“Do what?” my cousin asked. She must have heard something interesting and darted into the kitchen. “Make collard greens without ham!” my Aunt exclaimed, her voice getting louder and more incredulous. Then she and my cousin snickered and demanded to know how else it could be made. Pushing through my sudden flush of embarrassment I said “Well! There’s lots of ways!” I spoke of vegetable broth, smoked salt, vinegars, fresh garlic…
“Then THOSE would not be ‘greens’ then” ruled my cousin. My Aunt nodded her head in agreement. Although a little exasperated, I couldn’t help but agree. These are facts. They would not actually "be" the same.
We are creatures of habit. Our memories are like intricate webs woven with smells, flavors, sites, sounds and feelings. When I smell ‘greens’ made with ham hock I am transported back to a collage of family gatherings; pots and pans clanging, my mom, sister and grandma engaging in kitchen talk and occasionally erupting in laughter or shrieks of near-incidents. Being summoned to judge whether the mashed potatoes needed more butter, pepper, heavy cream or salt and making sure those yams were properly candied. I can smell and taste it all now as I write! My mother is no longer here but I can still smell her beloved sweet potato pie. Those foods are part of where I came from. How could I possibly give that up?
I could not and I have not. Those are still part of my life but only 1 or 2 times a year. The rest of the time I do my best to make good on my mantra “the best food tastes AND feels good” meaning I try to “crowd out” foods that taste good on the tongue but come with some icky side effect like bloat, brain fog or straight up drowsiness. It doesn’t mean I don’t indulge in pizza nights or ice cream but those times are much fewer and farther in between as I spend the rest of the time finding actual pleasure in feeding myself well. This has meant LOTS of experiments in the kitchen. Here’s a mega tip: there is rarely a dish gone wrong that can’t be weathered with some hot sauce (Franks or sriracha) and/or a little shredded cheese!
Another mega tip: did you notice that phrase I just used a couple sentences ago “crowd out?” That means NO sweeping changes, only little steps. Crowding out means to make little changes to meals and/or ingredients that are noticeable, but that you can live with and will contribute to making you feel better. Maybe you want to clean up your breakfast. Instead of going from Micky D’s to superfood smoothies, begin with a toaster waffle with fresh fruit, honey or peanut butter every day or something else you enjoy that is simply NOT fast food. Not ready to give up your coffee with cream and sugar? Begin with one less creamer or less sugar and work your way down to whole milk after a few days. If you are consistent in making your changes you will learn an extremely powerful secret; that your taste buds can change! Did you know that they adapt? If you’ve ever “acquired” a taste for something or a distinct flavor you know exactly what I mean. I used to HATE brussel sprouts, now I actually crave that earthy flavor combined with a good balsamic vinegar or sea salt. Heaven!
Allowing our taste buds to casually explore and adapt to different flavors will give them a little vacation from the same ol’ same and introduce them to new ones. And when you find something you like that is good for you, eat it often! Why? Because every time you eat it you are a) not eating the icky-feeling stuff, b) affirming for yourself that good food is enjoyable and c) building a healthy habit.
As we head toward the winter months I look forward in anticipation of those beloved foods that are a part of my heritage, my identity. And in the meantime I resort to the warm, savory, spicy and textured comfort foods like chili, soups and stews with winter spices, sweet potatoes, beans and greens. I eat a little more bread this time of year too because it’s both delicious and comforting in cold weather.
There are many aspects in life make up our identity. And while food is a big one, but it’s not everything. If you find that food is your biggest connection to your ethnic roots, you may want to explore additional ways to honor your heritage and that enrich your life experience. Join a social group, (re)learn the native language, read about or watch documentaries by or about your people. Those are things that not only will tie you more deeply to your roots but may also provide you with an enhanced sense of well-being.