A few weeks ago, I was indulging in my latest Netflix addiction, The Layover. One in a string of Anthony Bourdain’s creations–all of which seem to allow him to travel, eat, and drink as he pleases–this one offers travelers some advice on what to see, do, and eat should they have a day or so in a given city. In one particular episode, he was actually in Brazil, in a city that was not Rio de Janeiro. Be amazed. São Paulo is the seventh most populous city (proper) in the world and the second largest in the Western Hemisphere. What caught my eye was not the cosmopolitan urban atmosphere or the presence of a bustling fashion industry.
Nope. It was the Feijoada, touted as Brazil’s signature cuisine or dish. Mr. Bourdain was rhapsodizing about how delicious it was, and true to the character of his programs attempting to provide a bit of background about it. But to my distress, that background was actually incorrect. Feijoada was not created by slaves on Brazilian plantations any more than barbecue was created by slaves on plantations in the American South. This got me to thinking about how we memorialize cultural suffering through food. Additionally, the ways in which food involves our whole brain and how that helps to cement important cultural events, practices, and ideas is like a small dog biting at my heels.
A Cousin to Cassoulet
Feijoada is a thick bean stew rich with pork, the cuts of which may be tougher or less appealing when considered alone–ears, feet, scraps from dressing other portions. Dismantling a myth that has become a part of the common cultural narrative in any country is a tricky proposition. While I’m perfectly willing to accept that feijoada may have been a popular preparation method by Brazilian slaves, since it does render tougher and less desirable cuts of meat edible, the dish isn’t even Brazilian in origin. Rather, it has roots in the bean stews popular in Southern Europe–Portugal in particular–much like cassoulet. What is a unique innovation in the traditional stew is the use of black beans, something that Europeans didn’t typically have access to, and which replaced the chickpeas, kidney beans, or white beans.
So, why do many Brazilians believe this myth about their national dish? Some would suggest that there’s a romanticism about the story–slaves, worked to death, sometimes quite literally, and living in inhuman conditions, subsisting on meager rations of rice and beans. When their cruel overlords tossed them the scraps from their overflowing tables, they created a delicious and sustaining dish that came to be the national pride of Brazil’s culinary offerings. Yes, that sounds amazing. Unfortunately, the national dish is more a tribute to the European roots of the national entity of modern-day Brazil than it is an homage to the strength of the human spirit. This doesn’t make it any less delicious or any less important from a cultural perspective. But its particular importance is just not what many believe it to be.
Read more about feijoada and follow the cited resources to Brazil’s National Archives and a wonderful book about the history of Brazil’s cuisine. http://flavorsofbrazil.blogspot.com/2010/03/origins-of-feijoada-another-urban.html
Bread to Mark the Long Walk
But not all culturally important foods are surrounded by such misconceptions. Sometimes, the stories of suffering they tell are very real, as well as the symbols of survival and unity that they become. Fry bread was first created in 1864 after U.S. troops forcibly relocated the Navajo people onto land that could not support their traditional food ways. Vegetables and beans required more water and land more arable than this new home could provide. In order to forestall starvation among the people they had forcibly relocated over 300 miles from their homes, the U.S. government provisioned them with canned goods, processed sugar, and white flour.
Hence, fry bread was born. While this soft, bubbly bread–dense and filled with reservoirs of warm grease–is today a symbol of their perseverance–it’s also problematic. It has become interwoven with the justifiable pride the Navajo feel in their homes, families, and life way. It is a central icon, about which popular songs are written, and which is emblematic of the Navajo people. But it is completely void of any valuable nutrition. It is starvation food–fat and starch to sustain a dying people. Because it is the symbol of resilience and heritage remembrance, it is consumed regularly.
While the bread requires skill to produce the perfect round, and so is also generally associated with beloved older relatives and members of the community, it may also be responsible for some of the serious health problems widely experienced within the culture. What is even more distressing is that it is not restricted to the Navajo people. I remember Indian Taco Thursdays at UNM, where several individuals would produce fresh fry bread with meat, beans, and other toppings right on the spot. What began as a hardship food has now been tied to other traditional breads eaten in many regions of the United States and Mexico.
It is found at many gatherings, and is even the State Bread of South Dakota. It may also be killing the very people who value what it represents. Both formal statistics and the informal estimates of health workers associated with several Southwestern populations paint a grim picture. As many as half of the adults among these populations suffer from diabetes–and fry bread is indicated as a primary culprit. However, as it stands, even members of the cultural groups in question find it difficult to disentangle the dangerous food from its place in intertribal celebration of identity, survival, and creativity.
Sacred Meals, Soul Food, and Cultural Retention
It occurs to me now that I’m not capable of keeping this short. I could probably find enough material to write a book about each one of my examples. However, to keep it from getting to that point in this single blog entry, I will attempt the heretofore unpracticed skill of Brevity. Occasions like the sacred meal of the Seder are intended to call to mind specific cultural events. The Jewish tradition is one of the best examples of this type of cultural retention, but there are other practices that also perform a similar, if less ritualized, function.
Soul Food, unlike feijoada, has its roots in slave culture. Rather than delve into the complex and tangled development of this cuisine, I will–at least for the moment–cut to the chase. It’s noted that Soul Food originated in the southern U.S. and comprises a portion of other more general southern cuisines. But it’s something special, in my estimation, because it didn’t stay put. With some exceptions, if you want actual Southern Food, you have to go to the South. As well, what that term means may change depending on where in the South you land. However, Soul Food traveled with the population that commonly prepared it–the African American community. That is why you can find it all over the country–because it’s cultural as much as it is geographic in its roots and its repetition.
Memory in the Production, Reaffirmation in the Sharing
The sort of hardship, inequality, or injustice that shaped many of these culinary traditions and specifically valued dishes is something worth remembering. Recalling these themes reinforces social cohesion and even specific familial solidarity, calling to mind resilience to oppression or a triumph over significant odds. Food is perhaps the easiest template through which to encourage remembrance, because it can be replicated in most places and times. It also incorporates all the areas of our brain–from sensory regions to motor functions. It bridges the barrier between the non-verbal limbic system and our linguistic faculties.
It is edible memory. It represents a sharing that–even though hearth tongues fade and new ways of being are increasingly accepted within a community–is never forgotten. Perhaps this is why so many different cultures append complex constellations of meaning to simple food items. We often have a love-hate relationships with traditional foods that bear our history–pleasurable association and unpleasant alike. Some traditional foods, like fry bread and Soul Food cooked in Crisco or lard are highly valued for reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not they’re good for us.