Advocating for a stronger soul food heritage from a shoebox

Chicago TribuneOctober 8, 2013 

FOR KAREN

The shoebox lunch, once prepacked for African-American train travelers not allowed on whites-only dining cars, has evolved into something entirely different for one Chicago organization. Rather than a meal in a box, it’s 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.

BILL HOGAN — MCT

  • About the kit

    Because accessibility was an important factor in designing Shoebox Lunch, it took Fereshteh Toosi about a year to plan the contents of the boxes to dovetail with different users’ abilities.

    The kit comes with a large-print brochure that’s been superimposed on Braille. All objects, including the box itself, have hinged lids to make them easier to use by those who are blind or blindfolded.

    Additionally, most of the music in the documentary is by blind blues musicians.

    “Good design should be accessible to everyone,” Toosi said.

    Shoebox Lunch kits can be purchased for $35 by emailing soulfoodstories@gmail.com. Proceeds allow Garlic & Greens to share the kits for free with people who have low to no vision. For information about the program, go to garlicandgreens.info.

— 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, it’s 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.

“I’m 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 don’t have to have fried chicken; you don’t have to have fried fish,” she says. “You bake your fish; you bake your chicken. Maybe I can’t have greens every day, but I can have salad. You just balance it out.”

Toosi’s initial idea was to compile a cookbook of family recipes, but the project’s focus changed after she began interviewing sources.

“When you ask (people) for a family recipe, they don’t 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.

“I’m not really interested in shaming people into eating well,” Toosi said. “Let’s 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 I’m eating a bag of chips every day for lunch. Can I go back to some of the traditions in our family?’”

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