Green Tomato Guy, Plantations, and Modern America

This is the post that ground this blog to a halt several months ago. The reasons will be obvious as the writing reveals. I embarked on this blog in the beginning to do something rather shallow – promote Big Jones, sell specials, announce special events, and the like – and eventually, about two years ago, decided to take it in a new direction, which is to tell the story of Big Jones. That’s my story, but also Mark’s, our staff’s, our guests’, and most importantly, the changing South and the people that made this cooking we love so dearly what it is.

I wanted to write this, but I didn’t want to. This isn’t where I wanted to go, but ultimately my own sense of justice and equality (which you are welcome to politely disagree with or even find twisted and pointless) wouldn’t let the subject go. The subject of race permeates Southern cooking, and here we are 150 years after the onset of the Civil War and sometimes it seems we can’t escape the topic. It’s mostly for the best, as over the last generation the contributions of African Americans to our larger culture have been accepted and lauded as they should be, but I’ve always felt like the subject of food left America’s African roots out in the cold. We’ll get to that in a bit, but first, I’d like to share a story from the early days of Big Jones.

Remember for the first 18 months we were open, our kitchen was open to the dining room through a couple of service windows. Early one weeknight, a table of young caucasian professionals (three or four, I can’t recall for sure, but they were seated at table 202, a four top) sat perusing their menus. Laura, who you may remember as the most gracious of servers, was their waiter. After several minutes and presenting their drinks, Laura inquired if they were ready to order food. One of the men at the table indicated they were interested in fried green tomatoes, but, pointing at me (on the line alone at the time as Phyllis and Keith were in back prepping) said “I’m not sure he can cook fried green tomatoes. We need a little more time.” Laura graciously offered that the man he pointed at was the owner and also the executive chef, and he could most definitely make fried green tomatoes. The man demured, and asked for more time.

After a spell, Phyllis, a wonderful cook, and also a large, 300-pound African American woman, emerged from back prep and joined me on the line. In a bit of eerie timing, Laura shortly thereafter returned to ask if this table was ready to order food. This time, the man pointed at Phyllis and said “She looks like she can cook fried green tomatoes. We’ll have them if she makes them.”

Yikes. Laura let Phyllis and I know the score and immediately we knew what to do. I cooked the tomatoes, Laura delivered them and the folks loved them. They left as clueless as they entered.

This is the most salient of my memories, but in the early days these types of incidents were not uncommon. Just as common as white folks treading into inappropriate territory, occasionally African American folks would stare down a caucasian waiter with the inquisition “just what do you know about grits?” To which our answer has always been an unapologetic “quite a lot, actually.”

So in a few short paragraphs you might get the idea that we’re traversing some treacherous territory here. Honestly I never suspected it would be so. I thought I would open a restaurant serving delicious food with professional service and that was that. Of course there’s more to it than that. But I never thought I’d have to cross a minefield of lingering racist stereotypes just to serve food I love to the public.

All the while I consider myself a student, not a master of, Southern cooking, and the more I learned about it the more I realized so much of its origins would be elusive – the lives of common folk in that time (free whites, Africans, and slaves included) were not painstakingly documented as illiteracy was rampant. That said, we know a lot about plantation cooking, which was not only executed by, but managed by slaves of African descent. A generation of research has also shed some light on the life and foodways of slaves on plantations. Those were the roots of soul food.

Many white people are fond of saying that racism “is dead” or doesn’t exist anymore, or has become irrelevant. I disagree, I’ll point out the story of Green Tomato Guy and many others we’ve had in Big Jones. Green Tomato Guy may have thought he was honoring Phyllis by insisting she cook the green tomatoes, but ultimately what he believed was that we are not all equally capable as humans, and he was subscribing to a stereotype. Perhaps more nefariously, he was out for Southern food and thought it would be entertaining to have Mamie cook it for him. I didn’t engage him in conversation personally. Perhaps I should have.

That this particular incident left me so indignant is interesting even to myself in reflection, because I resoundingly believe that the contributions of African Americans to American cooking are perhaps the most tragically under reported of their cultural legacy. I think it’s because of the association of fried green tomatoes with soul food, or perhaps that they are fried, and some people think of that as black food. That’s what they cook and eat. Of course this is absurd, but it’s always bothered me why this person put Phyllis in that box.

One of the most important pieces of literature I’ve ever read for myself was Race Matters, by Cornel West. Whether you agree with Dr. West’s left wing politics, there is no denying the importance of his thinking on the topic of race in America. What meant so much to me was reading that Cornel West, an African American man whom I would guess was at points in his life a victim of racism, had to confront his own racism on a daily basis. If caucasians can be racist, surely African Americans can be as well. We are indeed all the same. I felt a new power as an individual and grew a lot personally through that book. I realized that I had to confront my own racism, and while I have always fought it and believe to my core in human equality and dignity, what Dr. West impressed upon me is that my culture constantly projects these stereotypes that I have to reject in order to see humanity clearly. It’s really hard sometimes, which may be why white people love saying there’s no racism any more. See no evil, hear no evil.

