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How Understanding My African Ancestry Changed How I Eat

Making healthier food choices started with understanding my past.

As far as I can remember, only two people in my family—besides my maternal grandmother, Ma—were trusted to recreate red rice during the holidays or for Sunday dinner.

Like many families, great food brings everyone together—and like many large families, cooks are created young. Out of necessity, my mother (who was one of five children) began cooking at age seven. Her mother suffered two strokes at an early age and needed everyone to pitch in. Years before that, her lessons began by sitting in the kitchen and observing my grandmother. And my grandmother ensured all meals were tasty and memorable.

She made dishes like macaroni and cheese served with a side of potato salad, or low-country red rice–those Southern recipes that not just “anyone” can create. Even on my father’s side of the family, after the passing of his aunt, only one of her children has the special touch needed to recreate her recipes.

One thing that endears my mother to both sides of my family is her ability to make red rice, which preserves her mother’s memory. It has also connected me—a born and raised New Yorker—to my roots in the Carolinas, Mississippi, and beyond, as well as inspired an urge to better understand my ancestry through food.

Finding My Childhood Through Jollof Rice

Over the years, as I began traveling and living away from home, I yearned for this savory dish’s salty, tangy, and aromatic notes. I came close to finding an alternative at a Kizomba Práctica (a casual party for Kizomba dancers) in Seattle, Washington. The music and dance, hailing from Angola, are often accompanied by a full spread of food.

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As I scanned the feast, I caught sight of a familiar dish—a fragrant rice dish as hypnotic as a scarlet sunset. A Nigerian woman had prepared it, and after one bite, I was transported back to my mother’s kitchen. She explained that the dish was called jollof rice, and the recipe was hundreds of years old.

Jollof rice can be traced back to the 14th-century Jollof, or Wolof Empire. The region once spanned modern-day Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal. Due to flourishing rice farms and the expansion of the Wolof Empire to other parts of Western Africa—like Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone—the hearty dish became a staple.

The ubiquitous recipe is as essential to Western Africans as biryani is to India, paella is to Spain, and risotto is to Italy—and each family and nation incorporates particular spices and methods. Heavily seasoned with garlic, ginger, tomato puree, thyme, scotch bonnet chilies, and peppery and zesty grains of Selim—the blood orange colored rice is served with a choice of braised beef, chicken, goat, lamb, or fish.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade of the mid-1600s brought food and spices like dried crayfish, garlic, ginger, okra, tomatoes, rice to the Americas. Ever resourceful, people substituted the original ingredients for what they had on hand, resulting in a highly nuanced version of this time-honored dish, a sense of community, and a connection to their true home.

Understanding and Decolonizing My Diet

Our largely Southern diet stems from American slavery, where food was often weaponized against Black people. In Frederick Douglass’ memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass , he writes: “Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush . It was put into a large wooden tray or trough and placed on the ground.”

Douglass recalled that enslaved people who were caught eating fresh food or food prepared for their enslavers were flogged. Based purely on survival, enslaved people learned to prepare the scraps given to them and turned them into the Southern delicacies that we know today. But this sad history has created a lasting effect in which access to healthy food and fresh ingredients can often elude minorities living in lower-income neighborhoods.

I thought back to my time growing up in the Bronx, New York, where we didn’t have access to the best quality produce or meat products. We often had to make do with canned or frozen items. Coming from a low-mid income and predominately Black neighborhood, our diet heavily consisted of meat, dairy, grain, sugar—and sadly, lots of processed food.

Processed foods can lead to poor health. According to the 2021 study by the United Hospital Fund , “Food insecurity is associated with a higher likelihood of suffering from a chronic disease.” This can include diabetes, hypertension, and strokes, and may even decrease longevity.

I’d worked in several professions while living in Seattle, and my two biggest reasons to remain there for four years were access to adequate (although expensive) healthcare and access to healthier food options—and, for the most part, cutting out my beloved Southern food in lieu of fresher ingredients.

“My diet change was a part of my journey towards decolonizing and de-westernizing my mind, body, and lifestyle,” explains Nyakuiy Deng, a Sudanese-American writer I met for a walk in downtown Seattle. “This meant removing the highly processed, artificial, modified, addictive, franken-food and drink. In short, I stopped consuming ‘foods’ with a long ingredient list or with ingredients I can’t pronounce and/or don’t know. I went back to simplicity, the way of my people.”

Turning Pain Into Honey

I moved back home to reconnect with family but felt increasingly ill as I began to consume the processed food that I’d painstakingly sought to cut out of my diet. Overwhelmed with constant waves of nausea and noting the negative impacts on my gut and skin, I realized I needed to make a swift change.

Although I find great comfort in the French and German cuisines, some of the cuisines I savor the most are of African, Asian, and Indigenous origins. I began to explore how the food I enjoy is sourced and where it comes from. I started with a produce-rich diet, focusing on vegetables, fruits, and recipes found in parts of Africa, Asia, and Indigenous America. Once again, everything—from my hair to my skin—seemed to change, and my body thanked me for it, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Now that I’ve moved away from home, and reside in Lisbon, Portugal, my diet largely consists of Portuguese, African, and Asian food. Satisfyingly, many of the Portuguese dishes I love are heavily influenced by the lands they colonized, bringing in familiar spices and flavors reminiscent of my ancestry.

Understanding how my ancestors turned reminders of sadness and strife into deliciousness—has made me appreciate my ancestry and the dishes that come with a sordid past. Hushpuppies and cornbread. Black-eyed peas and rice. Plantains and yams. Chitlins, pig ears, and feet. Food tells our story; it’s a tale riddled with symbols of perseverance, love for your fellow (wo)man, and, ultimately, our ability to turn pain and defiance into honey.