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Food, glorious slave food

QUEEN OF SOUL FOOD: Sylvia Woods outside her restaurant in Harlem.

THE QUEEN of 'soul' food is dead. Sylvia Woods, proprietess of the legendary Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem, has passed. The City's mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has paid tribute. At press time I was still waiting for former US President Clinton to say his piece, as it was his favourite restaurant.

I don't doubt that, in the next few days, President Obama will want to big up this American heroine for feeding the people of Harlem good food for 50 years.  When I was last there about 20 years ago I was even served by Sylvia herself. And I got my first taste of the food that made America strong.

Soul food is good food, black food, or, not to put too fine a point on it, SLAVE FOOD. And there ain't nothing wrong with that. I know a lot of people won't want to hear it, but if 'soul food' was good enough for our forefathers/mothers then it's good enough for us.

In fact better. We get the benefit of nutrients that gave our enslaved forefathers and mother the strength to carry out back-breaking work, without us having to do the hard labour that came with it. No breaking rocks in the hot sun. We just get the health and strength.

It makes complete sense. Here we are trying to follow all kinds of diets from the Cambridge to the Atkins to the rasta cookbook when, if we were to eat much more like our enslaved ancestors ate, we wouldn't struggle with obesity and some of the modern maladies that we're as likely as not to go whingeing to the GP about.

Okay, soul food is invariably the bits that the slave master didn't want to eat like the cowfoot and the cornmeal porridge or the grits and chitlins as they call it. And perhaps massa, like a lot of boys, didn't like to eat his vegetables too much, because collard greens is a mainstay of soul food.

If they had called it slave food we wouldn't have eaten it. Of course not. But instead of being ashamed of that inglorious past, we should celebrate our people of that time. And rejoice. Not just at the legacy of good food that they have left us. Who knows how many other legacies they have left us that remain unexploited because of our fixation with the inhumanity of it all. Let's not be blinded by those angry fires, still raging in our eyes after all these years. Let's seek and I am sure we will find, in our foreparents' plight, the secret of how to survive.


Where are all the recipe books from which they learned to feed a household from meagre rations meant for one? We could do with that in this recession as the weekly shopping bill tops a ton and more. And what about all those natural remedies including cures for the common cold, and the one that fought the flu and won. If we could get our hands on these slave medicines and take it to market, we could rival the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

Where is that legacy and why haven't we done anything with it?

We are what we eat. No doubt. If you eat too much fish and chips you will turn into a cockney. For sure, just look how many of my fellow Nigerians who have become Yardies just from thinking about a plate of ackee and saltfish.

And I know what you're going to say. If we eat slave food don't we become slaves? No, on the contrary, we become great kings and queens and princes and princesses as our ancestors were before they were captured and carried away on slave ships. They were never slaves. They were enslaved. But nothing more. All we get if we eat slave food is the strength to survive out here in babylon.

When you think about it, fast food slaves are the ones who live by the burger, die by the burger.

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