Through his research, Christopher Carter, an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, is exploring the intersection of Black foodways, religion, and food justice. During a recent interview, Carter spoke about finding ways to celebrate the culinary traditions of his ancestors while staying true to his beliefs.
Carter is the author of The Spirit of Soul Food, which examines the origins of soul food and what it can be for communities who want to align their diets with theological and social values. In his book, he shows that the “primary reason” Black people were enslaved was for their “agricultural culinary acumen.” This, he tells Food Tank “helped me realize that slavery…was a part of our history, but it’s not the part of our history. There is a genius there that often is undervalued and undertold.”
When looking at the culinary traditions that emerged from Black chefs in the United States, Carter explains that “you could say it’s making a way out of no way. It’s putting together things that people wouldn’t want to eat, necessarily.” But, he adds. “that’s not always been what the case is.”
Highlighting the many enslaved peoples who kept gardens and grew and cooked their own food on plantations, Carter argues that there has been “a bit of mythmaking by the dominant white society [that says] soul food is this kind of unhealthy thing.” But he continues, soul food is not always what appears in the media “when you actually go back and read the sources and look at the material.”
“Soul food, at its core, really is about the preservation and promotion of the Black community,” Carter tells Food Tank.
Over the years, Carter says that he has grappled with preparing and eating these dishes in a way that doesn’t support the exploitative practices prevalent in food and agriculture systems.
“I wanted to find ways to opt out of this system as best I could, because I didn’t want to be complicit,” he tells Food Tank. Foregoing animal products offered a way for Carter to avoid the harmful practices that disproportionately affect Black communities.
But he knew that he still needed to connect with the dishes passed down over generations. “How can I take these recipes that I had with my grandmother, but I’ve reconstructed from taste?” Carter asks. “And how can I take the things I’m learning right now and apply them, and revise these recipes so that it still tastes like I want it to taste…and honors my ancestors.”
Listen to the full conversation with Christopher Carter on “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” to hear more about Black veganism and soulful eating, understanding food as a spiritual practice, and the anti-racism training method Carter co-founded.
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