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More to Me than My Food.

Author: Mikahelia Wellington RD MPH (she/her/hers) at Carea Community Health Centre

My experience with Black History Month (BHM) has been one where the institutions I am a part of offer a single month for the Black members to organize programs, presentations, or food tasting events that demonstrate Black cultures.  However, despite years of celebration most of what is shared is eventually forgotten and Black and non-Black folks alike are overall unaffected by the display. I intend to offer you a more significant connection. Not only to BHM but also to each time you interact with your Black colleagues, clients, friends, and family; when you navigate your grocery stores, touch, and cook with ingredients or make dietary recommendations or interventions. Hopefully in a way that you may empathize with our experiences, for as Black people, our foods and our identities are closely linked.

A can of ackee: it costs between $7.99-$11.99 CAD at grocery stores in my area. I use it to make a traditional Jamaican dish called Ackee and Saltfish. However, I only buy it for rare weekend breakfasts or special occasions like Easter or Christmas morning. This is because although it has become more available in conventional grocery stores, increased public awareness and popularity has driven prices up. I shake my head as I reflect on the Black African and Caribbean small grocers who have lost profit and the big-business owners who now collect the earnings of Black people for an ingredient that we used to pick from trees near our homes. An ingredient that has travelled the journey of forced migration with the ancestors of the Black people who most value it. 

Interesting Fact: Ackee is a West African fruit said to have been transported in the 18th century on slave ships travelling to the Caribbean islands (Lancashire, 2006).

My ancestors were people from Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gabon, and Cameroon. All having families, communities, knowledge, hopes, and dreams.  This was interrupted by the slave trade; much of which was driven by the food system. As slaves, they were either traded or kidnapped then starved, stripped, branded, shackled, caged, and shipped. They survived the passage from Africa to the Caribbean only to cultivate and harvest ingredients we still take for granted with each bite.

Interesting Fact: Sugar, coffee, wheat, cocoa. These are some of the many crops brought to the Caribbean to be cultivated by Indigenous and then African slaves (Klein & Vinson, 2007; Solow & Engerman, 2004).

Their descendants include my grandfather. In his adulthood, he worked as a land surveyor in Jamaica; testing soil to determine safety and adequacy for specific types of agriculture. His livelihood connected him to the land and the memory of his ancestors who cultivated under force. He was able to support his people in making a livelihood growing crops that are indigenous to the land and those that were brought to the island during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Some of these foods had happier connections to their past including yam, pigeon peas, and ackee. He and his wife passed on their appreciation of the land and its food to their son, my father.

Interesting Fact: Salted cod was picked up on the way from African to the Caribbean to feed slaves since the dried fish had a long shelf life and did not need to be refrigerated.  Also, because slave masters did not want to share fresh fish with their “livestock” (Mintz, 1996).

My parents are both immigrants from Jamaica who came to Canada for education and work opportunities. They brought with them knowledge of the land and traditional cooking skills.  In moving to a predominantly White country having a different history of colonization, they struggled with overt and subtle racism. They tried to assimilate while holding on to their oral histories, traditions, and identities. Some were lost (e.g. memories of family members) however, others including how to prepare ackee and saltfish were passed on to their children.

I am a 1st generation Canadian citizen and settler. I am also employed, educated, and in good health because of the strength, resistance, and resilience of the Black people who survived journeys and brutalities before me. This is the story of many Black people you work with and care for. 

Many other foods we prepare with love and pride are also displays of this turmoil and strength.  I ask that you empathize with our stories and our humanity. This way BHM may be more than a celebration of ethnic foods, more than one month of the year.

Recipe for Ackee and saltfish: https://www.jamaicatravelandculture.com/food_and_drink/ackee_and_saltfish.htm 

References

Jamaican Travel and Culture. (2006). Ackee and saltfish. https://www.jamaicatravelandculture.com/food_and_drink/ackee_and_saltfish.htm 

Klein, H. S., & Vinson III, B. (2007). African slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Oxford University Press.

Lancashire, R. J. (2007, November 13). Jamaican ackee. The Department of Chemistry The University of the West Indies. http://wwwchem.uwimona.edu.jm/lectures/ackee.html

Mintz, S. (1996). Tasting food, tasting freedom. In S. Montx (Eds.), Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Exuersion into Eating. Culture and the Past (pp.39-40). Boston: Beacon Press

Solow, B. L., & Engerman, S. L. (Eds.). (2004). British capitalism and Caribbean slavery: The legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge University Press.

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