Put Down The Fork — Lay Off The Pork

Some African-Americans have removed pork from their diets, while others proudly embrace it as a part of their culture. To hear more about the divide, host Michel Martin speaks with Natalie Moore, who wrote the essay "In Praise of Pork" for theRoot.com, and filmmaker Byron Hurt, producer of the documentary Soul Food Junkies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: The holiday season is upon us. There are all those minefields to avoid at the dinner table, religion, money, politics, whether you're going to get married or have kids, and when. And now we're going to let you in on a secret: For some African-Americans, there's a minefield right there on the table - whether or not to serve pork. Some African-Americans consider pork on the table almost a birthright, others detest it.

Reporter Natalie Moore says that the debate over literally bringing home the bacon affected her love life. That inspired her recent essay, "In Praise of Pork," in the online journal The Root. Moore is also a reporter from member station WBEZ. Also with us is Byron Hurt. He is a filmmaker, and is currently directing and producing the documentary "Soul Food Junkies." It takes a look at the history of the eating habits of African-Americans, and they're both with us now. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

BYRON HURT: Thank you for having us.

NATALIE MOORE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So Natalie, you write about how this pork eaters versus pork haters issue is actually a big deal. Give us an example from your own – I don't know why I'm laughing, I just think this is one of those conversations that we've all had but we don't want to admit that we've had. So can you can you give us an example from your own life about the pork dilemma?

MOORE: Yeah. I know but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: And this is - it is very funny. And I'm not being a petty person when I tell this story. I was trying to use humor to get at the secret about black people and pork. So I just think it's funny when I meet black men of a certain age - I'm just going to say younger than 45 - who are Northerners, hip-hop generation, Gen X, and they don't eat pork. Now, of course, eating choices, that's something that's personal, but I have felt for a long time that pork is just like this cultural badge of honor. So, I remember going on a blind date with a guy who didn't eat pork, and I said why? And he had asked me because he had seen on my Facebook page, trolling, that I was a fan of bacon. And he was like, really? Bacon? And I was like, why don't you eat pork? And he quoted a hip-hop song from 20 years ago. And I'm like that's your reason for not eating pork?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: But that's just as silly as me saying I don't want to go out with you anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: I didn't ask him the name of the song. It's was a Rakim song. But in my essay I talked about an Ice Cube song, "Today Was A Good Day," where he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY WAS A GOOD DAY")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Just waking up in the morning, gotta thank God.

MOORE: I don't know but today seems kinda odd. No barking from the dog, no smog.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY WAS A GOOD DAY")

MOORE: And momma cooked a breakfast with no hog.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It got his grub on but did not pig out. That's what's up. That's what's up. Well, obviously though for some people, you know, this is a religious issue, and we just should stipulate that if people are Jewish or they are Muslim or observant Jews or Muslims, then they would not eat pork as part of a religious observation. But Byron, you've given the pork Byron, and you don't need it now.

HURT: I don't eat pork now, but I don't eat meat in general, now. So I eat mostly vegetables, which ironically, it's something that I learned while doing research of this film is that, you know, during slavery and even before slavery, that we were mainly a vegetable-based culture, a vegetable-based society and meat was sort of like the gift that was on our plate on special days, like Sunday or on holidays. And so we did not really have a huge meat diet. Now I grew up eating pork, but I decided to give up pork several years ago when I was in college and I met a group of guys who were in the Nation of Islam and were spiritual guys who decided that they were no longer going to eat pork and I was influenced by that. And it was really hard for me to give up eating pork. And there were a couple of times when I went back and forth. I'm not saying that all pork is unhealthy, but I do know that pork is considered to be high in fat and high in salt content, and so that's one of the reasons why I leave it off my plate.

MARTIN: OK. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're letting you in on a little secret: There is a big debate among African Americans about pork. Our guests are Natalie Moore, she wrote about this for the online publication The Root. She wrote "In Praise of Pork." Also with us is Byron Hurt. He's producing a documentary about the importance of soul food in the black community and he doesn't eat the stuff.

Natalie though, you did at one point give up pork.

MOORE: I did.

MARTIN: How come?

MOORE: I was influenced by some of the things that Byron talked about. A neighbor talked about how it was swine and how disgusting, and I know that she was probably influenced by, like a lot of young people, Elijah Muhammad's "How to Eat to Live," even though she wasn't Muslim. And it became a, I don't want to quite say, fad, but it was something that was socially acceptable, and if you ate pork you were often seen more as an outcast. Now, of course...

MARTIN: Not cool or just wasn't cool. But so you went back to the pork in a big way. In a big way.

MOORE: I went back in a big way. I was...

MARTIN: Because?