What does all this have to do with Southern cooking? A lot. I gained my early interest in Southern cooking because it seemed like such a discovery. Much iconic Southern food – grits, cornbread, okra, gumbo and the like, is rarely seen in the North. It remained rarely seen even as Chinese, Italian, French, Mexican, and then even Thai and Japanese restaurants blanketed my native Midwest. Still, our home-grown Southern regional cooking was nowhere to be found.

A conversation I had with a prominent national food journalist last year left me dumbfounded. This person is convinced the reason Southern food has lagged in this country, even in the South, is racism. White folks don’t like eating black folks’ food. All the regional variety of Southern cooking is intimately related to soul food and even in the South, for a hundred years even white folks in the South often weren’t proud of their food traditions. That’s changing, and the liberation of Southern cooking in the South is going to change the world’s perception of it. In the meantime, whites in the North have generally just steered clear of it while mobbing restaurants of many other ethnic backgrounds. As I said, this is changing, but this is where we’re coming from.

I get asked all the time why I decided to open a Southern restaurant. That question always gets me because if I opened a French restaurant, or Italian, or even Mexican, everyone would think the reasons are obvious and no one would ask why I opened a French restaurant. Southern is exotic. It’s African. Certain dishes like fried chicken could be tied to Scottish roots, or the arts of the hog to other European cultures, but so much of the heart and soul of Southern cooking belongs to Africa. Is that why to this day French, Italian, and Mexican, all great cuisines, are more prevalent in the North than our own home-grown, regionally diverse and nutritionally compelling Southern cooking?

It’s true that both Southern food in general and soul food in particular have been dismissed by a generation of nutritionists as fatty, unhealthy, and bad for you. This is classic mensch-speak. The same folks who for the last generation were telling us to eat vegetable shortening (basically plastic, chemically) and turkey breast (rich in protein and B vitamins but very narrow nutritionally) have had to eat crow time after time as we learn that “hey, lard won’t kill you as fast as the transfats in shortening” and wow, a high carbohydrate, low fat diet might lead to depression and other endocrine disorders.

Let me tell you about real, true Southern food: It’s nutritious. It’s satisfying. Your body can digest good, fresh lard with its abundance of fatty acids much more readily than it can process the nutritionally narrow vegetable oil that leaves you long on calories and low on nutrition even if it doesn’t contain dietary cholesterol. Butter is rich in vitamins A, E, the B group, and it’s a rich source of lecithin which contains choline and inositol and lots of other goodies their precious corn or soy palm oil just don’t have. True Southern food also elevates the humble pea and rice, and vegetables are always at the table. Let your predilections go, and reject the pontifications of the nutritionist slaves to the food-industrial complex. This is what your body wants.

But lingering prejudices, some racial and some not, hold us back. It’s fantastic to see the new generation of Southern chefs throwing the conventional wisdom out with the bathwater and embracing the place of this cuisine in the world. We’re doing lard, there will be bacon and butter, but there will also be what else was always there – vegetables, whole grains, pulses, and legumes. Abundant forage and hunted foods. Nutrition.

100 years ago, most of the people cooking this food professionally were of African race. Today, we’re mostly white, with people of Latin American, African, and Asian people making up minorities. I’ll sum up the problem with this picture very briefly:

In the late sixties, an African American woman named Edna Lewis penned a cookbook to be called The Taste of Country Cooking, published a few years later in 1973. The book is laid out in several seasonal menus. Seasonal. Late sixties. Julia Child wanted you to insist your local supermarket stocked leeks (important) while Edna Lewis was writing about how to eat seasonally and oh so elegantly. Before Alice Waters ever did.

American culture remembers the Caucasians. I originally thought up this blog post last January, and thought it would be a great post for February’s African American History Month. I got writer’s block. I’ll never be sure I told this story correctly, but I had to finally tell it.

This is dangerous territory, but I love pointing out the inconsistencies between reality and conventional wisdom – we have, for more than a generation since desegregation of sports, witnessed and lauded the performance of African American athletes while their ancestral diet has been booed by corporate funded nutritionist hacks every minute of the way.

Where I have always felt my solidarity with African Americans is in social class, and the same goes for my experiences with Latinos, Asians, indeed everyone – I come from a farming family of modest means. I could be from anywhere in the world. I’m lucky, when you think about humanity across the world, to have been born white in America. I look forward to a day in which everyone born in America is lucky. We’re not there yet.

On my last visit to Charleston (visits to New Orleans yielded similar results) the requisite hotel room dining guide boasted a full-page spread of three dozen chef’s’ faces from across the city, and precisely two of them were of African descent, something like 6%. while the African American population of Charleston approaches 45%. Here we are in Chicago, and while our population is more diverse with a lower percentage of people of African descent, if you look at say, the Green City Market Chef’s Barbecue roster, there are many white faces, some Latino, some Asian, even several women, but blacks are rare.

