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The Leading Voices in Food

E180: Chris Carter and the Spirit of Soul Food

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
September 14, 2022

Soul food has played a critical role in preserving black history, community and culinary genius and has also been a response to centuries of food in justice. Today we’re speaking with author, Dr. Christopher Carter about these new book entitled, “The Spirit of Soul Food.” Chris Carter is a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego and also a pastor in the United Methodist church.

Christopher Carter is an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. He is also a pastor within the United Methodist Church and has served churches in Battle Creek, Michigan, and in Torrance and Compton, California.

Interview Summary

Chris, I can’t tell you how much a pleasure it is to talk to you again. You were a very important figure in a meeting we held at Duke University with experts from around the country on food and faith issues. It made me appreciate more than ever how much work has gone on, how rich the thinking is in this area and how important work of this type is. It’s really nice of you to join us.

That was an amazing conference for establishing connections. And, just as you said, seeing that there’s so many people that are connecting food and faith on a broader level, it was just really exciting.

I’m glad you found it that way. So let’s talk about your book. So you began your book with a really interesting statement and I’m quoting here, “I did not want to write this book.” Tell us why not?

Yes, that is definitely an odd way to start a book that I have been working on for about 10 years. For me, it was really more about this particular version of the book. I had submitted a few earlier drafts throughout the review process and while they were all received well by the publisher, some of the reviews were coming back not as good as I would like them to or not as well appreciated as I thought it could be. There was something missing. I think one of the reviewers noted they felt as though I was being too critical, particularly the food ways of black culture and the ways in which I was being critical. And that wasn’t my intention, as a black man I’m talking about the food my people eat. I’m from Louisiana, Mississippi and so my culture is very much steeped in the book. What I realized was that in order to do justice to my arguments and to fully explain how my reasoning has evolved, I had to be vulnerable. I had to talk about my own experience growing up impoverished, and talk about the experiences of my grandfather growing up in the Jim Crow south as a migrant farm worker. I had to talk about the experience of my paternal great-grandfather who was Spanish and was an overseer in the ways in which they had a particular kind of position of power in plantation. It required a lot more vulnerability than I initially wanted to disclose. I think the book is richer for it, and it allowed me to weave compassion in the book in a way that I think is unique. But, that’s not the book I set out to write, Kelly. It definitely pushed me in ways that I anticipate and I’m grateful for it but definitely was not easy.

Well, I for one very much appreciate the fact that you took the risk and went and wrote the book. I think it is a really important contribution. So let’s talk a little bit more about what you address in the book. So one of the things you do is you wrestle with a complicated relationship between food and agriculture and black culture. So what if anything did you discover in your own research for this book that changed the way you think about this intersection?

I think one of the most powerful things for me that discovered in this research was the fact that Africans were enslaved because of our agricultural acumen. That was really  world changing for me. Growing up, you know, my grandfather had a garden, but it really was like a small farm in his backyard. My family migrated from Louisiana, Mississippi, respectively, to Michigan and they lived in a tiny town called Three Rivers. He had this pretty good size backyard because everybody had lots of space on properties because we were in the country. So I grew up with a particular kind of appreciation for how to grow food but not necessarily knowing that that’s a part of or associating it with my identity in any kind of positive connotation. In my research and visiting plantations down south, I was able to connect with the scholars and residents at a few of these particular plantations. What I learned were the ways in which plantation owners were very specific in the tribal affiliation of the slave they were trying to purchase to it depending on the product they were growing. That just utterly transformed my notion in understanding of agriculture and spirituality that I’ll talk about in a moment, because I think I grew up with this impression that black people were enslaved because of our physical capacities. I think that’s a lot of what the myth is: that we’re very strong people and that we can have a high level of endurance. We can work really hard, or whatever. This idea that we were enslaved because we had a particular kind of skill set and knowledge and acumen that otherwise would have prevented the colonizers from actually being able to produce food really was in a unique way like empowering. It helped me realize the traumatic relationship we can have to agriculture and to growing food within the black community because of the history and legacy of enslavement. That enslavement in and of itself, or plantation work in and of itself, is just a part of the story, but it’s not the only aspect of the history and legacy of food and agriculture for black community. That was important. It tied to spirituality in as much as what I have come to also realize, that the ways in which the particular kinds of foods we eat – many of them are distinctly West African. They are kind of celebratory practices. We have come from this kind of tradition as well and that we have inherited these and they’ve been passed down. There’s this way in which food has been this binding agent for us to preserve parts of our culture and identity in the midst of a particular kind of marginalized existence in America. That has allowed us to, the words of my ancestors to make a way out of no way. So that really did, I think, change the way I thought about that intersection because I no longer had to think about it as purely oppressive. I could see the liberatory nature found within our ability, reclaiming our ability to connect to the land, to grow food and to be serious about our food ways. That is a way to me to do honor to my ancestors now having done the research and written the book.

