You’ve probably never had pork and beans like this, with edamame and tomatoes. And how’s that for a centerpiece: “This fat mama is our Berkshire pork knuckle,” chef Chris Williams said.
Correspondent Maurice DuBois asked, “When you said pork and beans, it’s literally not what we imagined.”
“When we first opened, we kind of knew what people’s expectations would be of what we were going to do,” Williams said. “A black-owned restaurant, you expect pork and beans, you expect that, so we let that get them in, and then show them that stuff.”
At Williams’ Lucille’s restaurant in Houston, everything from shrimp and grits to braised oxtail has an unexpected twist — an approach he calls “well-refined Southern cuisine.”
DuBois asked, “Are you changing the perception of soul food?”
“The goal here is to change the limited framing of African American chefs while honoring our roots,” he replied.
Williams said the idea of redefining what it means to be a black chef is in her DNA, thanks to her great-grandmother, legendary chef, educator and entrepreneur Lucille B. Smith.
Williams said: “She created the nation’s first instant hot roll mix. Iterations of this hot roll dough, which looked like these chili cookies here, were served to American Airlines, their first-class passengers. She has, like, crossed the color lines with the brilliance of his product.”
Smith is one of more than 400 black food influencers featured in a new Food and Beverage Museum exhibit titled “African/American: Setting the Nation’s Table.” It recently opened in New York at the Africa Center.
Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris is the senior curator. “We are beginning, and sadly only beginning, to understand the enormous and extraordinary hand that African Americans have had in the pots of America,” she said.
DuBois asked, “You say it’s more American than apple pie, this African-American food?”
“It is,” Harris replied. “He’s been here. He’s been the backlash. He’s been the thrum, the buzz, and the heartbeat of much of this country.”
Harris said the enslaved Africans brought to America helped fuel an agricultural revolution: “They planted the crops. They maintained the crops. They harvested the crops. Then they cooked it, served it. And you’re doing all of this for the founding fathers. You’re doing all of this for the country’s elite who are beginning to establish what the food and eating habits of this country are.”
Harris noted that the wealth of the fledgling American colony was created by African hands. DuBois asked, “Do you think that was acknowledged?”
“It’s that thing that’s hard to admit,” she replied.
At the heart of the exhibit is an enormous Legacy quilt, each block handcrafted to tell a story, including that of inventor Frederick McKinley Jones, who made fresh food available to millions. “He came up with an invention that allowed us to have refrigerated trucks,” Harris said.
And James Hemings, the enslaved chef of Thomas Jefferson, who apprenticed in Paris and brought back copper cauldrons, among other things. “That’s how we get this mac and cheese,” Harris said.
And there’s Nearest Green, the former slave behind Jack Daniels whiskey: “We thought Jack Daniels was Jack Daniels, only to find out he had learned to distill from Nearest Green.”
Also on display: the famous Ebony test kitchen. For nearly half a century, it has been central to black American food culture. He was often featured in Ebony Magazine’s cooking column as they tried new recipes.
While touring the exhibit, DuBois remarked, “The colors hit you. They’re a little loud!”
“It’s dynamic and shows the diversity of the African American audience,” said Charla Draper, who was the magazine’s editor and worked in the kitchen in the 1980s. “Ebony was created as an ambitious magazine to show “You can do these things. You can go to law school, you can be a great artist, and you can definitely be a good cook.”
Breaking bread has a way of breaking down barriers. It’s a fitting reminder that chef Chris Williams hopes to bring us together
“Everyone has fond memories of those smells and feelings from when they were kids,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. We can just have a great experience in the most unexpected places and find common ground.”
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Story produced by Robyn McFadden. Publisher: Carol Ross.