Going back to history and the contributions of African Americans to American cooking, I’m fond of citing the first great American regional cuisine – the Carolina Rice Kitchen, and the regional food system that supported it. Conventional wisdom and history as written by the white folks had told the story like this for generations: Enterprising, intelligent Europeans settled the wild continent of North America and set about developing plantations to grow crops and produce goods for trade. They bought and employed illiterate, savage Africans and gave them civilization and taught them how to tend fields and conduct the labor of the trades, and a great and prosperous economy with a sophisticated cuisine based upon regional crops and wild foods grew up and American cuisine was born and this system worked (at least for some) until the Civil War, but the basic assumption is that all of this wealth that made Charleston one of the world’s wealthiest cities during the peak of the rice trade was the result of Caucasian ingenuity and their effective management of slave labor.

Phooey. My idea when I was first inspired to write this post was to share some books that helped me understand what really went on. I’ve touched on this before, but let me sum this up before I offer some further reading in case you’re interested in history and food and how they fit together: The earliest plantations were literally dropped into the wild, dropping a fully self-contained economy in a remote area where productivity would be such that the plantation would not only be self-sustaining, but produce a surplus of some goods for trade so that wealth could be accumulated by the owners. Let me state bluntly what research has know for years and has only recently been admitted and acknowledged: slaves were not dumb labor. Especially in the Carolina rice economy, the slave trade actively sought slaves from different parts of the African rice growing region stretching roughly from present-day Senegal to Benin, also known as the Rice Coast, for its millenia-old rice culture and sophisticated agricultural techniques. As crass as this sounds, plantation owners would literally order expert rice growers from their slave merchants much like you’d order any other good on eBay. The same was true of builders and masons – the white people didn’t build those beautiful homes, their slaves did. Highly intelligent, highly skilled people.

The same was true of the kitchens. It’s true many plantation owners sent their head cooks to Europe to train, and obviously the palates of plantation owners were heavily tilted toward European tastes, but in the practical world of the kitchens in the South from the earliest days of the colonies, it was African Americans doing the work and it was a matter of time before ingredients like field peas, okra, and collard greens, native to Africa, wound up on plantation tables. Over generations, much Southern cooking was Africanized, especially that of the Carolinas. From hoppin’ john to gumbo to barbecue, from the most obscure to the most popular, Southern cuisine owes its distinctive identity to its African heritage.

Given this history, in a way it’s charming that green tomato guy wanted to have Phyllis cook his green tomatoes. It’s also disturbing. Generations of white folks in the South had black folks to cook their food, and clearly a lot of them folks could cook, but we’ve left the stereotype of the big black woman in the kitchen cooking up fried foods and biscuits behind us. At least I thought we had. I think the most important thing we can do today to recognize and honor the contributions of African Americans to our foodways is to look at their contribution in total, and recognize that not only have they slaved over hot stoves cooking biscuits and greens and fried fish, they’ve also helmed many of the finest restaurants in our nation’s history, even contributing the most talented of the early White House chefs Hercules and James Hemings, who did more for American cooking in the early days of the republic than any white person. It is with these African American men that the grand traditions of State Dinners were cemented.

Countless other examples abound, and a great place to go for a primer on African American culinary history is a book published earlier this year by Jessica Harris, called High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. The stories are intriguing, the personalities compelling, and the book is an enthralling read while you’ll realize this is a lineage of American history that is as important as it is unknown.

Judith A. Carney wrote a book about a decade ago that is more academic than entertaining, but if you’re interested in agriculture and its history in the United States, the essential book she wrote is called Black Rice. It painstakingly documents and researches the historical record for clues to the origins of rice cultivation in the United States and ultimately concludes that it was clearly Africans who brought the knowledge and expertise to the table that allowed the Carolina rice economy to burgeon and ultimately become one of the most fabulously wealthy economies in the world.

The Carolina Rice Kitchen by Karen Hess discusses the question of rice cultivation within the context of the larger culture, and ties it into the cuisine of the Colonial and Antebellum Lowcountry, with compelling (and also mouthwatering) documentation of the African origins of much of the cooking we know today as Southern

Finally, its relationship to food specifically is a stretch, but for me the most touching book I’ve read all year has been African Americans at Mars Bluff, South Carolina by Amelia Wallace Vernon. No other book, or even personal relationship, has given me as much insight into the African American experience, and while the premise of the book doesn’t go there, it left me with an understanding of the predicament in which reconstruction left the newly freed, how our country let them down, and most importantly, how the ancestral spirituality of these folks brought from West Africa is fundamentally at odds with the culture in which they were left, penniless and landless, after the war.

It’s not my desire to pontificate here, but as someone deeply interested in history I found a connection between reading I was doing, experiences at the restaurant, and some private conversations I’ve had with other history enthusiasts, food writers, and Southern food enthusiasts. Race still matters, and it probably always will. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing – everyone’s unique and very personal background offers a contribution to our larger culture. The important thing is that we look at each other as individuals and recognize that we are all the same as much as we are different. Only with mutual respect and admiration and an eye on the baggage of history can we reach our full potential as one people.