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St. George's U.S. Embassy via Flickr

How to Keep from Losing Recipes

Leaning on community instead of waiting for saviors

“Excuse me, my baby, do you suggest I get a refund or should I just wait for the food?” I asked Edmond Johnson, owner of the EveryBody Eats B food truck, while waiting in line at the TONE Juneteenth Festival in Memphis, Tennessee. My glasses were sliding down my nose in the heat and bugs I’d never before encountered were beginning to nibble on my now achy knees. The crowd was much smaller than before, but still no food was coming out. Two young men had approached Johnson about a refund, and he was visibly stressed. Walking back and forth from the truck, Johnson returned with a wad of cash and cried out, “Listen, I can give all y’all refunds. Just line up, and I’ll give all your money back.” That’s when I asked him if I should get the refund. I’d stood in another line in vain for watermelon-on-a-stick, and that’s when I learned about the turkey leg in Carolina Gold sauce I was now awaiting, here. 

“The food is ready, but the light went out because the generator won’t work, and I just can’t see to give it to you. And everyone who was here with me earlier is gone,” Johnson said. “Oh? That’s it?” I asked. “So the food is ready, but you just need a light? Well shucks.” Instinctively, I shined my phone flashlight on him and got the crowd of around twenty people to shine theirs too. Immediately, the overall mood changed from hangry to hopeful, and you could feel the peace and joy radiating from Johnson and in the crowd too. The turkey legs, loaded seafood or jerk chicken macaroni, and Circle B sausages on a bun with coleslaw and barbecue sauce finally began rolling out, and everyone I observed was glad they’d waited. As we say, “You know Black folk get quiet when the food is good,” and minus the occasional “mmm” of delight or offer to bite, the silence spoke volumes. Our clothes and hair smelled like smoke after standing near the grill for so long, but the creamy, spicy-sweet jerk macaroni, crispy-skin Circle B sausage topped with crunchy coleslaw, and tender turkey leg were worth it all.

There’s a Black folk tradition we especially love on days like Juneteenth, and that’s going over the checklist of Black experiences. Did you have a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in your home? Was there a designated Kool-Aid mixologist in your family? Have you called out sick to get your hair done? We can be a comically unserious people, and after all we’ve experienced in America since 1619, we’re allowed that. But sometimes I wonder about the deeper Black experiences. Being overly “assisted” in stores; getting told one thing while code switching over the phone, then getting told another face-to-face; learning that you should neither wait for nor allow outsiders to help preserve your culture.

The latter is something I thought about in Memphis, Grenada, and New Orleans, watching Black people—natives of those places especially—choose to come together to save and even enhance their recipes instead of letting outsiders help and then watching those recipes get bastardized or rendered unrecognizable by the “helpers.” Memphis and Grenada are both run by people native to their communities, so naturally they want to protect those spaces. Over the years New Orleanians have seen the city be sold out, especially after Hurricane Katrina, so now we are forming alliances to save it.

 

WHAT CAN NEW ORLEANS LEARN FROM GRENADA?

 

On a recent trip to Grenada, with Dine Diaspora and the James Beard Foundation, I found myself upset that New Orleans, my native and ancestral land, a place people say is “the northernmost Caribbean city,” is being increasingly commodified only to benefit outside interests. One evening we visited Grand Anse Craft & Spice Market for the weekly bonfire and a big pot of oildown. Oildown is Grenada’s national dish, “a hearty one-pot meal made with breadfruit, green bananas, dasheen (taro), coconut milk, callaloo (taro leaves), vegetables and various meats such as salted meat, chicken, or fish,” according to chef Belinda Bishop, a daughter of Grenadians. “It is simmered in coconut milk, seasoned with turmeric and other herbs and spices.” Randall Dolland, chairman of the Grenada Tourism Authority and a native Grenadian, said that oildown is a dish that’s only served for special occasions, in a huge pot, and that there’s no such thing as a little oildown. “Oh! Like gumbo?!” “Yes! Like gumbo!” When I asked him who made it, he said his “oildown guy.” 

