It was a shared passion for food, Blackness, storytelling and shit talking that brought us together. Khaliah has lived in Philadelphia all her life, while Nia was born in Philly and raised in Yazoo City in the Mississippi Delta. We met in 2017 as culinary artists for the Philadelphia Assembled Kitchen, both contributing dishes and family stories to the menu. Nia shared recipes of her famous Mississippi Hot Tamales and Sucker’s Succotash, with lima beans, stewed tomatoes and okra, while Khaliah shared a story of healing and home over a bowl of Shrimp and Turmeric Grits over wilted dandelion greens. We shared many a laugh over cutting boards and stoves, tellin’ lies and talking trash and gushing over our various food adventures. We couldn’t help but become sister-friends, settled among the cozy familial arms of the wider Philadelphia food justice community, both communities served and fellow activists.
We’ve both spent a good portion of our lives eating our way through a vast culinary landscape of soul food and African diasporic eateries. From stewed greens to rice and beans, we chew and mmmm over the ingenuity of Black folks to adapt foodways as descendants of the ancient African explorers, the Maafa and the Great Migration. The ingenuity continues as Black communities across the globe fall victim to globalization and gentrification.This ingenuity, this creativity is a beautiful form of resistance that we honor and celebrate.
We believe that for the Black community just existing and thriving is resistance. Centuries of colonization of Black and brown countries and communities has resulted in purposefully violent and systematic erasure of those cultures. As “African Americans,” with these tangible lineages of enslaved and colonized people, we have often felt homeless, forgotten, unloved and unseen. We haven’t always felt that just being, just living is enough. Those pieces of our existence, that we find mundane or pedestrian are arguably the most magical; it keeps us alive both physically and spiritually.
So we use food, sharing food, collecting and immortalizing food stories as an act of resistance, as a means of restoring our cultural roots and connections. When we are in this work, we are centering (and eating) the foods of people we don’t even have a name for. Our food work combats cultural erasure through revitalizing memory and validating the experiences of black folks. When we teach youth about the history of heritage dishes like collard greens, hoppin’ john, fried chicken and the like, we are resisting the negative messaging often associated with black foodways. Our work is meant to counter these messages and reprogram our people and the larger community away from the cliche narrative that black food is inherently bad food. Our work centers the black experience and culinary traditions as necessary to our resistance, resilience, and contemporary existence.
There are so many of our ancestors who lived meaningful lives, leaving a heavy impact on the world around them and yet, we have forgotten their names. Especially in the world of food. Consider Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, world travelling culinary griot, NPR correspondent and actress. She is the unsung godmother to the “soul food” craze having inspired many chefs, Black, white, and brown. Vertamae moved from the Carolina Lowcountry to a small street in North Philly, where she spent most of her adolescence. Great presence though she was in the lives of some of our more well-know ancestors (Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, etc.), she and her history in this city are widely unknown. Or what about Hercules Posey, a Black man enslaved by President George Washington? He was highly prized for his culinary skills and was brought on as the President’s House chef when the Washingtons came to Philadelphia (the then US capitol) from Mount Vernon. How did these Black folks shape the culinary world and our various food cultures? How did their stories, their journeys from the American South to Philly and other big East Coast cities shape their cooking? Access to archives and historical documents would allow us to give stories such as Vertamae’s and Hercules’ flesh and breath. How many other stories are there like this? The unsung heroes of the food world as we know it. In this age of farm to table, and “gourmet” and “fusion” soul food restaurants, how dare we not pay homage to those Black folks on whose backs the work was built? You can’t know where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been.
As two black women doing foodwork we are resisting the over representation of white maleness that exercises undue influence and reaps the benefits of black labor in the lucrative food economy. By working to document, preserve and pass down black foodways to the black youth in our communities we are reaffirming them that they are valued, loved and are enough. THAT is resistance.
Copyright 2021 by Khaliah D. Pitts & Nia Minard. All rights reserved.