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For many, African-American culinary traditions come with healing powers

Collard greens are being served during the 2022 Publix Tampa Bay Collard Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Saturday, February 19, 2022. Photo by Octavio Jones for WUSF
Octavio Jones
WUSF Publc Media
Collard greens are being served during the 2022 Publix Tampa Bay Collard Festival in St. Petersburg on Saturday, February 19, 2022.

What we eat plays a big role in our physical health, but it can also be an essential part of our mental health.

Listen to the episode

This week, The Zest Podcast brings you something a bit different. Collards After Dark is an intimate evening of food and conversation that precedes the annual Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival.

At this year’s event, The Zest’s Dalia Colón facilitated a discussion about the healing power of African-American culinary traditions between cultural preservationist Gabrielle E. W. Carter and LaDonna Butler, a mental health counselor who holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. They also discussed seed-keeping as a form of resistance, the ritual of drinking potlikker and much more.

The event was recorded on the evening of Feb. 18 in the garden of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, before a diverse audience.

Carter is co-founder of Tall Grass Food Box, a community-supported agriculture model that sources produce from Black farmers in her home state of North Carolina. She also hosts community meals on her family’s homestead in Apex, N.C., as featured in the Netflix docuseries High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.

Butler is founder and executive director of The Well for Life, a St. Petersburg space dedicated to mental wellness and self-care. She’s also a therapist and licensed mental health counselor.

The evening began with a screening of The Seeds We Keep, Carter’s short film about seed preservation and African-American land ownership.

“Preservation looks a lot of different ways for me, but seed-keeping is at the heart of all of it, because without the seeds, we don’t have much,” Carter said. She noted that while her family wasn’t financially well-to-do, seeds have allowed them to enjoy a rich life for generations. “There are all types of wealth,” she added.

The preservation of seeds and food traditions is also important for mental health in the Black community, Butler said.

“When we reflect on times of joy and times of sorrows, specifically in the African tradition, all of those things are surrounding the ritual of food,” Butler said. “As we narrate who we are as a people, it’s important that we’re keeping those seeds — that we’re tossing them on fertile ground.”

For Carter, seed-keeping — both literally and figuratively — includes spending plenty of time with her elders.

“I learned about my history and gained so much information around my identity from sitting in kitchens and being with my great-uncle Andrew on the porch, shelling peas, shucking corn. In the garden — that’s where I learned my history,” Carter said. “And so all of that feels like a way to grab some joy.”

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Dalia Colón is excited to return to WUSF as producer of the Zest podcast. From 2010 to 2014, Dalia covered health and features for WUSF. Before that, she was a staff reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and Cleveland Magazine.