You probably haven’t had pork and beans like this, with edamame and tomatoes. And how’s this for a centerpiece: “This big mamma, that’s our Berkshire pork shank,” said chef Chris Williams.
Correspondent Maurice DuBois asked, “When you said pork and beans, this is literally not what we were picturing.”
“When we first opened, we kind of knew what people’s expectations would be on what we were gonna do,” said Williams. “Black-owned restaurant, you’re expecting pork and beans, you’re expecting this, and so we let that get them in the doors, and then show ’em this kind of stuff.”
At Williams’ Houston restaurant Lucille’s, everything from the shrimp and grits to the 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 paying homage to our roots,” he replied.
Williams said the idea of redefining what it means to be a Black chef is wound in his DNA, thanks to his great-grandmother, the legendary chef, educator and entrepreneur Lucille B. Smith.
Williams said, “She created the country’s first instant hot roll mix. Iterations of that hot roll dough, which were like these chili biscuits right here, were served to American Airlines, their first-class passengers. She, like, broke through the color lines with the brilliance of her product.”
Smith is one of more than 400 Black culinary influencers featured in a new Museum of Food and Drink exhibit called “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.” It opened recently in New York City at the Africa Center.
Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris is the lead curator. “We are beginning, and unfortunately only beginning, to understand the enormous, extraordinary hand that African Americans have had in the cooking pots of America,” she said.
DuBois asked, “You say that it’s more American that apple pie, this African American cooking?”
“It is,” Harris replied. “it has been here. it has been the backbeat. It has been the thrum, the hum, and the heartbeat of certainly much of this country.”
Harris said enslaved Africans brought to America helped fuel an agricultural revolution: “They planted the crops. They tended the crops. They harvested the crops. They then cooked that, served that. And you’re doing all of that for the founding fathers. You’re doing all of that for the elite of the country that is beginning to establish what this country’s food and food ways are.”
Harris noted that the fledging American colony’s wealth was created by African hands. DuBois asked, “You think that’s been acknowledged?”
“It is that thing that’s hard to admit,” she replied.
At the heart of the exhibit hangs a massive 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,” said Harris.
And James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, who apprenticed in Paris and brought back copper pots, among other things. “Which is how we get that mac ‘n’ cheese,” Harris said.
And there’s Nearest Green, the formerly enslaved man behind Jack Daniels whiskey: “We thought that Jack Daniels was Jack Daniels, only discovering he was taught to distill by Nearest Green.”
Also on display: the famed Ebony test kitchen. For almost half a century it sat at the center of Black American food culture. It was often featured in Ebony Magazine’s cooking column as they tried out new recipes.
Touring the exhibit, DuBois remarked, “The colors just hit you. They’re a little loud!”
“It’s vibrant, and shows the diversity of the African American audience,” said Charla Draper, who was the magazine’s food editor and worked in the kitchen in the 1980s. “Ebony was created as an aspirational magazine to show, ‘You can do these things. You can go to law school, you can become a noteworthy entertainer, and you can become certainly a good cook.'”
Breaking bread has a way of breaking down barriers. It’s a fitting reminder that chef Chris Williams hopes will bring us together
“Everybody has great memories of, like, these smells and sensations from back when they were children,” 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 Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Carol Ross.