Our predominantly Black group of about fifteen chefs and journalists gathered around a large, shiny silver pot that looked, to me and another New Orleanian on the trip (chef Brian Jupiter, who’s now migrated to Chicago), just like an old Louisiana Magnalite. We were at the market, full of Grenadians liming under umbrella-covered picnic tables or standing on the sandy floor. Dolland invited a few locals to try the oildown, to get their take on it. It’s the same way New Orleanians do when we have friends over for gumbo. Sure, it’s nice if friends not from there like it, but we need that official stamp from fellow natives. When I took a bite, the pork, pig tail specifically, stood out most. Something about pork tastes like home; it’s like a culinary “Black nod.” Also with oildown, you’re eating using both your fork and your hands. Picking out bones here, taking out a bay leaf there. 

This was actually our second time having oildown during the trip. The first time was vegan oildown by a plant-based chef, Joachim Joseph. We were outside at Tricia Simon’s Mt. Parnassus Plantation, sipping bush tea, freshly brewed with seventeen herbs and flowers Simon had picked hours before, while a cow observed us from across the street, on a hill. Jammeal built a fire and chopped up the oildown ingredients right there. He used water from a neighbor’s spring, and we ate and drank out of coconut shells called calabashes. Certainly the vegan oildown was delicious, but I was fully aware it wasn’t the traditional preparation.

During the night market oildown dinner, I was seated next to chef Alexander Smalls. He was singing “Ye” by Burna Boy, talking about how he enjoyed making “deconstructed gumbo.” Naturally my blood started to boil a bit when I heard “deconstructed” and “gumbo” in the same breath. Louisianians are protective of gumbo and loud about it. Just look on X.com and you’ll see the “gumbo wars” over what goes in it, how it’s made, and how it’s served. But you know what my brain told my heart? The same way vegan oildown is as worthy of respect as traditional oildown, deconstructed gumbo and other spins on gumbo—from those with good intentions like chef Smalls, like chef Jammeal—are worthy of it too. Now, is deconstructed gumbo traditional gumbo? No. Is vegan oildown traditional oildown? No. They are, however, great ways to keep ancestral foods exciting, allowing more people to enjoy them. How would it look if New Orleans tried something like this, I wondered.

 

NEW ORLEANIANS ARE UNDERSTANDABLY PROTECTIVE

 

There’s a painful social media custom among New Orleanians, where we joke about gumbo coverage in national outlets. All food coverage really, but gumbo, Louisiana’s state dish, is our favorite to rib. We know national outlets never get it right, unless the writer is a New Orleans native. Even at local restaurants, we will ask fiddylem questions before considering ordering “outside” gumbo. What’s in it? What color is the roux? Can I get that gumbo with grilled cheese or potato salad? A couple years back, a white New Orleans transplant made a list of the best places to eat gumbo in New Orleans, for Serious Eats. It was awful. A Black dish, with no Black restaurants featured. It was clear that she didn’t know anything about gumbo and was focused mainly on including advertisers in her listicle. We New Orleanians conjecture that the reason these huge national brands hire transplants and part-time New Orleanians, is that they know natives will be honest to a fault, unafraid to let authenticity supersede brands’ paid relationships.

To me, the composition of gumbo is a topic serious enough to invade my dreams. Recently I had the most awful nightmare, that I made gumbo and forgot all the ingredients and spices. It was just a roux and broth. Considering the way I make gumbo in real life, that would never happen. First, in real life, I’ve got tons of pots going at once. While I’m cooking the roux—which is honestly foreplay in Creole cooking, like when Cher on Clueless puts the cookie dough in the oven in hopes that the smell will entice boys—I have all the other parts cooking. In one pot, I’m steaming my crabs and shrimp. In another, I’ve got my chicken thighs cooking down. One pan has the andouille and, when I feel like it, Patton’s hot sausage to fry off all that fat. Once all that is done, having seasoned every component, I set the roux aside to cool. It’s gotta be a chocolate color, so that the gumbo itself is a rich brown, a “pretty brown” like we say in the 7th Ward. Then I cook the okra down as much as I can, usually til it bursts open. After that, all the ingredients meet in the pot and I mix some of all those drippings and juices in there too like DJ Mannie Fresh making a beat. Finally, I add the broth and trinity of bell pepper, celery, and onion, an uneven number of bay leaves, more seasoning to taste, and oysters, keeping it cooking slow and low for as long as I want. 

