CHICAGO — Before the civil rights movement, dining while traveling by train was a challenge for black people. Although white train passengers were served in dining cars, Jim Crow laws barred black passengers. Thus, the shoebox lunch, a meal in a box packed before boarding, became common for traveling black families.
Today, the shoebox lunch has evolved into something entirely different for one Chicago organization. Rather than a meal in a box, its an audiobook in a box complete with objects to touch, smell and taste in which African-Americans share soul food traditions to encourage health and wellness.
Fereshteh Toosi, director of Garlic & Greens, a program that highlights the intersections among food heritage, migration history, social justice, the arts and disability studies, launched her Shoebox Lunch project in July.
In the audiobook a half-hour audio documentary Toosi introduces six African-Americans from Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia who share memories about food and family that focus on soul food traditions, black culture, migration and health.
Im going back to the way I grew up and finding out, darn it, I was very healthy, says Dorothy Horton-Jackson in the documentary.
Although her mother cooked with fats and greases, she balanced it out with healthier choices such as beans, collard greens and oatmeal, Horton-Jackson says.
You dont have to have fried chicken; you dont have to have fried fish, she says. You bake your fish; you bake your chicken. Maybe I cant have greens every day, but I can have salad. You just balance it out.
Toosis initial idea was to compile a cookbook of family recipes, but the projects focus changed after she began interviewing sources.
When you ask (people) for a family recipe, they dont necessarily get scientific measurements, she said. But when people start talking about the story behind it that would snowball into a different kind of story about their family. So that became way more interesting than capturing this recipe in an artificial way.
Each of the stories told in the documentary is accompanied, in the box, by an interactive object, all of which are concealed in a cloth bag to keep them surprises until they are used. Before introducing each storyteller, Toosi directs listeners to feel, smell, taste or hear one of the objects. The shoeboxes are intended to be experienced by blind and sighted users, and each comes with an eye mask that sighted users wear so they focus more on the other senses.
Accessibility to the kit was important to Toosi because the black community is susceptible to sight loss from diseases like diabetes. But a healthy diet often can help prevent such problems, Toosi says, a connection Garlic & Greens aims to highlight.
Im not really interested in shaming people into eating well, Toosi said. Lets try to use our habits of everyday life and do what our families and past generations might have already been doing like, Wait a minute, my grandmother used to cook really healthy foods, and now Im eating a bag of chips every day for lunch. Can I go back to some of the traditions in our family?