Leni Sorensen is an African-American research historian at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate who specializes in food. She says it’s a myth that slaves ate parts of the pig because it was the nasty animal that slave owners dumped on them. A butchered hog was not considered a punishment for slaves.
Sorensen says everyone back then chowed down on the hog. “Pork was the primary protein because it stored easily, salted easily, cured easily. It was more subtle and varied,” she explains. White elites called all pork “ham.” And the idea that pigs are inherently dirty? Not true, she says.
“Certain kinds of political ideas come out of the last third of the 20th century. I do think much younger people have bought into layers of mythology,” Sorensen says. Black people today — especially urban Northerners — are less connected to agriculture, soil and cooking. Sorensen also says that many urban blacks, as a result of political ideology, began rejecting soul food or traditional country food that harks back to their ancestors’ Southern roots. In a way, they’re rejecting images of an enslaved past.
Full disclosure: I stopped eating pork at age 12 because of aforementioned peer pressure not to eat “swine.” A close friend and neighbor shocked my impressionable mind about the “disgusting pig.” My bemused parents indulged me and would fry me up turkey bacon. They also talked about me when I once sneaked a barbecue rib, all the while protesting that I didn’t really eat pork.
But all roads lead back to bacon for me. At age 22 I had a piece of real bacon, and I’ve never looked back. I couldn’t believe what I had given up! To this day my mother says she doesn’t trust anyone who doesn’t eat pork. I think she’s joking.
I know that the American diet is fatty. Black people have higher rates of diabetes and hypertension. Healthier eating is paramount for our individual and collective survival. One friend who stopped eating pork says she did so because her family cooked too much of it in every meal. I get that. My relationship with food involves moderation, culture and socialization.
The pig is not the sole culprit when it comes to bad health. I have a small group of pro-pork foodie friends who trade emails about bacon marmalade, heirloom pigs and pork recipes. We realize we’re an anomaly, but slowly we’re trying to convert our peers. (Seriously, take a bite of real bacon.)
I’m dating a new guy — a wonderful, engaging man. On our second date, he ordered pork chops. Jackpot! I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’s 45 years old.
Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ Chicago and co-author of The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang.