Photo: Olean McCaskill in her celebrated soul-food eatery, Olean’s.TALLAHASSEE, Fla.–The roots of soul food run deep within the annals of African American living. The South reigns as king of soul food cuisine. Its origins can be traced back to slavery when plantation owners allowed enslaved Africans to cook and eat only what known as the hog’s undesirable leftovers, the ears, feet, tail, stomach and the intestinal tract known as chitterlings or in the Southern vernacular, simply “chitlins.”
African Americans exhibited resourcefulness and took what was deemed scraps – along with plants native to or domesticated in West Africa, such as okra, yams, black-eyed peas and rice – and created a menu of delicacies that would become soul food staples.
Pork parts were cooked down for hours and seasoned with salt, onion and garlic. Chicken and fish were deep fried in vegetable oil, and collard-green leaves as big as elephant ears were cleaned, cut and seasoned with smoked meats. Yams were candied with generous amounts of brown sugar and butter, while macaroni and cheese was prepared with abundant portions of eggs and butter.
The Cooking Gene
“When, in the history of humankind, has an enslaved people revolutionized how the people who enslaved them ate, drank, believed the way Africans did in America,” ask culinary historian Michael W. Twitty?
Twitty is the author of the forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, his memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture. It traces his ancestry through food from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom.
For all of its delectable glory, though, eating soul food comes with a price. The sodium, sugar, and fat in traditional dishes are also the catalysts for debilitating diseases. Many African American elders do not enjoy their golden years because of ailments caused by poor eating. Some, especially black men, never reach the age 60.
According to the U.S. Administration on Community Living, [http://tinyurl.com/hjg8ole] which includes the Administration on Aging, older people have at least one chronic illness and many have multiple conditions. Some of the most frequently occurring conditions among African Americans age 65 or older are: hypertension (85 percent); diagnosed arthritis (51 percent); all types of heart disease (27 percent); diagnosed diabetes (39 percent); and cancer (17 percent).
Oxtails and Chitlins
In Tallahassee, soul food aficionados can find Olean’s, a 22-year community legacy that is owned and operated by its petite namesake, Olean McCaskill, and her husband Johnny. A quaint establishment with just 10 tables and brick walls covered with autographed photos of both famous patrons and everyday customers looking for a home cooked meal.
If long lines are a sign, McCaskill, 66, is pleasing a whole lot of folks with diverse southern offerings of southern. From oxtails and chitlins on Wednesday and Thursdays, Olean’s also offers an array of sides including black-eyed peas, cabbage, green beans and her specialty — collard greens.
“I season my collards with bacon,” said McCaskill. “I used to use ham hocks and learned that from my mama and my grandmama, but over time I just started using bacon cause it made them taste better. And you know you have to pour a little of that good ‘ole grease in there too,” she mused.
Older customers are regulars at Olean’s, as well as college students from neighboring Florida A&M University. They all know the specials say McCaskill. Her Black History Month special includes fried chicken (leg and thigh), a choice of two sides, corn muffin, and a 16 oz. fountain soda for $5.99. No substitutions!
Mindful of the health pitfalls associated with southern cooking, McCaskill notes that she cooks a case of chicken per week, baking some, but frying most. McCaskill says she puts no meat in her vegetables to accommodate customers who do not eat pork
”If you eat something you know you are not supposed to then you know tomorrow and the next day–and the next day you’re going to have to do something different,” McCaskill advised. “I cook to make people feel loved and happy, and if it’s good, it makes them feel good,” she added.
McCaskill said she eats at home whatever she cooks at Olean’s. “I don’t go home to do anything. I go home to sit down,” McCaskill quipped and noted that neither she nor Johnny has had any health problems. She praises the Lord for that.
Research Reveals the—Yum– Risks
Some active seniors like McCaskill boast no debilitating ailments. However, other aging African Americans are not as lucky. AARP reported that University of Alabama researchers identified why: all that fried chicken, bacon, ham, pies and sweet tea.
The researchers, who presented their results at a 2013 International Stroke Conference, found that those who ate typical Southern food six times a week had a 41 percent increased risk of stroke over those who indulged only once a month.
Participants in the same study who ate a very non-Southern diet also had a lower risk of stroke. People whose diets were high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish (but not fried fish) had a 29 percent lower stroke risk.
Lead researcher Suzanne Judd, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist at the university, said the study is the first large-scale effort to look at stroke and the typical Southern diet. The high amount of salt in deep-fried food raises blood pressure, a known stroke risk factor, Judd said. And sweetened drinks can contribute to diabetes.
Willie James Cousar says he was “raised on the hog.” The Jacksonville native, age 68, is a Vietnam veteran whose mother birthed 14 children: seven boys and seven girls. Money was scarce, meals were stretched, and pork was plentiful. The children never complained.
“We ate the food that white folks didn’t want, said Cousar, who has been an avid fisherman since age 14, and a proficient hunter who can kill, skin, and grill any raccoon. “I caught fresh fish that we would eat and it was always fried,” he added.
Following his honorable Air Force discharge in 1972, Cousar returned to Florida. He was gainfully employed, but every day he drank a fifth of gin and a copious amount of Schlitz Malt Liquor. While his drinking days ceased in 1998, he continued to drink sodas and devoured sweets, including his homemade pound cake and special-recipe cookies.
“A recent visit to the doctor really alarmed me,” Cousar said. “My glucose levels were elevated and I was overweight. I stand 5’11” and have weighed as much as 225 pounds, so I’ve stopped drinking soda, stopped eating fried chicken and fried pork chops and cut back on portions. I also try not to eat after 7 p.m. unless it’s something light like a salad.”
Diabetes and Strokes
The federal Administration on Aging reports that in 2014, there were 46.2 million Americans 65 and older and 6.2 million aged 85-plus. African Americans made up nine percent of the older population, and by 2060, the percentage of black seniors is projected to grow to 12 percent.
And according to WebMD:
• Diabetes is 60 percent more common in black Americans than in whites. Blacks are up to 2.5 times more likely to suffer a limb amputation and up to 5.6 times more apt to suffer kidney disease than other people with diabetes.
• Strokes kill four times more blacks Americans ages 35-54 than whites. Blacks have nearly twice the first-time stroke risk of whites.
• Blacks develop high blood pressure earlier in life — and with much higher blood pressure levels — than whites. About four African Americans in 10 ages 20 and older have high blood pressure.
• Cancer treatment is equally successful for all races. Yet black men have a 40 percent higher cancer death rate than white men. African American women have a 20 percent higher cancer death rate than white women.
Cousar, a divorced father of three, currently visits the gym every day with his companion, Annie Fason. He currently weighs 200 pounds, and if he continues his 90-hour a week fitness regime, he’ll reach his goal weight of 180 pounds.
“I have to check my glucose every day,” said Cousar. “My work at BAE Systems — a ship building and repair company — is very physical, but I’m not trying to body build. I mostly do cardio on the treadmill and stationary cycles. I just want to be in good shape and live long.”
Penny Dickerson wrote this article for the Florida Courier supported by a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP. Also, read “Eat, Pray, Gain–Black Church Meals May Serve Fellowship With Obesity,”