That is absolutely fascinating. And, it reminds me of the book, “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead where he talks about some similar things, about the importance of agricultural expertise among the people who are enslaved.

I absolutely love that book and you are 100% spot on. Particularly in the very beginning of the book, for those of you who haven’t read, he talks about the fact that many of the enslaved had their own little gardens. The gardens were on the side of their cabins where tons of people stayed. Those were crucial for them to be able to provide food for themselves, and also some sense of identity and sustainability. So that’s an excellent connection that you’re drawing that I kind of whole heartedly support it.

In your book you chose to make a theological argument for food justice. So why did you decide to include religion? I know it is obviously important in your life and your profession, but why do you think religion belongs in this sort of discussion? What’s the primary theological issue that prevents Christians from various backgrounds, conservative or liberal for that matter, from making food justice a central part of their ministry?

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to include religion. I think the first one really is that as a person who thinks theologically. I am an ordained United Methodist Elder, I’m currently a pastor at Westwood United Methodist Church. So it’s hard for me to disentangle those identities. I think just from the way in which I interpret the world. And so one is just to be transparent about the ways in which I’m even approaching the topic. But, also talking about race in the ways in that do require me to talk about religion. So much of the construction of race in America is tied to the role religion played in not only helping to facilitate the creation of racial categories, but to assigning them a particular kind of hierarchy that grew out of a theological hierarchy. So for me, if I were going to talk about some of the moral issues and moral challenges within our current food system, I kind of had to talk about religion because religion was a big aspect or really important part of how we got to the problem in the first place. That leads naturally to the second part of your question: the kind of primary theological issue. It really is what I was just mentioning in terms of how religion was used to justify this kind of oppressive hierarchy of being. And by that I mean the ways in which we give certain forms of being human more privilege, right? So whether it be male privilege over female privilege black over white or able bodied over disabled. I mean all the other various ways that we go about being human. Among the challenges, I think we have the primary challenge with respect to taking environmental justice or food justice seriously from theology is we have a broken. The technical term is theological anthropology. That’s just a fancy way of saying our understanding of what it means to be human is radically disconnected from the land. Our understanding of the relationship between God and humans, humans and humans, and humans and non-human nature is fractured. We have prioritized this way of being human that separates us from anything that’s material, right? That separates us from anything that is necessarily connected to work. And so when you say what it needs to be an ideal human is to be a kind of upper middle class, white Anglo-Saxon, protestant, heterosexual male – if that’s your ideal version of being human, then all other people are going to strive to model those particular kinds of ways, right? Of being in the world and seeing them as the ideal. So that doesn’t allow for the plurality of the human experience. Really my argument tries to take seriously the Eucharistic call that’s in Christian theology – this idea that either male or female, June or Greek or slavery or free – we’re all created in the body of Christ. And to exclude someone from the body of Christ by putting these boundaries on the ways in which they have to be human is an affront to the idea of Eucharistic solidarity, the idea that we are all part of the same body of Christ. The challenge that I try to cross in the book is, how do we understand and develop a new way of being human as modeling our lives after Christ? I talk about this idea of being human as practice or in Methodist terms, as I said I’m a Methodist pastor, we call this sanctification or Christian perfection. It is this idea of being human as a process, a goal, something we’re always striving towards rather than it’s just assumption that it’s just the way we are, right. So it’s really about preserving and aiming towards particular kinds of ideals of solidarity, ideals of love and ideals of interconnectedness that I believe can transform the ways in which we engage the world particularly from ecological and food perspective.

It is my impression you’re speaking about this mainly from a Christian point of view. And one thing that was interesting from that conference that we both attended on food and faith several years back was how there were pretty distinct similarities across religious traditions and the way food, helping people in need with food and things like that existed. Those similarities were really fascinating. It seems to me, but I want to see what your opinion on this, that more and more people are aware of this. They are more aware of the connections between food and faith in general, but specifically how it applies in the different religious traditions. Do you see that interest and awareness increasing as I do?