So this dream could never become reality. But in the dream, the people I had over were mostly strangers who’d never had my gumbo before, and everyone was saying how it looked just like light brown water. Someone even got sick. The problem was all those strangers in my kitchen while I was cooking. They made me forget everything. That dream is how New Orleans feels now. So many strangers in our kitchen, that we are forgetting everything. 

Still, even while we’re losing recipes, just being on sacred ground like Congo Square, location of the New Orleans Juneteenth Festival, can help.

The problem was all those strangers in my kitchen while I was cooking. They made me forget everything. That dream is how New Orleans feels now. So many strangers in our kitchen, that we are forgetting everything.

JUNETEENTH IN NEW ORLEANS

 

There’s an open invitation from the Congo Square Preservation Society every Sunday at three P.M., barring extreme weather and pre-scheduled festivities, to meet in Congo Square for drumming, libation pouring, ancestor veneration and community building. Anytime we meet in Congo Square, it feels special. Juneteenth is no different. At the New Orleans Juneteenth Festival, we commemorate the day in New Orleans fashion, not like the rest of the nation.

“New Orleans is not a Juneteenth city. People have to realize Juneteenth was celebrated in a lot of different ways throughout the African-American experience,” native New Orleanian historian, photographer and owner of Know NOLA Tours Malik Bartholomew says. “Some people celebrated Juneteenth in the Fall, and in New Orleans for a long time it was more called Emancipation Day and we celebrated that around New Year's Day [the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863], which makes sense because we’d been conquered by the Union army, and so we were sorta free before June 19 [1865].”

So in a city where slavery was a bit different, on the grounds where the enslaved were able to gather somewhat freely, at the place that held New Orleans’ first Emancipation Jubilee on June 11, 1864; naturally this fairly new celebration is uniquely New Orleans. Shaddai Livingston’s New Orleans Juneteenth Festival begins with a second line, venerating the ancestors and honoring their contributions in a procession typically held at the closing of events. There are Black Masking Indians, stilt walkers, singers, DJs, a community vow renewal, several product vendors, and community empowerment booths. And of course, there’s all sorts of food and drink made by and for Black New Orleanians, with origins spanning the African diaspora: barbecue, daiquiris, pralines, ooey gooey cake, breadfruit, pressed juices, huckabucks, snowballs, and more.

 

HONOR THE PAST WHILE THINKING BIGGER

 

In Grenada, at the James Beard Foundation dinner he dreamed up, chef Alexander Smalls deconstructed traditional Black southern cuisine by creating a collard green and black-eyed pea salad with cornbread croutons. It tasted like Black American Thanksgiving, something I never had growing up because I always had a Black Creole New Orleanian Thanksgiving, where gumbo, stuffed bell peppers, baked macaroni, and sweet potato casserole were the stars. This tasted like an HBCU cafeteria, where I learned that some people put sugar in their grits instead of salt and pepper and that some people like fried fish with spaghetti instead of potato salad. Like following the drinking gourd, like that feeling I get that goes from my toes to my chest to my fingertips every time I sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or “We Shall Overcome,” the feeling of Black unity that can’t be sold, the feeling that major corporations try to evoke on social media with their excessive, unnatural, and incorrect use of AAVE. 

This worked because Smalls is a Black chef, cooking the food of his people. The same goes for chef Dook Chase of Chapter IV in New Orleans. He’s a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, melding classic methods with creativity to bring excitement to many of the traditional Black Creole dishes found at Dooky Chase’s, a restaurant owned by his late grandmother chef Leah Chase, the inspiration for Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. For example, her linguine has shrimp, mushrooms, peas, lemon, and shaved parmesan, while his uses squid ink linguine and adds lump crab. 

