SUSTENANCE. Food is an incredibly significant part of Black communities. Heritage, traditions, and memories are preserved through dishes and recipes passed on through history within communities and families. Food brings people together.
To celebrate the launch of the OBSIDIAN virtual concept house, Amber Mayfield, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Black-owned food and home magazine While Entertaining, will chat with chefs and food professionals from across the country to explore the role of food in their homes. This week, Amber chats with Therese Nelson, the chef and founder of Black Culinary History. Black Culinary History is a space dedicated to the thoughtful preservation of Black heritage in the culinary arts throughout the African diaspora. To kick off our Sunday Dinner series, we sit down with Therese to consider the historical context of the Black dinner table.
January 31, 2021- Sunday Dinner with Therese Nelson
Q. When we talk about the role of food, and specifically dinner in Black homes, what comes to mind for you?
A. I think about agency. Our communities deal with a whole host of challenges externally and existentially. The home, the table, the ability to feed one’s self and one’s family with dignity, gives you instant agency and for many of us it may be one of the only places you get to feel that.
Q. Through your work, you explore themes of heritage and legacy as it relates to the culinary arts. Based on this work, what do you believe the dinner table has come to represent for Black families throughout history?
A. I’ll preface this by saying that while I concede that Blackness isn’t monolithic and that there are socioeconomic, geographic and generational factors to consider, the core of what I've found is that our foodways are sacred. The Black table is a tangible barometer for the health and mobility of the family unit and the traditions developed over the dinner ritual are some of the most powerful cultural heirlooms we have.
Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman gifted us the framework of fugitivity as a way to interrogate the value and application of Black art and creativity. I've been sitting with the power of their framework in food because I find the dinner table to be a profoundly valuable fugitive respite from the labor of Blackness. No matter how much indignity, marginalization, physical trauma we face in the world, the Black table is a place where we can take care of ourselves and our families with relatively low stakes economically.
That said, I don't take for granted that this framework is harder for some of our folks to take part in, and that even in the joy and beauty of our foodways, food insecurity is a huge issue that we need more focus on. I offer this caveat because I’d still like us to remember that the ritual of preparing and presenting a meal is a powerful cultural practice no matter what happens to be on the table.
It’s a restorative and redemptive practice in a way that not much else can be. It may also be one of the clearest ways we have to address the challenges of the reckless and inequitable modern food system. By paying closer attention to our foodways, by looking back to the best practices that have allowed our communities to feed themselves though oppression, depression and civil action I think we can easily make the case for celebrating and preserving our foodways in all its forms even as we do the hard complex work to secure fugitive space for everyone.
Q. Tell us about Sunday dinner at your house?
A. Once I left home I jumped right into professional cooking so a home cooked Sunday dinner is a rare gift I can count having had over the last 20 years on two hands. That's maybe why I have so much affection for the idea of Sunday supper.
My grandfather was a car salesman who worked insane hours. Sunday was sometimes his only day off, so it became a de facto family day. As I got older it was typically the only time we had to sit down as a family for a meal at all. It was never fancy food, and looking back there were times when the rest of the week we were on the edge of food insecurity, but Sunday meals were always sacred.
Depending on the time of year the big meal would be breakfast instead of dinner. My grandmother would do most of the cooking if it was dinner and my grandfather would make a production of breakfast. As I got older I would help although I don’t ever remember being allowed to make a Sunday dinner in its entirety even when I got serious about cooking professionally.
We would all be responsible for setting the table in deference to the person who cooked, we would rotate blessing the food, and the conversations were always random, hilarious, and transformative. The stories stay with me much more than the food and having the safe space to feel seen and heard was the part that stays with me.
Q. Let’s end on a sensory note. Can you tell us about a dish that you and your family enjoy the most? Give us all the savory details.
A. One of the best things I've ever eaten is my grandmother’s white lima beans and cornbread. I can smell and taste those beans perfectly in my mind to this day. I think of that as her great migration meal because it was one she made mostly in the fall and winter when she was missing her mother and sisters.
She would start by making a rich earthy ham broth from cured hocks she would get from a butcher in the neighborhood who grew up in the same Latta, SC town as she and my grandfather; side note: his sage sausage was fire as well. The broth was the key to the whole operation because I never saw her soak her beans. She would spend half the time tending to the precious broth and then add a standard humble bag of fat flat dried white lima beans that she would cook low and slow for hours.
The finished product was a miraculous stew of plump silky oyster colored beans with tender thin skins, dotted with flecks of smokey tender pork, all enrobed in a creamy broth perfumed with the scent of bay leaves, accented by the finish of good black pepper on the back of your palate.
The beans would always be served with fluffy Carolina white rice finished with whole butter and a wedge of jiffy cornbread. It had to be jiffy and was always baked in the same eight inch black enamel cake pan and would also always be finished with a thin layer of cold salted butter melted into the top of the piping hot bread. The sweet cornbread with the glistening salty buttery top was the perfect foil for the earthy umami of the beans.
My nana’s pot of white limas is one of those unctuous flavor unicorns I'm in constant search of in my own cooking. I can make a fine pot of beans, but there are certain tastes that sit on your palate and can’t really be duplicated by any other hand than the one that delivered the perfect original.