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The New York Sun


Poisoned Palate?

May 31, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

KFC, Jimmy Dean "Seriously Hot" breakfast sausage, Lays' barbecue potato chips. Plus Popeyes, with its offthe-hook Cajun Rice. At least once a week. These are foods I constantly crave.

Although I do subscribe to Blue America and listen to NPR, I grew up a black boy, suckled on foods with plenty of what we are now taught kills us: fat, grease, lots of salt.

Sure, there are white people who ate this way—it's the way America in general ate back in the day. Lucy Ricardo would serve a roast with potatoes as an ordinary meal, with everybody passing the salt. And hardly all whites take much to bean sprouts.

But slavery and sharecropping didn't make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had. Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes north—Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried chicken dinners.

If I am at an event where one of the main reception snacks is fried chicken drummies, it is almost certainly a black one. White people saute chard and sprinkle some herb or sauce in. Black people make collard greens with hamhocks.

I prefer the latter to the former, and will spend my life alternating between resisting and parsimoniously indulging that need for grease. My taste in food is cultural.

According to a certain script, however, black people's culinary tastes are yet another result of modern-day societal racism. That is, the downsides of capitalism have a disproportionate effect on blacks: when supermarkets leave dangerous neighborhoods for security reasons, residents are left without nearby stores to buy fresh vegetables.

It is commonplace in the press that this is the reason there is an obesity epidemic in inner city black communities, beginning in childhood and often leading to diabetes in people in the prime of their lives.

Along these lines, in my hometown of Philadelphia where I learned the joy of fried chicken, the Fresh Food Financing Initiative is subsidizing a new supermarket in a depressed neighborhood I remember well, as my mother worked near it.

While I am as worried as many over how common it is today for black teenagers to weigh more than 200 pounds, I find myself more interested in a study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, that will track whether eating habits change in the community after the supermarket is open for business.

This is because, to tell the truth, I would not be surprised if on the basis of the supermarket alone, not a whole lot changes. The linkage of the distance to the nearest supermarket and weight gain strikes me as an example of the grand old idea that black people's problems must always be due to the system, rather than the issue being self-perpetuating cultural traits. Today's solution must address other things.

For example, in New York, a Fairway supermarket has been thriving in West Harlem for more than 10 years overflowing with lovely and reasonably priced produce. Plenty of local black folks shop and work in it. It's a walk away for many, and for others, there is even a shuttle service. Yet obesity is currently still rife in West Harlem, including among teenagers raised on food bought there, in a way that it is not in, say, Greenwich Village.

I have noticed the same thing in another black neighborhood in New York: a C-Town supermarket is smack in the middle, amply stocked with fresh produce at moderate prices. The average weight of people in this neighborhood is distinctly higher than on the Upper East Side, which has a C-Town supermarket as well.

And what is "far"? A woman in the Philadelphia neighborhood—in early middle age—says that keeping fresh food around has been hard since the closest supermarket is twelve blocks away. But if truth be told, that's how far the closest supermarket is from my house at present, and I walk there often, as do many people similarly situated.

Could it be that the proliferation of fast food outlets in these same neighborhoods and the array of cheap junk food in every corner store has as much to do with our problem as how far away the supermarket is?

That kind of food, unfortunately, suits a palate trained on salt and grease from centuries ago. That palate was unhealthy enough then, but it is even worse for people today who can feed it more and are physically inactive.

Parents, unaware that it is unhealthy, raise their kids on it. Even when there is a supermarket in their neighborhood, they buy foods from it of this kind, regardless of its produce section.

Thus, I would be more interested in efforts to teach inner city kids how good food can taste without salt, grease, and processed sugar. Maybe when the supermarket is a shout away, eating habits change—but visual evidence does not make this hypothesis look terribly promising.

I'm going to keep tabs on what that the Philadelphia study comes up with, and revisit this issue in the future.

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