A series of running jokes among folks who know me surrounds my inability to cook well. With few exceptions, the punch line to receiving a bad dish comes with the declaration, “this tastes like something Shantella cooked.” Up until a few years ago, I sat chastened, rebuked, scorned, and forbidden to enter kitchens for family celebrations. I am a daughter of a “daughter of the South,” who grew up hunting, fishing, growing crops, canning foods, and eating farm to table. Still, I resisted at every turn learning the very necessary skills of self-sustained nourishment.
The truth is I have never had the prerequisite patience for preparing meals, let alone planting and harvesting in order to prepare meals. That began to change a few years ago when it became clear that eating from outside sources with no clear knowledge of the food’s chain of custody, preparation, ingredients, or nutritional value retarded my ability to live healthier.
One of the first resources I sought, aside from my mother (whom I humbly begged for retooling), was Virginia-based architect-turned-gardening guru, Bonne McDaniel. McDaniel’s books, Queen Bee: 7 Reasons Why Women Are Not Empowered and What You Can Do Now to Change This Phenomenon, and Farm Girl In The City: Of Food and Love, sit on the edge of my office desk as well-read reference guides for being a better me. Her approach to life and gardening are a godsend to folks seeking healthier, happier existences. What’s most impressive about both works? The conscientious and very compassionate delivery. That latter being key forme in gaining confidence enough to purchase a bit of soil and seeds and inch my way into healthier habits.
Along the way and in conversation with college friends and fellow journalists, Chrystal Mincey and Dr. Sophia Sparks, I found that many of our former classmates, whether residing in Mississippi, Nebraska, Chicago, or D.C. had also established greenways – patio gardens, windowsill planters, backyard patches, and corners of bay windows, to grow their own foods. Some canned, fished, and even took part in the generations-old traditions of hog killing season. These friends are among the thousands of new farmers Natalie Baszile discusses in her anthology, We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy. Replete with essays, poems, photographs, quotes, conversations, and first-person stories, this masterful work examines Black people’s connection to the American land from Emancipation to today. In the 1920s, there were over one million African American farmers; today, just 45,000. Baszile explores this crisis, through the farmers’ personal experiences, and the young farmers building upon the legacy of their ancestors.
Naturally, Farm-to-Fork (or Farm-to-Table) living made the top of our editorial list for health supplement themes. Debate ensued about how so much of the rich culture of African American foodways had been reduced as folkish, country, or antiquated – and subsequently set aside by successive generations. It reminded me that this year marks the 130th anniversary of the first Tuskegee Negro Conference held in February 1892. At this gathering, Booker T. Washington opened the campus of Tuskegee Institute to Black farm families for a day of education and instruction from the faculty and staff on ways to improve farming, health, and home life. He invited 75; more than 400 men and women attended. Washington noted that many Black families felt compelled to “mortgage” their crops and go into debt in order to earn enough money to eat and clothe themselves. Through planting and securing his own roots, managing his own crops, and divesting in sharecropping, Washington believed Black families found agency and self-sufficiency. The same value exists in managing our foodways today.
Fortunately, the roots Washington and Tuskegee planted have not died.
With this Washington Informer supplement, we hope to encourage our readers to move forward by looking back (yes, that’s a Sankofa reference!). In addition to offering information about the nutritional benefits of harvesting, this supplement provides data about the mental, physical, and emotional vitality gained from ‘working the land.’
Read, Learn, Grow (some crops!)