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Honoring Your Heritage — And Improving Your Health — Through Food

Photo: Alexandra Bowman for NPR

Food is more than just fuel. Food is a connection to the stories of our ancestors, and the stories of our descendants.

The late Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor wrote about these connections, both as a commentator on NPR, and in her books, like the cookbook-memoir Vibration Cooking: or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.

“When I cook, I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration,” Smart-Grosvenor writes. “I can tell by the look and smell of it.”

Vibration Cooking is a signature text in both African American food, African diaspora food, and American food, period,” says culinary historian Michael W. Twitty. “I think energy is an element that I think the West is missing. So what she’s talking about is the energy of the person going into the process of cooking.”

Opting into the vibration cooking mindset — with the knowledge that food is more than just a list of ingredients — can help you make deeper connections both in and out of the kitchen.

In this episode of Life Kit, Michael W. Twitty, nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar, and professor Devon Mihesuah share their advice on how to strengthen the ties to your food traditions.

Interview your elders with your smartphone tucked away.

Your community members have wisdom to share with you, but don’t expect them to just spill all their secrets. Twitty suggests keeping your hands busy when you’re interviewing.

“You can’t do it with the cell phone up in their face…every elder, no matter what culture you come from, expects you to work. They don’t want to stand around,” says Twitty. “Work, clean, do something, and then, only then when you build rapport, can you begin to get deeper.”

Expand your mindset to see food as more than just a source of nutrition. Be mindful of the language you use to categorize foods.

Some traditional meals may bump up against your preconceived ideas about what foods are healthy and what foods are not.

“You know, as people, we know that we are much more than our age, than our caste, community, race, gender,” says nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar. “It’s the exact same thing with food. The minute you reduce food to carbohydrate, protein and fat, you are reducing food to what it is not.”

Eating healthy, she says, isn’t adhering to one specific diet. She encourages many of her clients to pair staple spices, grains and millets from their Indian heritage with locally sourced produce for balanced meals that deepen their connection with food traditions.

Research and rejuvenate past traditions

Not all traditions get passed down. For instance, many Indigenous people have to research their histories to recover traditions lost because of colonization. Every fall, University of Kansas professor Devon Mihesuah hosts a week of Indigenous eating where she encourages Indigenous people to attempt cooking only using pre-contact foods; foods their ancestors ate prior to colonization.

“There’s an awful lot to choose from, and it still takes an effort, especially if you like eggs and like me, you need your garlic and things like that. But it really causes people to start doing some research.”

For more, listen to the episode by playing the audio at the top of this page or here.

What food makes you feel connected to your heritage? Tell us about it and send a photo to lifekit@npr.org. A producer may be in touch.

Michael W. Twitty is the James Beard award-winning author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Devon Mihesuah is the author of many books including Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness. Rujuta Diwekar is an author and host of the docuseries Indian Food Wisdom and the Art of Eating Right.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Audio engineering support by Dennis Nielsen.

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