Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Here’s a tidbit from the latest issue of Gravy quarterly. The author of this piece, Sara B. Franklin, is a doctoral student, food writer and educator. She is currently working on an oral history project with editor Judith Jones, exploring food and memory.
Today, “local” is such a culinary buzzword that it’s almost passé. Good chefs interpret the places from which they hail, and nowhere has this revival of place been stronger than in the American South. In a cultural moment like this, we forget it wasn’t long ago that much of America was ignorant, if not downright ashamed, of its regional cuisines. Judith Jones, a longtime editor at Knopf in New York City, who retired last year at age eighty-eight, helped introduce American palates to international cuisines and elevate domestic regional foodways. Her interest in regional cookery was piqued by Edna Lewis, the Virginia-born chef and writer.
Jones was still a wet-behind-the-ears junior editor at Knopf when she shepherded Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking through publication in 1961. At the time, postwar prosperity brought boxed cake mixes and frozen vegetables to supermarkets, promising quick and easy paths to domestic bliss. Child and Jones weren’t fooled. Really good food, they knew, demanded an attentive and skillful cook, one who wasn’t afraid of having a bit of fun.
Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and Jewish educator from the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at Afroculinaria.com and thecookinggene.com. As the originator of the Cooking Gene Project, he seeks to trace his ancestry through food.
Walking down the ambiguous “ethnic” aisle in the local supermarket the other day ago, I was struck by the fact that every other ethnic group seemed to have a label on their cooking supplies but African Americans. I shouldn’t complain - it’s probably in the best interest of culinary political correctness. Then that familiar smiling face greeted me from my favorite seasoning for greens - a youthful, beautiful Sylvia Woods telling me that we didn’t need a label, we just needed to be.
The “Queen of Soul Food,” lent her face and character to a brand built on dignity - from a line of products for the Up South home cook to cookbooks, to a successful family business that is justly the culinary embassy of Harlem. To those of us inspired by her entrepreneurial drive and commitment to family, faith and food, the loss of Mrs. Woods is a time to reflect on the unique gifts this gastronomic ambassador brought to the American table.
Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs, writers and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and Jewish educator from the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at Afroculinaria.com and thecookinggene.com. As the originator of the Cooking Gene Project, he seeks to trace his ancestry through food.
Edward Booker, Hattie Bellamy and Washington Twitty didn’t know what an organic farm was, but nearly everything they ate was organic. They enjoyed wild caught, sustainable fish; they were no strangers to free range chickens, and they ate with the seasons with almost nothing originating more than a mile or two away from their cabin door. They had gardens, composted, and ate no processed foods. Their food was fairly simple, often meatless; and it was a fusion cuisine, with ingredients drawn from five continents.
They were not culinary revolutionaries living out of the foodie playbook - they were three enslaved individuals living among the over 4 million held in bondage before the Civil War, and they were my ancestors.
In the upcoming months I will return to the fields, forests and waterways of the Old South in search of my culinary version of Roots, tracing my family tree through food from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom. The project is called The Cooking Gene: Southern Discomfort Tour.
Marcus Samuelsson and Roblé Ali are two different chefs.
Samuelsson, 41, is an established name amongst foodies and the proprietor of Red Rooster, a renown Harlem restaurant.
Ali, 27, is an up and coming chef and animated reality-show star who works full time as an established caterer.
Samuelsson has made a name for himself embracing his identity as both a black chef and a Swedish immigrant to the United States, but younger chefs like Ali find themselves pushing back against being known simply as a “black chef.” Ali, who’s still building his brand, was frustrated when a blog author unexpectedly labeled him a “hip-hop chef.”
“Who takes you serious when you’re the hip hop chef?” said Ali. “And why am I the hip hop chef, because I’m black? I’m not break dancing.”
Previously - a Secret Supper at Red Rooster