“Black people don’t eat sushi.” He said it while I was in the middle of filling a bowl with grits, awaiting their seasoning of butter, salt, and pepper (because that’s the way to best serve grits). It was breakfast time at our small church on the side of the road in an affluent suburb of Nashville TN. Our church boasts 65 attendees on a good Sunday, and there is always twice enough food. Standing on the hill for 125 years, some describe it as a “cornerstone of the community,” the Black community to be specific, because except for the occasional white wandering visitor, it is an African American church.
We’d been discussing favorite foods and I’d mentioned sushi. He’d quickly responded that Black people don’t eat sushi, to which I responded that since I’m Black and I eat sushi, then Black people eat sushi…even if it’s only me, my family, and friends.
But I knew it wasn’t just me, the Millennial Black couples I voraciously watch on YouTube go on sushi dates all the time. The Black Gen Z influencers I follow on Instagram eat sushi alone in their bedrooms. I even got my Silent Generation and Baby Boomer grandparents to try sushi on my 17th birthday. So, I knew it wasn’t just young Black people either. Black people eat sushi just like everyone else.
If Black people eat sushi then, why is it still not quite approved, how come it’s more acceptable for Black people to eat grits and greens rather than sushi and sashimi? Does eating “non-Black foods” erase one’s blackness? It most certainly should not. Food is something that everyone can relate to. Whether you’re Black, White, Native American, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, or any other ethnicity under the sun and above or below the equator, you gotta eat. Whether you’re straight, gay, or somewhere in between, you gotta eat. Whether you’re skinny, thick, or the Instagram-invented buzzword skinny-thick, you gotta eat. And whether you’re Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist, or confused, you gotta eat. And since we’re all eating, we might as well enjoy it…together.
A beautiful image of this culinary unity emerged at my little sister’s 12th birthday. We had international people from South Korea, Haiti, and Yemen, Black Americans from Chicago, North Carolina, Connecticut, and states in between, and White Americans of German and Irish descent. It was the melting pot America was intended to be, the melting pot that our leaders fear so much. We were all gathered around a table, as family, learning how to make gimbap, a Korean rolled dish similar to sushi. We rolled to the beat of Vietnamese hip-hop and Kpop, soaking in the culture that radiated in the room.
That feeling returned as I watched my 87-year-old grandfather use chopsticks for the first time at my birthday dinner. His face glowed with determination in the mood lighting of the izayaki as he maneuvered those slippery garlic noodles to his mouth. Meanwhile, my uncle raved about the crispiness of the Japanese fried chicken as he shoveled piece after piece into his mouth proclaiming that, “they cook fried chicken almost like black people.”
Unfortunately, there are obstacles to this culinary unity. Black foods are still seen as ghetto, Asian foods as unclean, and Latinx foods as merely a springboard for whitewashed versions. It’s heart-breaking that white supremacy has even permeated cultural cuisine. Food is even infused with gender meaning, sometimes unconsciously, food is categorized in levels of feminine and masculine to the point where if presented with the two options, a woman is expected to choose the arugula salad with goat cheese, and the man the steak and potato dinner.
I remember watching a video of Kpop star Shownu following his mom’s recipe to make kimchi. It was a days long process and as he reminisced on his lack of appreciation as a child for his mother’s hard work, I was reminded of my grandma. Shownu recalled his mom waking up early to cut the cabbage and carrots to prepare for the kimchi. I thought about my grandma, for days, grinding the cabbage up to make chow chow for greens. It is times like these that we must realize our cultures are more similar than they are different.
In finding our similarities, however, we must not erase the uniqueness of cultural cuisines. As aesthetic and Instagrammable as bubble tea is with its fat straw, pastel creaminess, and glowing tapioca pearls, we must not diminish it as a social media trend. For it is a cultural clue to 1980s Taiwan and its uniqueness. In a similar way, many African American cuisines were born from necessity, making do with the meager provisions slave masters provided. From red drink on Juneteenth (the day slaves discovered that the 13th amendment had passed) to black eyed peas for good luck in the New Year, food is not just food. Food is culture and community.
It warms my heart to see two guys speaking rapid Spanish, deciding between the sriracha and avocado rolls in the sushi section. To see a Filipino woman and a Korean woman sharing a bag of Hot Cheetos, eating them with chopsticks. And to see Black and white southerners whose ancestors were owned and owner, biting into crispy fried chicken together. So, to respond better to that boy’s statement, “Yeah, Black people eat sushi. White people eat tostadas. Asians eat cornbread. Latinx people eat bratwurst. People eat good food with good people, weaving beautiful cultural narratives with culinary threads.”