In New Bedford, a Black history lesson on soul food will feed minds and bellies. Here's how.
NEW BEDFORD — It's often said that the way to one's heart is through the stomach. Throw the mind — and soul — in the mix, and that's the thinking behind an upcoming Black History Month lesson to be delivered to New Bedford elementary school students. FoodCorps service member Shalynn Brooks hopes to teach about Black culture and history through the soul food she grew up on.
"Soul is something that you can't see or touch — it's something that you feel," Brooks said. "And when you're eating these dishes, at least for me personally, it feels like home, like something familiar and relative to me."
The Fall River native says soul food such as collard greens, cornbread and other selections that will be part of the lesson later this month are a big part of her own history, and perhaps a bigger part of Black history than many realize.
A soulful childhood
"I really grew up with soul food, especially for like, birthdays and holidays; it was always really present," she said, noting her biracial background and upbringing being close with her father's side of the family. "Then when I was fostered I kind of ... was disconnected for a little while. So when I got older and I'd spend more time at my brother's, it was kind of reintroduced back to me and it really hit me like, wow, this was a really big part of my life.
"So with this project, not only am I introducing this food to kids in a lot of cases — I'm also reconnecting with it myself."
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Class in the cafe
Now in her second year of service with FoodCorps — a non-profit partner of New Bedford Public Schools specializing in nutritional and agricultural education — Brooks says she and other FoodCorps members have worked with cohorts of select grade levels at six elementary schools at a time to provide interactive lesson plans and taste tests; and, after the soul food featured in last year's Black History Month activities received rave reviews, have even gotten some items added to regular lunch menus.
"Some of the cafeteria workers who didn't fully know what was going on were like, these kids were asking for seconds. What is this," Brooks said.
With all the buzz generated since then, this year's lesson will be offered at both last year's and this year's cohort schools: Gomes, Rodman, Hayden-McFadden, Hathaway, Jacobs, Pacheco, Ashley, Brooks, Pulaski, Swift, Carney Academy, and Renaissance elementary schools.
"The lesson will start off with learning how to do the 'Electric Slide.' Personally I feel like that's a big tradition in the Black community when we're celebrating, eating, dancing. And then on Feb. 16 they're going to have a soul food meal," Brooks said, noting barbecue chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, candied yams and cornbread as its components. "And sometime that week we're doing a collard greens taste test."
Hungry for history
Besides being a big part of more current Black culture, Brooks says soul food is a gateway to significant, often little-known Black history, as participating New Bedford students will soon hear about.
"I thought it was important to talk to kids about how Black farmers are basically the blueprint for how we farm today," she said. "For instance, they knew collard greens are really hearty, so they grew that a lot because no matter if there was a drought or heavy rain, collard greens would always be there."
Beloved staples such as baked mac and cheese — originating from a dish once known as macaroni pie — stand as examples of Black culinary achievement with underexposed stories behind them, Brooks said.
"Thomas Jefferson actually had an enslaved chef named James Hemmings, and ... he’s not really documented, but he’s known as the one who came up with macaroni pie," she said, noting how the dish came to be well-known in Hemmings' time, yet seldomly credited to him. "Basically, it was seen as Thomas Jefferson’s macaroni pie."
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Another meaningful takeaway, Brooks said, lies in the legacy of soul food tradition as a whole, being a testament to the transformative heights Black agricultural and culinary prowess achieved even under the most meager circumstances.
"Soul food came from the scraps that masters would throw to slaves, and they were able to make these wonderful dishes that we now consider classic home cooked meals," she said. "So that transition between it being perceived as a struggle meal to being this wonderful cuisine we love today — that's something I feel is important to teach."
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Soul food lesson ties in Black history in New Bedford