MOORE: I was Down South, staying at a friend's family and they only had pork, bacon, and I have home training and I wasn't going to say I don't want it, because it's not a religious reason. It wasn't like this personal devout reason for me to stop eating. I didn't want to be rude. And I tasted that real bacon and I thought why have I been eating turkey bacon all these years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Bacon is the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: It's like...

HURT: Well, that's true, bacon does taste good.

MOORE: And, you know, this is silly, you know, I try to eat organic when possible. You know, this isn't about me being reckless with my diet. I try to eat more vegetables than I currently consume, but I think about food as nutrition and also social and cultural connections.

MARTIN: So let me ask you this, because you mentioned in your piece that this has opened up some rifts, you know, on the dating scene. For you Byron, I have to - I'm going to put you on the spot...

HURT: OK.

MARTIN: And if a young lady that you were interested in ate pork would that disqualify her from the scene?

HURT: Fifteen years ago, maybe. Now, no, not so much. I mean, you know, I think that I've learned to accept that people have their own dietary rules, you know, and restrictions and don't put any boundaries on what they enjoy eating.

MARTIN: Natalie, you've rejected someone because they would not eat pork? Have you been rejected because...

MOORE: No, I've dated plenty of men...

MARTIN: Who wouldn't eat...

MOORE: ...who have not eaten pork.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: No if I, if that were a prerequisite, I wouldn't be dating black men, for the most part.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HURT: Yeah. You'd have a hard time...

MOORE: No. You know, with this guy I gave (unintelligible), with, you know, there were some other reasons why...

HURT: There is some (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Well, has anybody ever told you that it wasn't going to go any further because of your fondness for bacon?

MOORE: No. But the comments on The Root were so vitriolic.

HURT: Mmm.

MOORE: I was called a woman of dishonor.

HURT: Wow.

MOORE: A woman who eats pork will eat anything, like a reptile.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HURT: Wow.

MARTIN: OK. That's harsh.

MOORE: It was pretty nasty. And there were a lot of character judgments based on the fact that I ate pork.

HURT: Mm-hmm.

MOORE: And as much as I love pork, I wouldn't make a character judgment on someone.

MARTIN: So people take this very seriously.

HURT: People take this very seriously.

MARTIN: There was a lot of really strong reaction to the...

MOORE: Very. I was out to dinner, recently, at one of those, you know, Brazilian meat places, and I was with a group of black people and the pork came, they're like, no, no, no, no. No pork. No pork. And then I kind of wink at the guy, like come around here, let me try that piece of sausage.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: I just, I didn't even indulge. I was like, you know, I don't want to start any trouble at this table. I'm just not going to eat pork tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HURT: Yeah. I mean I think people who eat pork and people who do not eat pork have to be strong in the face of each other. Because there is like a real strong dividing line between the two. I mean pork is either beloved or extremely maligned, you know, on either side, and it is a very contentious issue for a lot of people.

MARTIN: Well, you know, apart from the religious - the religious aspect one can certainly understand. If you're observant and this is a tenet of your faith, then one can see that. But why, Byron, do you think people have such strong feelings about it when it's a matter of a food preference? Like I don't see people fighting over mushrooms, you know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HURT: Well, I don't...

MARTIN: You don't see people saying oh, no...

HURT: Yes you're right. You're right.

MARTIN: ...you eat, you know, mushrooms. You know, you can't roll up here, you know...

HURT: Yeah. I don't know.

MARTIN: ...and shitakes, no. You know, you know, I don't see any - I don't see that. What is...

MOORE: I want to go to what...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

MOORE: ...what one of Byron's points about this being slave food. And so in my essay I decided to do some research. And I talked to a historian at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate who specializes in food and she said that that's a myth. That white people, everybody ate pork and that hogs were raised and this was not considered a punishment for slaves to eat pork.

MARTIN: All right Natalie, final thought. I'm going to put you on the spot. This is, I'm going to put you on the spot here, chitterlings, yes or no?

MOORE: I'm going to sound like pork snob...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HURT: Oh-oh.

MOORE: ...which sounds like an oxymoron, but no, I don't even chitterlings.

HURT: Oh-oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh. Another secret revealed.

MOORE: I'm busted.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Natalie Moore is a reporter for the public radio station WBEZ in Chicago. We're talking about her piece in The Root, "In Praise of Pork." The Root, of course, is an online publication. And she was kind enough to join us from WBEZ in Chicago. Byron Hurt is a filmmaker. He's directing and producing a documentary titled "Soul Food Junkie." And he was kind enough to join us from our Bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MOORE: Thank you for having us.

HURT: Thank you. This was cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And to tell us more, please go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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