Exhibit: Culinary Chronicles of Blackness :: Our Culinary DNA

Caribbean Medley : Rochelle Johnson

When I initially presented the idea of an exhibit dedicated to our food history to some artists, it became the norm to have to explain not only the concept behind the exhibit that I was initially simply calling Soul Food, but the need for it and its importance.  I was prepared to explain this to my patrons, but not my artists.  A few of them questioned my choosing to do an exhibit that was “just” about food.  Without ever having spoken to each other, two artists said that Soul Food made them think of many other things besides “just” food.  I have to say, I was shocked: Not only could see the need or abundance in our culinary history, but television show Soul Food had tainted everyone to the point that somewhere along the way, the term  Soul Food stopped meaning black cuisine, and instead became a reference to “life’s happenings” and other things that fed the soul. 

Soul Food: Is this what’s responsible for Soul Food not simply meaning African American Cuisine anymore, but rather more general things that make us happy?

Visual art tells as much of our story as the written word does.  In my research, I discovered there was a lack of work telling our culinary history or what I would later name ‘Culinary Chronicles of Blackness’.   Engaged in one of those conversations with a friend of mine he gifted me with a useful phrase to demonstrate his understanding while convincing him on the importance of family recipes:  “Culinary DNA”.   I began to use this phrase as part of my argument. Our culinary DNA tells a powerful story.  It documents our journey and cultural influences.  I began to realize that if I was having to go into such an explanation thus far, it was not going to get easier so I set up a meeting with Art Blaque and The Analyzers as a support to my artists in effort to provide an opportunity to discuss the many layers and topics that fall under our culinary tales.   Most importantly, to inspire them.  It was subject matter that was not their norm but I needed them to understand or else just like a verbal story, art work can lack authenticity too and fail to “convince” the viewer.  …Something I was not willing to risk.  So most conversations began with their bewilderment.  Then me being even more bewildered at their bewilderment and finally giving in  to explain.  My conversations would usually go something like this:::

‘Juicy’ : Artist Michael McDonald

…I mean….EVERYONE has a Culinary Chronicle of Blackness.  Everyone has someone in their family that cooked for a living, was a famous cook (even it was within the family), had a signature dish.  Okay, I’m sure you have SOME food memory of something, somewhere with someone.  Our food story is so full! –Caribbean, Cajun, South American, African, Southern, Food is part of everything we do! Our celebrations, weddings, funerals, when we’re happy, sad, heartbroken and everything in between.   Then I would finish my opening with, “I don’t care who you are, EVERYBODY has a Culinary Chronicle of Blackness SOMEWHERE!  Usually they would attempt to convince me otherwise for anywhere from 5-10 minutes but I would always win getting them to a wide-eyed place of wonder and revelation at which time they would remark quietly but certainly, “Oh… yeeeeeah!….” And proceed to share something with me that unbenounced to them, clearly qualified as a Culinary Chronicle of Blackness.  This was becoming a bit exhausting.  Nonetheless, my patrons and artists stayed with me.  My artists geared up for the challenge while my patrons sat back to watch me pull this exhibit off like Celie watched Mister. burn up that breakfast for Shug Avery! (pun intended)

Chef Boy O.G. II : DJ Cavem

Our Culinary Chronicles of Blackness are our memories:  The cantaloupe I ate regularly at my Grandmother’s kitchen table, or the 7-Up cake I can still taste at the family reunion of 1986 in Fort Worth, Texas!  It’s eating black-eyed peas on New Years, the elder ladies on Sunday cookin’ some random savory meal in the church basement; it’s the stereotypes we have the ability and RESPONSability to reclaim;  it IS Sunday dinner it’s even our Ancestors home remedies.  Our Culinary Chronicles hold the reputations and stories of some of our famous family members:  We all have a family member who’s reputation is attached to their special dish because it was just that good.  Culinary skill sustained many of us during hard times: Selling fish dinners from our house, providing work for us after emancipation.  Regardless of how we feel about it working as domestics, cooks and even Pullman porters helped many make a living though many held degrees in other fields. 

‘Bull at Ruby’s’ : Artist Azizi Abdalla

In planning the exhibit, I just couldn’t get away from the idea of calling on many culinary artists and community cooks I knew to provide a 2nd component to the exhibit.  Not only the art, but the culinary art.  It had to be a community tasting of sorts and the day of the exhibit proved all was as it should be, glorious: The artists remained open minded and in the end produced a stellar body of work though it was outside many of their regular subject matter.  A community of cooks gathered and shared dishes from across the diaspora of black cuisine, and each of them  “put their foot in it” as we say.  Brazilian, Ethiopian, Southern, Vegan, Vegetarian, Barbecue, ginger coleslaw, rum cake, Chicken a million ways, cherry pie and Ms. Simone’s  now famous corn puddin’, it was a spiritual experience and the morning after my taste buds begged for more.  The art work in the gallery was just enough: Each piece well executed with a style and story all its own.   My own Culinary Chronicles led me on a whole other journey that I am still on.  I honestly think I could write a BOOK about the curating experience alone behind, ‘Culinary Chronicles of Blackness’.  THis blog is not enough to house the experiences I had. 

Gumbo Marsala : Artist Randy McAnulty

What was most heartbreaking and discouraging was the realization that this was subject matter that had somehow drifted from the average mans radar.  …Despite the fact that this is the “Food Network Generation”, it seemed very few people were still busy creating their own Culinary Chronicles and/or working to preserve their family Culinary DNA.  But I’m happy to say, I think those that attended got the message quickly and were

‘Daddy’ : Artist Natasha Chaoua

reminded of the IMPORTANCE of our Culinary Chronicles of Blackness.  So please, when you are in the kitchen making dinner or baking your favorite family pie, think a bit more seriously about your own Culinary DNA and what you will leave your families, teach your children, or what food memories you’ll plant in the taste buds of those near and dear to you.  Take special care of your cook books, write your recipes down, and don’t underestimate the healing power of a food gift for your sick neighbor down the street.  Most importantly you could taste the history that is us:  rich, spicy, complicated, sweet, delightful, layered, inventive, comforting and organic.  The end of this exhibit only marked the beginning of this exhibit.  We’ve not even begun to scratch the surface on the story but I am happy to start compiling the chapters. 

Denver’s Own Daddy Bruce who fed the hungry yearly : Artist Robert Evans

Extra special thanks to the artists that participated: Randy McAnulty, Azizi Abadalla, Rochelle Johnson, Michal McDonald, Natasha Chaoua, Robert Evans and DJ Cavem.  And to our Culinary artists who did amazing: Deronn Turner, Jill Dorancy-Williams, Johnathan McCoy, Konjo Catering, Laneice Ford, Tony and Michelle Richards, Max Oliver PR, Simone Elise Charles, Diedra Rae, Miss Piggy, Supreme Style Barbers and Brother Sayeed for representing with the Bean Pies and anyone else I may have forgotten but certainly did not mean to!  Soon I will have to set up something with more of the images from the exhibit. You can see our album on Facebook under Art Blaque, Curator in the Culinary Chronicles of Blackness folder (this was a minute preview). And remember, TAKE NOTE of your Culinary Chronicles of Blackness!

** Check out the edited version of this article in The 5Points News at www.brotherjeff.com.

….Working to keep our culinary memories alive in Studio5 (and beyond!) ~h.Kai

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