Vertamae Always, Already

An ongoing digital humanities project with Scott A. Barton and Myron M. Beasley.  An installation with video was presented at the Soul Summit: A Conversation about Race, Identity, Power and Food, Austin, TX 2015

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Following Vertamae: Diasporic Vibrations on Afro Atlantic Foodways—Everything Can Have Axé[i]

 ‘But can a people…live and develop for over three hundred years, simply by reacting?’ Ralph Ellison

Many of the articles of food sound strange to English ears, and are stranger still to English tastes, so prejudiced as we are in such things…‘Caruru’ is a dish eaten by the blacks, but is much esteemed by the whites, and is, to my taste, very delicious. It is made of fish or fowl, several kinds of vegetables cut small (one of the principal being ‘quiabo’), the green pods of the hibiscus esculentus[ii], all mixed with palm oil, and boiled until it is of the consistence of thick soup[iii]…(Wetherell 1860). [ italics added].

How do we define the contribution and power of African American influences to American culinary culture? Foods such as black-eyed peas and okra can provide one lens or point of entry. Russell and Cherie Hamilton wrote a genealogy of caruru, calalu and gumbo, which are all emblematic Diaspora survival dishes based upon okra (Hamilton and Hamilton 2007). Psyche Williams-Forson’s 2011 foreword to Vertamae Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking: or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, heralded Grosvenor’s book as a touchstone that stressed the importance of our culinary foremothers, foodways traditions and heritage practices to shape lives, reveal Diasporic epistemologies and valorize Africans in the Americas. 2015 is the forty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Grosvenor’s book that illuminated the roots and routes of African Americas’ Diaspora and the permutations of transnational cultural practices of twentieth century blacks. In cookbooks, literature and scholarly texts numerous authors (Karen Hess/Mrs. Stoney, Toni Morrison, Gilberto Freyre, Ntozake Shange and Williams-Forson among others) have identified the importance and often the invisibility of African influences in Americas’ cookery. Wetherell’s 19th century Brazilian travel notes contextualize gumbo’s Afro-Brazilian sister dish, caruru across racial lines. The transparent subtext in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti yet often absently present in the U.S. is the tacit understanding that food nourishes, nurtures and heals physically and spiritually. The mimesis between secular comestibles and sacred ones such as caruru offers an intervention to better contextualize African-American foodways.

This digital humanities project will analyze and collect recipes, literature, npr journalism segments and cultural history as a means to create dialogue with Vibration Cooking. The unique authorial voice that Vibration Cooking brought to the culinary community and the larger public sphere reframed the dialogue of identity politics for black/African Americans into one focused on their membership in the African Diaspora and key contributors to American culture. Using foodways and commensality as her interlocutor Grosvenor articulated a multi-vectored cross-fertilized cultural landscape reframing hierarchies of power and inclusion for people of African descent.

Grosvenor’ recipes and words followed in the footsteps of subaltern slave women like Maum Sarah rendered barely visible in plantation era Southern receipt books such as Sarah Rutledge’s Carolina Housewife: House and Home, 1847 and Mrs. Samuel G. Stoney’s Carolina Rice Cookbook, 1901. The importance of a white elite mistress to name one of her receipts, Maum Sarah’s Dirty Rice implictly validates the slave women cooks in an explicit illustration of agency referring to class positionality via slave holding status (Bourdieu 1984). Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination accurately interprets these references of blackness as a means of naming whiteness through sublimation of the black character, rendering them invisible while concurrently inflating white dominance. Ultimately, these unheralded women are given voice and identity despite their status as chattel.

Others followed such as Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a careful selection of useful receipts for the kitchen, 1866 and What Mrs. Fischer Knows About Southern Cooking, 1881. Robert Roberts was another early African American culinary author and butler to Christopher Gore at Gore Place in Massachusetts, a U.S. Senator and Governor. Roberts’ The House Servant’s Directory, 1827 also illustrates enskilled knowledge and agency for African Americans, through the distinct voice of servitude. Russell and Fischer reveal not only their culinary acumen but also a perspective of who they were as self-determined women.

Grosvenor’s recipes, stories and fabled social events effectively communicate her agency and the cultural identity of her community in the Low Country, New York, Philadelphia, Paris et cetera. She compels the reader to engage more directly with African American culture, reframing the narrative that bell hooks adroitly defined as Eating the Other (hooks 1992: 21-39) to one of respect, admiration and praise.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. 1964. (New York: Vintage, 1995).

Fisher, Mrs. and Karen Hess. 1995. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, etc. : in facsimile with Historical Notes (Bedford, Mass: Applewood Books).

Freyre, Gilberto. 1955. Manifesto Regionalista de 1926 (Rio de Janeiro: Ministério da Educação e Cultura, Serviço de Documentação).

Smart-Grosvenor, Vertamae. 2011. Vibration Cooking: or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (University of Georgia Press).

Smart-Grosvenor, Vertamae. 2012. Culinary Griot:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWNQ3nr1R3M. New Mexico In Focus, a Production of KNME-TV.

Hamilton, Russell G. and Cherie Y. Hamilton. 2007. Caruru and Calulu, Etymologically and Socio-Gastronomically: Brazil, Angola and São Tomé Príncipe (Callaloo 30 (1) 338-344).

Hess, Karen and Mrs. S. G. Stoney. 1992. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press).

hooks, bell. 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press).

Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Querino, Manuel. 1951. A Arte Culinaria na Bahia (Bahia, Brasil: Progresso).

Roberts, Robert and Gore Place Society. 1998. The House Servant’s Directory, or, A Monitor for Private Families: Comprising Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Servants’ Work (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe).

Russell, Malinda and Jan B. Longone. 2007. A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (Ann Arbor: Longone Center for American Culinary Research, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan).

Shange, Ntozake. 1998. If I Can Cook, You Know God Can (Boston: Beacon Press. Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Thompson, Robert Farris. 1983. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House).

Wetherell, James and William Hadfield. 1860. Brazil. Stray Notes from Bahia: Being Extracts from Letters, &c., During a Residence of Fifteen Years (Liverpool: Webb and Hunt).

Williams-Forson, Psyche A.. 2006. Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).

[i]Axé connotes a fundamental principle within West African/African epistemologies.  Art Historian and African Diaspora scholar Robert Farris Thompson defines axé as a fundamental mystic force of revitalization, revered as the ‘power-to-make-things-happen’ (Thompson 1983:5).

[ii] One of a several species of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae commonly known as okra, native to West Africa, Asia and northern Australia.

[iii] James Wetherell served as British vice-counsel to Bahia from 1843-1857 and wrote, Brazil. Stray notes from Bahia: being extracts from letters, &c., during a residence of fifteen years.