What’s the quickest way to offend your close friends and family? If you’re me, it’s unwittingly implying that their food choices are no longer your cup of tea.
There was a point in my life, about two years ago, when I decided that my diet needed a nutritional upgrade. Whole grain breads instead of the enriched whites, vibrant mixed greens instead of iceberg lettuce, fresh or frozen veggies instead of the ones stored in cans, and brown rice instead of the Uncle Ben’s white.
The changes seemed like common sense to the people I knew who were already super-mindful of their food choices. One of my best friends, an Alvin Ailey-trained dancer, proved to be the perfect example to follow, and another dancer friend introduced me to the wonderful world of veggie egg scrambles.
But when I tried to take those changes home? Whooo boy.
Lettuce became a point of contention.
There was the time my roomie needed to run to the grocery store to get lettuce for a salad. “I have mixed greens in the fridge!” I offered, hoping to save her the car trip.
“Ew,” she said, turning up her nose. “I don’t want your bougie salad.” Bougie, as in bourgeois or high class, salad? Iceberg it was.
Then my parents came to visit. “We need a head of lettuce for salad,” my mom announced as she started making dinner.
“No we don’t,” I countered. “I have salad greens in the fridge.”
“Oh,” she said, turning up her nose. “So our salad isn’t good enough for you now?”
“No! I... I just... We already have...” I stammered.
My roommate chimed in, “I told her nobody wanted her bougie salad!”
Again, the iceberg won out.
Then there was my visit back home to Pittsburgh, where I tried to introduce my family to the changes I made in my diet. For half-Southern, half-Jamaican family that used white rice as an almost-daily staple for two decades, the introduction of brown rice was jarring. I remember watching my mom, dad, brother and sister sitting around the dinner table, chewing thoughtfully.
“It’s... different,” my sister said.
“Kinda chewy,” my dad added.
“It took a long time to make, didn’t it?” my mom inquired.
My mom’s seasoned white rice returned at the next meal.
But maybe the most amusing example was when I introduced my family to tapas, taking them to a popular chain in Washington. My dad is from Alabama and my mother is from Jamaica. in both cultures, serving hefty meals on large plates is the norm. Imagine their reaction when found out “dinner” would actually consist of bite-sized morsels on small plates.
After paying the bill, Dad insisted we go have “actual” dinner somewhere else.
What I forgot, in my attempt to evangelize loved ones in the gospel of simple changes, is that I was asking them to “simply” change items that were central to our food culture as a family.
And in families like mine, “food culture” isn’t just what you put on the table every Sunday. Food is how you show your love, whether you can afford organic baby greens or not. It’s recipes passed down through generations, sons and daughters leaning over the stove, learning techniques from their elders, and flavors that become family favorites. It’s also a parent’s most basic way of providing for their children -- making sure they can eat, and never go hungry.
Which is why it’s never that simple to change a family’s diet to scrambled egg whites and sliced cucumbers, as suggested by Alice Randall in The New York Times -- especially if that diet is rooted in decades of family tradition.
And, as I realized with my family, sometimes the diet really doesn’t need fixing. Unlike Randall’s assertion in the times, 80 percent of the women in our family are not obese. I’m the curviest, my sister is the athletic one, and my mom is a tiny wisp of a woman whom no one believes bore three children.
And southern roots didn’t automatically mean that my parents were serving us meals laden with fat, salt and sugar (as popular opinion would have you think).
Dad’s chilli is hearty, comforting, and loaded with legumes and fresh veggies. Mom’s brown stew chicken gets its distinct flavor from a special blend of seasonings that seemingly only Jamaican girls learn. And once my dad was diagnosed with high blood pressure, my mom spearheaded a family-wide effort to cut down on salt in every meal. Sure, white rice and iceberg aren’t the best choices, but they ain’t the worst either.
So while I still prefer my baby romaine and brown rice, in my home, I’m perfectly fine with what my parents put in front of me when I'm in theirs. Nothing in my family was ever really broken, at least when it comes to food.