Food Culture in the United States: An Analysis of the Obesity in the African-American Society

Essay, 2012

19 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Discussion of Literature
2.1. Historical Context
2.2. African-American Food Society
2.3. Modern African-American Food Culture
2.3.1. Eating-Out: Soul Food
2.3.2. Cooking and Food Choice
2.3.3. Misperception

3. Conclusion and Recommendations


1. Introduction

Mennell, Murcott and Van Otterloo (1992:15) state that “cooking is an element of culture”. Food cultures evolve over time and it is important to analyse cultural and sociological influences, when analysing the development (Mennell, Murcott and van Otterloo, 1992). The sociological influences were defined by Roy C. Wood as follows.

“Food, feeding and meals can, first, demonstrate much about the nature of status differences, social groupings and relationships in society” (Wood, 1995: 47).

The roots of the African-American food culture were formed during the slavery in the United States of America (Kiple and Ornelas, 1999). During the 17th to 19th century, African slaves were deported to America, in order to function as a cheap labour force (Karpa, 2009; Holloway, 2007). Especially in the American south, the origins of the African-American food culture were formed profoundly, as slaves developed the basis for their food cultures with the help of African traditions, ingredients and cooking styles (Edwards, 2003; Kiple and Ornelas, 1999). Furthermore, the food culture was influenced through the tough circumstances, which slaves had to experience (Yentsch, 2008).

Nowadays, the African-American society is facing many sociological disadvantages (Bodor et al., 2010). Often families live in poverty and have a very low income, which leads to unhealthy eating habits (Lynch and Holmes, 2011). 30% of all African-American children live in food-insecure household (Laraia, Borja and Bentley, 2009). Thus, these households have a poor access to healthy food, a poor diet quality, a lack of a balanced diet and face psychosocial risk factors (Jarosz et al., 2007). In comparison to other ethnic groups, African-Americans are much more likely to suffer from obesity, severe obesity and many other chronic diseases, such as cancer (Lynch et al., 2012; Kumar et al., 2011; Odoms-Young, Zenk and Mason, 2009). Consequently, the author aims to analyse cultural and sociological influences on the Afro-American diet and draw parallels to the origins of the “soul food”.

Soul food refers to African-American cooking. The food is rich in fat and nutrients and is often based on potatoes, rice, fried vegetables and deep-fried meat. It is cheap and serves best to satisfy the “eating-out” habits of the African-American society, which faces poverty in the United States (Ewing, 2010; Bovell-Benjamin et al., 2009).

A recent study by Antin and Hunt (2012) argues that there is very little research about the social and cultural meanings of the African-American food choice. Thus, the following research aims to close the gap in the literature and relate the findings to the historical context, which was analysed by various authors (Karpa, 2009; Yentsch, 2008; Bower, 2007; Holloway, 2007; Kiple and Ornelas, 1999).

2. Discussion of Literature

2.1. Historical Context

The circumstances of the slavery in the United States of America built the basis for the African-American “soul-food”, which is considered as a very important identification for the Afro-American society throughout the whole country (Edwards, 2003; Kiple and Ornelas, 1999).

Slaves were considered as minor important individuals and were exploited during the 17th to 19th century (Du Bois, 2007). The slave diet has its origins on the transportation ships, as not only humans were deported to the United States. Several African ingredients and spices were brought to the frontiers of America, such as rice, okra, fufu, black-eyed peas, yams or lima beans (Karpa, 2009; Holloway, 2007). The slaves on-board were given leftovers of basic gruel, which neither supported a nutritional basis, nor a healthy and balanced diet (Karpa, 2009). Thus, the food provided for the slaves on-board the transportation ships resembled the meaning of the social grouping, which was already pointed out by Wood (1995). Starvation and unsanitary living conditions negatively influenced the health of many slaves.

After arriving in America, the slaves had to face hard work and inhuman circumstances (Du Bois, 2007). Despite the physical effort on the fields, slaves were still only provided with leftovers of food items with a low nutritional value, such as products made out of dough or simple white rice (Holloway, 2007). According to Karpa (2009), these products raised the blood glucose level in the body, which mostly lead to diabetes (Type 2). Nowadays, many African-American citizens still suffer from the aforementioned disease (Ewing, 2010; Devine, 2005).

The slaves had to adapt to the situation and developed a solution over time. Karpa (2009) and Holloway (2007) argue that the slave’s diet was not rich in nutrition, but Kiple and Ornelas (1999) conclude that it only lacked sufficient vitamins and proteins. Although this is not considered as a healthy food culture, slaves developed methods to efficiently cook meals with enough calories to suppress the feeling of hunger and support their strengths for the hard, physical work. Traditional African cooking methods were adopted, such as deep fat frying, grilling or pit roasting (Yentsch, 2008). The term “barbecue” can therefore be related to the Creole word “barbacoa”, which refers to a pile of burning sticks (Holloway, 2007). Additionally, Holloway describes that slaves prepared “hoecakes” with the help of a fufu mixture by using the blades of their hoes as frying utensils. This set the basis for pancakes, an important item in the American food culture (Holloway, 2007). Thus, the cooking methods were coupled with traditional African crops and ingredients, as well as food items provided by the “masters” and “mistresses”. These normally included fatty cuts of meats, which were heavily salted, in order to extend the durability of the meat (Kiple and Ornelas, 1999).

The food culture developed with the course of history and acquired profound characteristics of today’s soul food. Although slaves were still exploited and considered as minor individuals, they became part of the American society (Du Bois, 2007). Some of the slaves were obliged to work as chefs. Therefore, they influenced the American cuisine with methods such as deep-fat frying, which were often used for preservation reasons among the slaves (Hilliard, 1987). Opie (2010) describes the following method:

“ [... ] pat the chicken dry and fry it in seasoned cooking oil.” (Opie, 2010: 72).

Thus, slaves adopted rather unhealthy food, which was rich in calories, in order to avoid starvation or faintness and gain energy for the physical work (Karpa, 2009). The seasoning with salt provided taste and preservation (Bovell-Benjamin et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2006).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Food Culture in the United States: An Analysis of the Obesity in the African-American Society
University of Brighton
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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America, Food, Society, Culture, History, Soul Food, Obesity, African American
Quote paper
B.A. Hons. Moritz Frings (Author), 2012, Food Culture in the United States: An Analysis of the Obesity in the African-American Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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