Cindy Pratt slowly walked to the counter of Magic Soul Food and paid $8.75 for a hardy portion of chicken smothered in barbecue sauce, two ice cream scoops of macaroni and cheese, and wild rice. She gestured to the worker to open the white take-out tray so she could examine her meal.
Pratt grabbed a fork from the overflowing, nearby utensil bin and poked at the dripping leg and thigh to ensure they were not too small. Pratt shook her head up and down to illustrate her satisfaction and grabbed her meal to go. But it’s the roughly 1,200 calorie meals like this one that are stealing the lives of so many black people each year.
Pratt, like 1.3 million other black people, has diabetes — the seventh largest killer of blacks. The 43-year-old has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes when she was 33, although this type usually only affects people older than 40. Pratt was raised on soul food, and she thinks this has had a major effect on her health.
“I have been eating fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potatoes ever since I can remember,” Pratt said. “And you wonder why I look like this?”
Pratt weighs in at 212 pounds at 5 foot 6 inches tall. She says she is very overweight, unhealthy and uncomfortable.
Soul food is stereotypically classified as most foods that black people cook and eat.
NYU journalism professor Pamela Newkirk, who has written and edited several books about the black community, said economics has always played a large role in the consumption of soul food.
“During slavery, the slaves were given the food that was discarded by their masters,” Newkirk said. “That’s how things like chitlins became food items.”
Chitlins, or chitterlings, are the intestines of a pig. They are often consumed in broth with a side of hot sauce or just eaten by themselves. Chitlins are about 375 calories per cup.
In most predominately black communities, there are soul-food restaurants on nearly every block. Bed-Stuy, which has the largest black population in Brooklyn, has dozens of soul food restaurants.
Magic Soul Food, on the corner of Decatur Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, is the same popular soul-food joint at which Pratt enjoys a meal no less than twice a week.
“We get anywhere from 200 to 300 orders a day,” restaurant owner John Sales said. “It helps that our customers are very loyal. Once you come here once, you’re hooked.”
Sales admitted that his food is very unhealthy, but complained that when he tried to provide more diverse options, the food went unsold.
“I tried to sell salads and low-carb burgers and stuff, but no one bought the stuff,” he said.
Magic Soul Food cooks their food in Crisco, which is hydrogenated vegetable oil, or pure trans fat.
Most soul-food restaurants still use products with trans fat because hydrogenated oil lasts long and gives the food flavor, but customers such as Pratt suffer because they get addicted to the taste.
In New York City, there has been a recent push to eliminate the unhealthiest foods when the trans-fat ban was passed in 2008. It gave restaurants until the summer of 2008 to eliminate artifical trans fats, but Magic Soul Food still uses some of the worst artery-clogging culprits.
Newkirk said people such as Pratt suffer from health problems because they were never exposed to healthy, good-tasting food because it is too expensive.
“Many African-Americans who eat soul food don’t eat it all the time, but poorer people do because it’s cheaper,” Newkirk said.
Although Pratt has been working as a nurse for more than a decade, she still struggles to feed her family of four.
When Pratt was a child, her mother cooked soul food for her all the time. Sunday dinner was a big deal in their household, and this is typically where the unhealthy eating took place.
“On Sundays, we had anything you could ever imagine!” Pratt said. “Mac and cheese, cornbread, yams, greens, fried chicken and fish. My mouth is watering just thinking about it all. Man, I miss those dinners, and I miss her, too.”
Pratt’s mother passed away just a few years ago of heart failure. Pratt is unsure whether her mother’s health was affected negatively by soul food, but she believes it’s possible.
“Each time my mother fed us, she ate, too, so I am sure all that bad food did something to her,” she said.
The phrase “soul-food diseases” is a running joke in the black community, but most people like Pratt say they are unsure whether the soul foods they eat have a direct, negative correlation to their health.
“I know that I have diabetes,” Pratt said. “But I haven’t been to the doctor in nearly a half a year because I do not know what else I have nor do I want to know.”
Newkirk believes that “soul-food diseases” can affect anyone who cannot afford healthy food or just choose to eat soul food, but it is not limited to black people.
“How people eat is not only determined by culture, but also (by) economics,” Newkirk said. “I think most poor people have to eat these types of foods. Fresh vegetables are expensive. It comes down to what you can buy to feed your entire family. And let’s face it — soul food is good. Everyone likes it, not just black people.”
Soul food has been a kind of comfort food for centuries and is now something Pratt cannot live without.
“I don’t think I can live without soul food or fried foods in general,” Pratt said. “I mean, I tried to eat healthy, but everything else just tastes nasty.”