They came in their smart little cars—a Cooper, a Fiat, a rented Zip Car or whatever was en vogue. They brought their shelter dogs, not unlike the pooches back home that used to dart over the avenues and into alleys in search of scraps from last night’s garbage. Some came with tricked-out strollers stuffed with their latest bundle of joy and navigated their way into the new Bohemian-style coffee shop down the way for double-shot lattes, skinny cappuccinos, and spicy ginger Chai teas.
An abandoned warehouse now houses million-dollar lofts, another was bulldozed to make way for a soaring skyscraper with still more luxury apartments no bigger than a suburban garage. There is a boutique a few doors down, lined with fineries and smell-goods, and a grocery delivery service for those who don’t have time to make it over to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for a bundle of kale.
This is urban progress, they say, a failing ghetto revived. Until last month, I’d only read about this Brooklyn—not the one I encountered nearly 20 years ago, but one deemed “post racial” by its young, hip, and largely “liberal” settlers. Most of the black and brown faces have gone, priced out of the rental market. For others, after the mortgage crisis fueled by predatory lending, their pockets were too thin to afford even a meager living in the place they once called home for generations. But the truth is, this could be almost any big city in America: Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, or D.C.
Neighborhood gentrification has been widely studied and written about. Stories of people of color disproportionately losing their homes in the housing bust, then being thrust away from once affordable rents and meaningful employment, are not uncommon. Some, including my newfound hairdresser, have begun to call it the “Christopher Columbus Effect.” However, gentrification does not begin and end with the question of housing, transportation, or jobs.
Lost in the conversation is its yet to be measured impact on the dinner table.
Working poor families—black, white, and especially those with Southern roots—once counted on low-cost foodstuffs that had been a part of their cultural traditions for centuries. In recent years, however, fueled by a wave of dietary trends, some believe something called “food gentrification” has begun to drive up the cost of those whole and natural foods. Price is a function of demand and the demand for things once dismissed as “poor man food”—like beans, peanut butter, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and assorted greens—is clearly on the rise.
Collard greens were suddenly the “new kale,” according to a Whole Foods marketing ploy last year. Sweet potatoes, once an economical source of rich nutrients, have made their way into cupcakes, pancakes, and even quesadillas. A bevy of food bloggers has “discovered” sweet potato pie. Legendary songstress Patti LaBelle even started selling them by the truckload in Wal-Mart Stores. Aided by a viral video produced by James Wright, a pie pandemonium soon broke out. My late grandmother Alice, who baked them for decades (and would be rightly suspicious of a pumpkin chai latte), would be amused that the simple recipe has been “mainstreamed.”
My Uncle Ross, rest his merry soul, loved every part of the hog—“from the rootie to the tootie,” he’d say. We grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, a few blocks from the National Stockyards, which had been operating since 1873. Before the shipping routes changed and white flight stripped its economy bare, our town had been known as the “hog capitol of the world.”
Back then, typical Robinson Family meals included: grilled snoot, pickled feet, slow-cooked ribs, roasted butt, smoked hog maws, and boiled pig ear sandwiches. For me, there is still nothing better than crisp, fried tripe laden with onions, pickles, mustard, and hot sauce between two pieces of white bread.
Hovering over a grill converted from an oil drum one Fourth of July, my uncle once explained that our traditions had been formed in slave-era America. Our people took the cheap scraps that “rich folk” wouldn’t eat, he told a cousin (who is white) and me as he turned the pig noses over the open flame, and found ways to season and make them into full meals. My older cousin by marriage hesitantly took a bite of “snoot” and raised a delightfully curious brow.
“Welcome to the family!” my uncle said, laughing.
We’d migrated north around 1932, like so many other black families fleeing the Jim Crow South, from Sugar Ditch, Mississippi, near Tunica—land that now holds a string of casinos—and brought our food (and faith) with us on the train-hop to St. Louis. Not only have middle-class Americans “discovered” a “new” way of eating, our once-affordable ingredients have landed in the pots of world-class chefs and onto the tables of high-end, limited-seat restaurants.
I imagine that my uncle is snickering in his grave now that stewed chitlins (chitterlings) have found their way onto Food Network. I once joked that if we told white folks that there was a life-extending enzyme in pig guts, they’d figure out how to make and sell a chitlin smoothie. Until then, you can find braised pork belly in fine restaurants or cop a pork belly taco from a food truck.
Make no mistake, I do love a short-stack of sweet potato pancakes laced in candied pecans, and pot roast street tacos with Sriracha sauce hold a special place in my heart. (Hell, I didn’t even know the glories of Vietnamese chili sauce until a few years ago.) However, I have begun to worry about the potential impact on the price of those suddenly trendy ingredients.
Last year, feminist blogger Mikki Kendall began tweeting about the topic under the hashtag #foodgentrication. I was immediately curious and asked her to write a guest post on #BreakingBlack—a blog I hosted for NBC News at the time. Like me, she was concerned about “the perils of elevating foods away from their source cultures.”
“My grandmother was a master of turning offal into delicious,” she wrote for theGrio.com, “and I still use many of her recipes to this day.”
But for working poor people, many of whom live on SNAP in “food deserts,” “elevating” those healthy ingredients may place them out of reach. Over time, if prices are impacted as some suggest, reliance on hyper-processed, sugar-laden, genetically modified food will continue to rise. One in five American children is food “unstable.”
Does this mean we should “segregate” our foods and run all the “settlers” out of the “hood”? Of course, not. On any given Sunday, my Uncle Ross would be the first invite them over for a Holy Trinity—macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and candied yams.
Our nation’s food policy—with its incentivized preference for cheap filler grains and marketing-infused labeling—is the chief culprit. While I do not subscribe to direct price fixing, we should refine our farm subsidy policies in a way that drives the consumption of whole and healthy eating.
And while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring real estate developers to the table to make sure new housing starts and major renovations work to maintain a neighborhood’s economic balance? I’ll even bring the sweet potato pie.