African food. Food that held a close resemblance to theirs, except with less salt, with no coconut milk and mixed with other healthful, naturally grown fare that they had moved further away from eating since coming to the States from Guyana in the late 1970s.
“Back home, everything is organic,” my dad said as we sat in my parents’ Fort Washington kitchen. “Most of us back home have a garden.”
Here, “everything is processed, packaged, with fertilizers and preservatives,” Mom said. After more than 30 years as a U.S. citizen, she has had enough time to observe the food industry and change her eating habits to match it. That change was not always for the better.
Early on in my parents’ house, most foods were fresh. After years of living in America and with Americanized kids, they slowly started taking shortcuts. More frozen vegetables, white sugar and fast food started sharing space with the brown rice, cantaloupe and homemade bread that they regularly kept at home as well. What was convenient became more constant.
My motives while visiting them one Sunday evening last month weren’t purely to keep them aging well as empty nesters.
As part of a work assignment last fall, I spent weeks learning why it’s unhealthful to boil collard greens to death, how to make Africans’ jollof rice more colorful and nutritious, and why it’s important to eat the food from my ancestral land: because the base of the murky, somewhat confusing label of African American is African. We may come with different heritages, such as African American or Afro-Caribbean, but we have the same beginning and often the same dietary palate and needs, ones that aren’t always met through Western food culture.
Those lessons were taught by Tambra Raye Stevenson and brought to the District by the nonprofit food and nutrition education company Oldways. My colleagues in the Food section urged me to take on another challenge: Would my parents eat, and possibly cook, the organic dishes Stevenson had taught me to prepare, opening their minds to a more African approach to food?
The endeavor would be complicated because I, African by way of a not-quite-Caribbean nation, was complicated.
I am the hyphen that sometimes appears between African and American.
Though my parents were born and raised in a South American country with a Caribbean culture, I was born on American soil; my linkage to the United States and its melting pot is embedded in the way I walk, talk and view the world, from music to art. My bond to Africa, though, is less tangible. It comes from the color of my skin, texture of my hair and knowledge absorbed through books and movies.
The middle ground that enables me to feel comfortable in both worlds, African and American, is often food.