I do. I will tell you probably my second most popular class at the University of San Diego is my introductory course called Religion and Food. Now on one hand, it’s popular because it’s probably the only class where you’re going to get to do a lot of cooking. Some students really love to cook. So for them they are like, “hey, this is great. Part of the class is going to be eating food, sign me up, you know.” So that’s one part of it. But, I think underneath that what students realize, I have students multiple religious traditions, and I talk about how we use food to make meaning. How eating food is a meaning making practice, right. Through their food, they are able to then explain and construct their own identities and where they come from, with their particular stories, their ethics and their values around what they are eating or what they are not eating and why they eat in these particular ways and how it’s tied to their traditions. I think there is a growing appreciation for food in American culture and particularly the spiritual dimensions when it’s made explicit to people. They understand it almost immediately because we all have certain things we eat every holiday, right. We all have certain things that we eat because this is how grandma used to make it. And that is sacred, right? There’s something sacred about that. So it’s helping them tease that out a little bit so they can begin to understand how it connects with their broader sense of self. It’s a really exciting course. And to your point, Kelly, I think people are really starting to understand how this connection is spiritual in regardless of our religious traditions.

It’s good to hear your perspective on that. So back to your book, so you end your book by suggesting three theologically grounded principles for eating in ways that align with values of love, justice, solidarity, and interconnectedness. Can you share a little bit more about those principles?

This for me is kind of the culmination of the whole project. I try to identify as a practical theologian and obviously that is just a fancy way of saying, I don’t want to disconnect my academic work to the realities of what’s happening on the ground with people. I think it’s part of the reason I still am a pastor. So, I try to make arguments and suggestions that I think people actually can apply. The first principle that I talk about is what I call soulful eating. That is really eating in a way that recognizes and takes seriously the kind of theological, moral commitments we are to have with non-human animals and non-human nature. So that means taking this kind of assessment of where do we procure our food from? Like where does it come from? Who is growing it? Are these people being paid fair wages? Are they being treated humanely? Taking seriously as the fact that if you look at factory farms and where those plants are located, how they just do so much ecological harm, particularly to communities of color and poor and rural communities. What I suggest as soulful eating really is a way that tries to eat in a way that does no harm, right. I argue for, at its best, that for me this is a kind of practical veganism, right? This is a way of trying to opt out of systems that we know cause harm not only to our planet, but to people, right. That the people that either work in these places or the people impacted in those environments who live by those factory farms are disproportionately harmed. How can we opt out of those systems? I recognize that is not possible for everyone. Again, I grew up impoverished, so that wasn’t possible for me. And so I talk about trying to, in the second part, give justice for food workers. How people who are of privilege work towards creating the kind of capacities and spaces to provide means for people who are low income and poor, to access food in ways that does justice not only for them, but also to those who grow the food. So by this, I mean things like what Heber Brown is doing at the Black Church Food Security Network is a perfect example of the work I think religious organizations can be doing, where they connect with farmers to basically have more or less these kind of food hubs, right. The church literally becomes a hub where people can come and purchase food where there is low overhead because the point isn’t to make a bunch of money, the point is to provide a service. So that they’re getting more than selling their food to just a grocery store. You want to make sure that you’re compensating the employees that run the business, right, the drivers and whoever, and other than that, that that’s really it. It is really about keeping things low cost as possible because you are keeping the dollar, it’s staying within that community that’s marginalized quite honestly. Whether it’s doing that, whether it’s stopping at a CSA or a Co-op, those are some of the ways in which we can talk about eating in ways that addressed justice for food workers. The last one is caring for the earth. That ties together with the other two, in as much as again how might, particularly if you’re looking at churches for instance, how might we turn church land into farmland. Like again, I grew up in semi-rural West Michigan. Our church had literally has acres of grass that we mowed. What could we also do with that land? Even if we didn’t necessarily want to farm it, you know, we could have hired someone or let someone actually do something with that to actually grow food and provide food for the community. It doesn’t necessarily have to be food for people. It could be a cash crop. I mean, there are multiple ways in which we could use our land more efficiently. I think this needs to be thought and taught in schools of theology, especially, so clergy can make this connection. Understanding the ways in which again this is kind of a spiritual practice. All this to me is bound together through the lens of cooking. I talked in the previous answer about the importance of cooking for me. I think it has a spiritual practice for us to really tell our stories, to demonstrate our values, so that people can begin to understand who we are and whose we are by the things that we eat and kind of reclaiming the kitchen as a sacred space rather than thinking about cooking as a kind of chore, which often I think in American culture we’re taught to move so fast and get things done really quickly. If we slow down, I mean, I do this with my three-year-old son. I include him in the kitchen when I’m cooking probably three to four days a week. I talk to him about his great-grandmother he would never have a chance to meet when I’m making something that she taught me how to make because I want him to know her through this meal and to carry on that particular kind of tradition. Those are the three practices, probably the thing that always gets people jumped out is the veganism stuff. I try to do a good job of explaining in the book that it is much more of a practical veganism that doesn’t recognize that everybody can’t do it. It is much more about a goal of trying to eat in ways that do no harm. That really puts the burden on organizations and people like myself to provide the framework so people can eat in ways that align with their values so they can actually have access to good healthy food.


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