, nutritious meals. Growing up, currys, stews, and provisions were a staple in my home. The sustenance that these foods provided were significant and made me proud of my culture. My love for food developed at a very early age when my late mother would spend hours cooking and entertaining people that she loved. Food has a way of bringing us together through love, laughter, and comfort. I am honored to taste and cook food from Jamaica and Nigeria. There is so much diversity in our food, I couldn’t help but wonder why we often see black and brown communities suffer from food insecurity, especially given the strong influence these communities have had on modern global cuisine. How is food reflected in these communities? How is it connected to food of the African Diaspora?

The African Diaspora and the Food we Eat.

Well, I’m going to dive in with a little history. The term African Diaspora is commonly used to describe the mass dispersion of the indegenious people of Africa during the Transatlantic Slave trade from the 1500s-1800s. This diaspora took millions of people from western and central Africa to different regions throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. This diffusion has led to a creative, colorful, and eclectic diet that is now reflected in many local foods and cuisines that we know and love. 

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The overall style is a plant-based, vibrant palette rooted in vegetables, fruits, tubers, and grains. Africa is the epicenter to the majority of our foods like leafy greens, root vegetables, mashed tubers (like Pounded Yam and Yucca), hearty stews, bold spices and aromas, just to name a few aspects of the substantial diet they've implemented using their environment. Ingredients that we use today can be traced back to western, central, eastern and southern Africa, such as Peanuts, Okra, Watermelon, Cabbage, Kale, Maize and a host of other foods. When we think about Black America and food, we can tie that into the South and their style of cooking. With various influences from the French, Spanish and Asian culinary techniques, and Africans utilizing their skill, they’ve created a cuisine that is emulated across the world, which is Southern Food. In that, we truly see the earliest form of Farm To Table. Food comes straight from the garden to the plate, like Cabbage, Okra, Tomatoes, Beans, Sweet Potatoes, and greens like Collards, Mustard, and Dandelion. Louisiana paved the way for creole cooking, incorporating Haitian influences, and the Carolinas and the Georgia coast utilize crustaceans, Oysters, Clams, and Fish. The West Indies and Caribbean influences, which I identify with my Jamiacan background, bring a fusion of the African heritage diet with tropical accents. Being surrounded by bodies of water on an island, our ancestors were supplied with a variety of fresh ingredients used in our cuisine: seafood like unnamed (1)Saltfish/Bacallao, Conch, fruits like Papaya, Mango, Coconut, Guava, and starches like Rice, Peas (pigeon peas and red beans), Breadfruit, Callaloo, Plantains, Pumpkin and Annatto, with are all found on Caribbean Islands. Afro-South America also sees these food patterns and trends, particularly in Brazil where a vast majority of African descendants settled. Soups and stews as well as tubers like Cassava, Yucca, and Squash appear on many plates, and the same for tropical fruits like Mango and Guava. Utilizing the palm tree, which can be found in many West African countries, are seen in Brazlian cuisine, particularly, palm oil which is a nutrient rich, deep orange-red color and is heavily used when producing Moquequa, a popular seafood dish loved by many natives of Brazil. The foods of the African Diaspora define the way we eat, identify, and make connections in our world.

Food Disparities and Why I do What I Do. 

Black and Brown people have dealt with many adversities in regards to food. From working on plantations to farming, we have experienced different spectrums of malnourishment to nourishment. In modern times, what I see in these communities are fast food chains, quick deli markets, and a lack of health food stores. In turn, we see a rapid increase of obesity in children and adults, lack of knowledge of cultivating food, and overall dependency on “outside food.” Why is that? Why are my people not being offered the same opportunities with nourishment as non-black communities, especially being that my ancestors have paved the way for the world in growth and development, particularly with food? Throughout my culinary journey, I wanted to explore that. Although I haven't had it easy growing up, experiencing homelessness, foster care system placements, depending on food banks and government assistance to provide food, I’ve always had a special connection to it. I was passionate about it. I entered my college career trying to figure out what it is I want and how I can impact and influence my communities. It wasn’t until I pursued my Bachelors Degree in Applied Food Studies at the Culinary Institute of America, where I knew for sure that Food Justice is a passionate pursuit of mine. The course that I loved and resonated the most with was the Food Policy class in which I dove into the topic of implementing the Cuisines of Africa curriculum into the Associates Cooking classes. I knew that in my heart, our world was not ready to address systemic racism or even give credit to my ancestors for their influences in cooking and food. If it was noticed, it was touched upon in a very light way, and only highlighted foods of Eastern Africa and the Mediterannean. I wanted us to dive deeper and hit the heart of the matter. Graduating from the Culinary Institute of America with a worldly view, it really broadened my horizons of what food means to me.

pklizRed Rabbit is the pinnacle of a diverse food-service community that serves food to communities in dire need of nutritious meals. Being able to be a leader for this company has really allowed me, along with my colleague Nick, to create, expand, and explore serving culturally appropriate foods to black and brown communities. Working for a minority based business has allowed the culture of the work environment and meals to be reflective of that. Meals that are currently being served are a Pernil with Spanish Rice and Caribbean Slaw, a Jerk Chicken Sandwich, and our newest dish that I am very proud of, Suya Roasted Chicken with Jollof Rice and Pikliz. This pays homage to foods of the African diaspora and my Nigerian Roots. I felt the need to implement and advocate for West African and Haitian cuisine to be placed on our menu as well serve foods that are familiar to communities that we service. After giving an informative and powerful presentation on the state of our world during our staff’s Lunch and Learn, I knew that this cuisine needed to be reflected in our meals.

So what’s food got to do with it?!

As you can see, ALOT! Not only is the state of our world fighting against racial disparities and oppression, we also must fight against food insecurity. As humans, we depend on communities, land, livestock, plants, and fruits to keep us strong and be able to fight against systemic racism. As we continue this battle, I want to reiterate how essential my role is for Red Rabbit to teach and learn from my peers to better serve communities. I am honored to be developing and cultivating recipes that honor my roots. It makes me thankful to be a part of a movement that is impacting the world. As we move forward, I am going to make it my career to focus on the mission of creating meaningful meals highlighting food justice and nutrition. I am a Young, Black Afro-Caribbean Woman and Culinarian who is proud to serve my communities.

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