A fruit vendor waylays you at the top of the stairs when you exit the subway station at my stop. Sometimes it’s a man, sometimes it’s a woman, but the stand is always the same: bananas, grapes, berries and a host of other fruit in plastic bags for one dollar each, three at most. In the summer the fare is tropical: tamarind, mangoes, genips, avocados and the ubiquitous bananas. For three dollars you can get a sandwich-size Baggie full of mango slices, pepper sauce and salt optional, or a 16-ounce plastic container of watermelon cubes. The peanut man’s basket of raw nuts hangs from the handlebars of his bicycle. The coconut man towers above his riotous jumble on the ground, his machete at the ready. He hacks off the top of the coconut, sticks a straw in the hole that opens up and hands it back to you — three dollars.
Coconut water, the song goes, makes you strong like a lion. I don’t know if the songwriter knew that coconut has an abundance of minerals (calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc); vitamin C; the electrolyte potassium; cytokinins, hormones with anti-aging, anti-carcinogenic and anti-clot effects; vitamin B complex such as riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pyridoxine and folates. It’s all there, these fruit of many Black traditions, a hop, step and a jump from the top of the subway stairs. Never mind that some of them are a bit “distressed” — a bruise here, some discoloration there. The price is right and business is brisk. You may cringe at the crowd in the KFC across the street or at the McDonald’s on the other side of the parkway, but there’s comfort in the sight of such fervent consumption of fresh fruit and raw nuts. Just as there’s comfort in the proliferation of fish markets and green groceries in the neighborhood, with their abundance of ground provisions, leafy greens, spices, beans, hominy, palm oil, and cured meats and fish — everything that goes into traditional African, African-American and Caribbean cooking.
We can choose to accept the sentence to death by food handed down in countless surveys and studies of the health of our community, or we can choose to reject that sentence. “When we move past the kind of comfort foods and looked at the kind of daily diet that many African-Americans in generations past would enjoy, it is replete with these nutrient-dense leafy greens — collards, mustards, turnips, dandelion greens, legumes such as butter beans and black-eyed peas. These are the nutrient-rich foods that any dietitian or nutritionist would say we all should be eating,” says eco-chef and food activist Bryant Terry.
In this issue’s focus on health care, Carolyn Ross, M.D., a specialist in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders, urges us to get back to those nutrient-rich basics, to start cooking at home again. And when we do, be sure to guard against aspects of our food traditions that do more harm than good, adds Mitzi Rosemin-Pierre, a nutritional anthropologist who worked for several years in hospitals in East Africa. Go easy on, or hold altogether, the salt, sugar and white flour.
Choice is a powerful weapon in the fight against the chronic, food-related diseases that plague our community. So when the tapestry of our community shows a lifeless, lackluster patch for health, it is because we chose to weave it that way.