Poor Folks' Food

My mother loved food.

She loved it from the garden to the table. She enjoyed feeding people and all of creation. In the winter she and my father would feed the birds and the squirrels in the backyard and then watch them eat and play and work through cold winter days. I used to think that they did not have enough to do in their retirement. But now, I too enjoy putting the food out for the birds and the squirrels and then watching.

When I was a little girl, I spent much time in the kitchen with my mother. Sometimes I helped with the cooking, doing the peeling and the chopping. Sometimes, I just sat in her warm presence and listened to family stories and her thoughts about food. I remember her telling me that people probably ate a healthier diet when they were poor. Whole grains, vegetables from the garden, beans, peas, just enough meat to season the food, fish sometimes, and chicken on Sundays; this was the stuff of the daily menus. I remember her telling me that her family of nine children plus mother, father, and grandfather could not afford white bread. Sweets were a treat for special occasions. She called this poor folks' food.

As I consider the state of health in the United States today, the problem of many people being overweight or obese that makes us more likely to develop illnesses, it occurs to me that we ought to return to poor folks' food. It is not unlike the medieval peasants' diet in Europe, the Mediterranean diet, Asian diets, and the traditional African diet.

What all of these diets have in common is an emphasis on whole grains and vegetables. The bread is coarse and filling. The vegetables are the center of the meal. In the African diet they are cooked in soups and stews that in their new world iterations have become various kinds of gumbo. Herbs, peppers, onion, and garlic are important seasonings. There is less need for salt. The Mediterranean diet relies heavily on virgin olive oil that scientists now know is good for health. In my mother's kitchen, we not only ate dark green, leafy vegetables such as collards, mustard, turnip, spinach, and kale, but we drank what we called "pot liquor," the water that contains nutrients that have boiled out of the vegetables. (I cook mine with less fat than she did.)

To this day, when I feel a cold coming on, I make a pot of collard greens with plenty of onion and garlic, eat the greens with some cornbread and drink the pot liquor. It cures nearly everything.

Our bodies are the temple of God's Holy Spirit. Taking proper care of them is a spiritual obligation. The food we eat is a relationship. It is a relationship to plants and animals, to farmers and farm workers, to people who process, ship, and sell us what we eat. It is a relationship with those who do not have enough to eat. When we sit down to a meal and say grace, we ought to consider these relationships, think of our moral obligations, and be wise.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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