A case-control study of esophageal cancer was conducted among the black male residents of Washington, D.C., to find reasons for the exceptionally high risk in this population. The next of kin of 120 esophageal cancer cases who died during 1975-77 and of 250 D.C. black males who died of other causes were interviewed. Five indicators of general nutritional status--fresh or frozen meat and fish consumption, dairy product and egg consumption, fruit and vegetable consumption, relative weight (wt/ht2), and number of meals eaten per day--were each significantly and inversely correlated with the relative risk of esophageal cancer. Associations with other food groups were not apparent. The least nourished third of the study population, defined by any of these five measures, was at twice the risk of the most nourished third. None of these associations was markedly reduced by controlling for ethanol consumption, the other major risk factor in this population; smoking; socioeconomic status; or the other nutrition measures. When the three food group consumption measures were combined into a single overall index of general nutritional status, the relative risk of esophageal cancer between extremes was 14. Estimates of the intake of vitamin A, carotene, vitamin C, thiamin, and riboflavin were inversely associated with relative risk; but each micronutrient index was less strongly associated with risk than were the broad food groups that provide most of the micronutrient. Thus no specific micronutrient deficiency was identified. Instead, generally poor nutrition was the major dietary predictor of risk and may partially explain the susceptibility of urban black men to esophageal cancer.