For Black Americans, pescetarian diets are rooted in African ancestry, and the use and skill associated with catching, cooking and surviving off of seafood. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. editor
mgreen@afro.com

As awareness heightens about the relationship between food and health in the Black community, many African Americans have decided to adopt vegetarian, vegan, plant based or reduced meat diets. While meat consumption has proven to contribute to African Americans’ higher propensity for high blood pressure, heart disease and death, many Black people have turned to pescatarianism, a diet without any meat other than seafood, as a healthy lifestyle alternative. While pescatarian diets are seeming to grow in popularity, seafood has actually been a staple for Black people with roots deep in the Motherland.

Some historians, according to BlackPast.org, show that fish preparation with heavy seasoning and spices was a culinary treat that influenced cultures even before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; through migration, exploration and trade with certain indigenous cultures, including, the Mayans of Mexico, Caribs of St. Vincent, Native American Mound Builders and Chavins of Peru.  

Despite the African influence before the slave trade, according to culinary historian Michael Twitty, the American relationship with seafood directly correlates with the traditions and customs of enslaved Africans, who were able to keep and bring their practices across shores. In many cases, seafood kept enslaved and free Blacks alive. Even before their forceful arrival on American shores, lobsters, shrimp, crabs and other types of seafood were major parts of coastal African diets.

The red slipper lobster, for instance, is said to originate in Africa’s Eastern Central Atlantic Region, which ranges from West Africa to Northern Senegal. Ironically, according to Twitty, lobsters were fed to enslaved Africans in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic before they became the hottest commodity among the crustacean family.  

There are also shrimp with claws, which look like crawfish (though crawfish are not at all indigenous to Africa) that were prominent in ancient African diets. The crawfish in southern coastal areas in America were familiar when enslaved Africans reached these foreign shores, and they knew exactly how to catch and prepare them.

There’s even a connection to the D.M.V. Black folks’ beloved crabs, as crabs were and continue to be staples in West African stews.

Once enslaved Africans arrived on American shores, they utilized net designs, catching tricks and culinary styles  from the Motherland. Some enslaved Africans used their seafood catching expertise as ways of gaining respect and impressing their oppressors to avoid plantation work, while others used their knowledge of marine life and opportunities to escape the bonds of slavery. Further, the delicious preparation style of seafood served as a tool for some enslaved Africans who would utilize their cooking gifts to keep White people’s stomachs happy, sometimes buying freedom and opening up their own culinary ventures. Thus, the seafood preparation style enjoyed by many Americans today, including gumbo, fried oysters and spiced chowders all root from African preparation traditions.  

As with music, dances and hairstyles, Black people influenced seafood traditions Americans treasure to this day. Thus, when Black Americans are thinking of healthier or meatless diets, pescetarianism seems like a strong fit. Seafood enjoyment was very much part of Black folks’ pleasure, survival and opportunities.

Native Marylander, Darlene Jones, told the AFRO, she initially gave up red meat to improve her health.

“Thirty-three years ago, my body began to have issues consuming red meat, and pork would produce headaches.  My doctor informed me my body was rejecting red meat because it wasn’t breaking down and was causing digestive issues, so I gave up both,” Jones said.  

However, Jones said she began her pescetarian lifestyle, in part due to a spiritual journey and eventual displeasure with the taste of most meats.

“Although I was still consuming poultry, I was tired of eating it, and decided 11 years ago to give it up for Lent, with the intention of resuming after Lent, however I no longer enjoyed the taste or texture.”

Jones had no idea she was even becoming a pescetarian, she was just living her life, but she explained the diet has been an excellent choice for her life.

“To be completely honest, I never heard of the term, ‘pescetarian,’ until the early 2000’s when I decided to consume only seafood as my primary source of meat.  I just told people, I didn’t eat meat,” Jones explained.  It’s nearly 12 years now and I couldn’t be happier.  My digestive system is much better.”

Doctors say there are multiple benefits to a pescatarian diet. First, fish is rich in nutrients, low in saturated fats and considered a complete protein. According to several medical and fitness sites, pescetarians have no need to combine other proteins for strong nutritional value, but are encouraged to eat other healthy foods such as grains, beans and vegetables. Secondly, pescetarians can likely ditch Omega-3 fatty acid vitamin supplements. Seafood is full of Omega-3 fatty acid, which can improve brain and eye health, as well as assist with symptoms caused by rheumatoid arthritis- which the National Institute of Health (NIH) found affects Black and Brown people at higher rates than White Americans.

Having grown up in one of the top seafood states, Jones said her pescetarian lifestyle is deeply rooted in family and religious traditions as well as African ancestors.

“I truly feel a deep connection with our African ancestors when eating seafood. I grew up eating seafood. When I was a child my mother prepared seafood at least two to three times a week; but more importantly, fish every Friday was a must. My parents felt that eating fish on Fridays was a religious or spiritual way of honoring Jesus,” she told the AFRO.  “To this day, fish or some forms of seafood is always my first choice on Fridays.”

 

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor