It’s true that I shouldn’t have bought the ridiculously overpriced bowl of cut watermelon when I went out to the store yesterday. Five dollars! I passed it on my way into the market and made myself look away. Watermelon in New York City on February 28th, never a wise move. The food miles alone make it a big, glaring “NO!”
But I bought it. It was calling my name, and I couldn’t resist.
I tried to scold myself, but why really? Then I put the first pretty red chunk in my mouth.
It was so good. It tasted better than most of the melon I ate last summer. Tasted like watermelon I remember from my childhood.
Sigh. Watermelon is, of course, manna from heaven. Yes, I said that. I’ve written before about my watermelon beliefs. That was all pre-Daniel Handler, of course, but my feelings about watermelon haven’t changed at all, which is also an “of course.” Can’t let racism stand in the way of my pleasure. But here is racism, trying to get between me and my fork. *
In the last few years I have run again and again into people who have felt comfortable sharing with me the idea that I shouldn’t eat watermelon … or at least not in public … or at least not with such obvious joy. Yeah, I’m not here for that. Not even a little. I can’t get with the idea that I need to pretend distaste or disdain when it comes to watermelon. I should let ugly history and someone else’s prejudice stop me from doing any blessed thing I want to do? Not so much.
At an event years ago, I walked along the buffet looking for fruit. I spotted watermelon and grapes (a strong runner-up in the “fruit proofs” competition) and headed over. I put a small bunch of grapes on my plate and reached for the tongs on the watermelon tray.
“I would never eat watermelon at an event like this.”
I turned to see a black man in a lovely suit turning his nose up at my choice.
“That’s great,” I said. “Leaves more for me!” (You know, levity. Because it’s the buffet table, not really the place I want to be having heavy conversations about racism and shame.)
“How can you let all these people see you eating that?”
“How can you care enough to deny yourself?”
I get it. I do. And each person has to make her own choices. But that self-denial frustrates me. I’m tired of being policed even around something as trivial as whether or not I eat watermelon. In public. In keeping with my listing of grievances and demands, I’m putting up a food list.
- Watermelon. I eat it. I eat a lot of it. A LOT of it. I love it. This has nothing to do with the fact that I am Black and everything to do with the fact that watermelon is delicious. If you see me eating watermelon, you are welcome to ask me if I’m enjoying it. You are welcome to talk about how much you do or don’t like it, or how your mom always puts salt on hers, or how you have this great recipe for a watermelon and feta cheese salad (which is so good, by the way). You are NOT welcome to give me side eye, to make comments about how I’m proving a stereotype, to say anything that you would feel the need to preface with “Not to be racist, but …” You are welcome to have those thoughts and keep them to yourself. And if you can’t think of anything else to say, keep silent and step off. And if you’re a Black person, and you have something to say … if it isn’t one of the things noted at the start of this item, or maybe a little solidarity nod to my defiance or some such … you, too, can keep silent and step off.
- Soul food. I’m never sure what you mean when you ask me if I like soul food. Sometimes you seem to mean the comfort food of my childhood. Other times you seem to mean macaroni and cheese. Sometimes you want to hear about chitterlings and pigs feet, or other random animal parts that you associate with Black people. I do love the comfort food of my childhood, which for me is my mom’s pancakes, or her biscuits, or grits, or corn bread. There’s a pork chop dish she used to make when we were kids, and I love Massaman curry at Thai restaurants because it tastes like that dish. I never ate mac and cheese that wasn’t pre-fab from Kraft until I learned to cook it a few years ago. I really like it now, but is it really soul food when my recipe is an amalgam of Martha Stewart, the Mueller’s pasta package, and The Joy of Cooking? Maybe you’ll be happy to know my grandmother always threw a piece of fatback into the pot when she cooked vegetables. And, too, she made a delicious sweet potato pie. As for the rest, I’ve never liked pigs feet, or hog maws, or anything like that, so no, none for me. Not sorry to disappoint, but wish you could stop needing to ask me.
- Fried chicken. I don’t eat it. But only because I’m a vegetarian now. I used to eat it. I used to love it. I used to be finicky about it — I wouldn’t eat just any fried chicken. I didn’t care for the fast-food varieties, didn’t like nonsense thrown into the batter. Because I no longer eat meat, you won’t see me eating any fried chicken. Which brings me to …
- I’m a vegetarian. I’m a Black woman who’s a vegetarian. I’m a fat, Black woman who’s a vegetarian. To all the people who’ve expressed surprise and disbelief upon learning that I don’t eat meat — surprise and disbelief accompanied by less-than-discreet once-overs of my body — it’s really not as unique and shocking as you seem to think. I’m not a vegetarian because I’m on a diet. I’m not a vegetarian because I’m a “roots woman,” whatever you mean when you ask me that question. I’m not a vegetarian because I’m Rastafarian and eat an Ital diet. (And no, being vegetarian and vegan aren’t the same thing. And yes, fish is meat, and I don’t eat it.)
- Grape soda (oh we had to get here eventually!). I actually do occasionally like grape soda. And if I buy Snapple, it’s the grape drink. But you know what, other folks must be drinking that stuff, too, because when I’ve been in very un-diverse places, I always manage to find it easily. And, too, you really aren’t going to win any points with me by telling me, as a man at a deli in Park Slope did a few weeks ago when I went to the cash register with my grape Snapple, “I see you’re drinking the national beverage of your people.” Yeah. No points. And also no sale. I left the Snapple on the counter and took my business elsewhere.
Maybe you’re getting the idea. Black people eat. We eat whatever we eat. Just the way everyone else does. There really never needs to be a conversation about it. And there definitely never needs to be anyone thinking they have the right to lean in and tell me what I should or shouldn’t be eating. Unless I took the food off your plate, or the money to pay for it out of your wallet, you really need to keep your commentary to yourself.
As for the over-priced watermelon, I can see more of that in my immediate future. It was too good to leave alone.
It’s the first of March, and you know what that means: it’s time for the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of teachers and writers (it is actually hundreds now after starting in 2008 with just a dozen or so of us) will be posting their stories. You can meet all kinds of amazing people and start some great conversations. Also, it’s not too late for you to join in!
* For those of you who are new here, or haven’t been here since the last Slice of Life Challenge, welcome … and be forewarned. I am writing a LOT about race and anger and all the ways that the status quo of this country is too unbearably unacceptable. Not every slice will be from the heart of my anger, but I’m sure that many will. My anger doesn’t mean I’m not open to conversation. I always am, always welcome it — though it might be a good idea to read my list of grievances and list of demands … and the “can we talk?” piece to prepare yourself for where I am right now. You’re welcome here. I hope you’ll comment, challenge me, ask questions, share your views. As a country, we’re standing in a big, open doorway. I’m looking for folks to walk through with me.