Overall though, and especially with gumbo, cultural preservation is paramount for Chase. “We're still doing the same gumbo, the crab, the shrimp, the two different sausages with the chicken and all that good stuff, and it better taste just as good, that's our thing,” he says. “We really stick to those traditions and history that we have here. So no tweaks to those traditions—cause we don't want to see what happens if we tweak it.”

 

WHAT DOES BLACK CULTURAL PRESERVATION LOOK LIKE IN MEMPHIS?

 

My now late friend Cedric Lee was a native Memphian, who’d relocated to New Orleans for work. He loved New Orleans food and loved traveling across the globe, trying whatever the locals suggested. When it came to barbecue, he found it hard to stray. “You gotta go to Memphis and get some real barbecue, mane,” he’d tell me. “What y’all have here [in New Orleans] is good, but it ain’t Memphis.” The closest I’d get then to Memphis barbecue was on those days he’d work the grill at pool parties by our friend Joe Casler’s house. I’d had barbecue in Memphis before, but it was barbecue in Memphis, from a Memphis chain. Not Memphis barbecue.

During my Juneteenth weekend trip to Memphis, I had tons of amazing Black Memphis barbecue. Everywhere! Not just the ribs, baked beans, potato salad, and classic barbecue spaghetti at Cozy Corner, but the sauce-free super smoky barbecued chicken I had at the TONE spades tournament; the turkey leg I had at the TONE Juneteenth Festival; the Circle B smoked sausage on bun with barbecue sauce and coleslaw I had at the Juneteenth Shop Black Festival. Cedric was right. Memphis barbecue is just better, simply put.

The same way New Orleans is more than gumbo and Grenada is more than oildown, Memphis is more than barbecue. Of course I had delicious Black Southern cuisine like fried green tomatoes and biscuits with smoked sausage, fried eggs, peach jam and molasses at Biscuits and Jams; fried fish with macaroni and cheese, pickled green tomatoes, and cornbread at The Four Way. Sweet yet tart tea with lemonade that most call an Arnold Palmer but is a V.I.P. in Memphis.

“They say Memphis is 20 years behind, but that’s helpful because we see what’s happening in places like New Orleans, the gentrification, the AirBnB, we see that and learn what we need to do to keep it out,” executive director of TONE Memphis Victoria Jones says. The goal of TONE is to give Black Memphis artists a place to be themselves fully, many craving a safe place after challenging racist experiences with white galleries.

TONE’s safe space also extends to the rest of Black Memphis, not just artists and art lovers, with events that feel like home. Look at the vendors and entertainment at the Juneteenth Festival held across the street at the Orange Mound Tower, the classic Black Memphis spread of barbecued chicken, beef, sausage, hot dogs and burgers, baked beans, cocktail weenies and electric red punch at the spades competition. And together with IMAKEMADBEATS, founder of Memphis record label Unapologetic, Orange Mound Tower will soon be TONE headquarters and a Black Memphis mixed-use wonderland. 

Despite surely being tempted to sell out at the expense of the natives and longtime locals, many in Grenada, Memphis, and New Orleans are doing the harder work: coming together to raise money and preserve the culture, doing it for ourselves instead of waiting to be saved.

Working toward a common goal, shining a light on our people, asking them what they need and immediately delivering altruistically, that’s what will spark our abundance. “When the crowd of people gathered around with the light, it lit a fire under my spirits,” Johnson said. “It reminded me that I traveled all this way to give these people an experience and that I couldn’t let the situation get to me. That those around you—strangers at that—will literally come to and light the way to a better existence.”


This series was published with support from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.





Megan Braden-Perry

Megan Braden-Perry is a multigenerational Black Creole New Orleans 7th Ward native, who lives by the Igbo proverb, "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Formerly she was a staff writer at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly, but thought she could speak better for New Orleanians on a national level. Her bylines include Bon Appetit, Jezebel, NY Daily News and Thrillist. She was a 2019 Jack Jones Literary Arts fellow and spends her free time with her son, Franklin. Her best friend Jenny once said she'd "talk to the devil for a sandwich," and that's the most accurate biographical detail to date.