Soul food and Southern food are undeniably rooted in the African-American experience, but Black food in America can’t be defined by just these two categories. The movements that mark the African diaspora mean that Black culinary influence in this country is much farther ranging: Enslaved Africans brought with them crops and agricultural skills, which they adapted to the American South; later, African Americans migrated north and west, taking the culinary traditions they developed in the South to these regions, shaping culinary styles across the country. More recently, immigrant communities from Africa and the Caribbean have brought ingredients and techniques to cities like New York and Miami, adding even greater diversity to the landscape of Black food in America.
Dinner series and events, characterized by their own ability to move from place to place, are one medium through which Black chefs, artists, and community organizers have centered the Black culinary experience and its roving nature. Across the country, this format, more so than any single restaurant, has been a wellspring for exploring what Black and African-American cuisine is and can be, introducing diners to new concepts, ingredients, and history while showcasing culture on the plate. Over the past few years, pop-ups, like Honeysuckle in New York; Black Feast in Portland, Oregon; the Vegan Hood Chefs in San Francisco; and others have exemplified the mutability of Black food, providing a variety of answers to the question: What is Black food in America?
During the pandemic, these projects might look different than they once did, or be placed on pause altogether, but they’re no less a jumping off point for discussions of Blackness in food. With Honeysuckle, Omar Tate has explored Black culture through food with intimate and elegant dinners and a particular focus on considering African-American cuisine outside of the South. Salimatu Amabebe started Black Feast in Portland, Oregon, to use food as a medium to celebrate Black art. Finally, Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway, the Vegan Hood Chefs, are community organizers making vegan soul food and bolstering the health of their San Francisco community in the process. While a brick-and-mortar hub for their work might be in the future for each, it’s the ideas they launched with pop-ups that make them a part of an ongoing legacy of Black innovators engaging with food for a greater purpose.
Honeysuckle began as a New York City pop-up dinner series that, as Omar Tate put it in an essay on Eater, “explores the continuing narrative of the Black existence through food and storytelling.” During multicourse meals, Tate takes elements of African-American history and culture and puts them on the plate, like the homemade Kool-Aid that starts a meal, a nod to childhood and an acknowledgment of stigmas around Black food, or a “New York Oyster circa 1826,” a dish that references the story of a freed man who sold oysters that year; he makes the narrative of each course apparent through poetry and storytelling. Honeysuckle will eventually become a community center in West Philadelphia (it’s in fundraising stages) with the mission of claiming space for Black food in America. Currently, Tate is also the chef in residence at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Monica Burton: Can you tell me a bit about how Honeysuckle came to be?
Omar Tate: Honeysuckle is about three years old, but if you really want to quantify it, it is probably about 34 years old, which is how old I am. I’ve been cooking for 10 or 11 years as a chef, working in primarily French, Italian, Spanish, and all these Eurocentric kitchens at all sorts of levels. I’ve worked in Michelin-starred kitchens, I’ve worked at a bar, I’ve worked in so many different facets of service, but none of them spoke to my existence as a Black American. Even in the research phase and coming up with the concept of Honeysuckle, I’ve worked at restaurants that make Southern food, and I’m not Southern.
My great-grandparents’ generation moved to Philadelphia in 1929, so my family’s been here for three or four generations. In trying to pinpoint what [Honeysuckle] looked like, I had to remove everything that I thought that I learned from my education as a chef and really consider my upbringing — what I ate, what the evolution of those things were, where that food came from. The environment that I grew up in doesn’t show up culturally in a lot of spaces, not just in food; it’s not the kind of thing that people represent in art so much, at least not until very recently. I grew up in the hood, the ghetto, so the things that we ate are a direct reflection of that environment but also the policies that create a ghetto. That’s where Honeysuckle came from: to tell the several stories that are in the package when you unwrap the word “ghetto” or “hood” or “North” or “urban.”
You’ve drawn from history for some of your dishes, as in a dish of turkey neck over lima beans dusted with ash on a plate of smoking hay that referenced the 1985 MOVE bombing. How did that idea come to you?
There’s a strong consideration of myself and the world around me. In this specific case, I was born a year after the MOVE bombing. [But I saw] a documentary [about it] called Let the Fire Burn, which was the command made by the police commissioner on the ground [after the bombing]. When other officers were saying, “This fire is burning out of control,” they said, “Let the fire burn.” I latched on to that statement. There was another statement that was said from the bullhorn: “MOVE, this is America.” Obviously, it’s the MOVE organization, but also “move,” like “move out of the way.” Saying, “This is America” to me, that’s saying “You’re not American.” It’s saying, “We are America, and we’re going to make this America again by burning this place down.”
All of that created a sense of disregard and disrespect of humanity, regardless of whether or not they were Black — and not to say that they just so happen to be Black. This is the kind of thing that happens to Black people. I wanted to show that disregard aesthetically on the plate from the outside perception, but [also show] the interior with all the care and deliciousness and the beans being cooked the way they were — that internal piece is the human element, is the humanity part on that plate.
I use history as a tool, as colors, as material to tell stories that are both present and past. History is not our past; it’s always with us. Whether we acknowledge it or not is the question.
From a culinary standpoint, Southern food has certain traits. Do you think food of the northward migration can be distilled in a similar way, or is it solely based on your lived experience?
I usually point to soul food as that Northern part. Soul food doesn’t only exist in the North, but it is the food of the party, to me, the ones who can’t reach back home. That’s the experience that I think people are looking for from soul food: the grounding that it gives you. Soul food is delicious and amazing, but it doesn’t have the nuance and all of the characteristics that make up the multiple, varied experiences one can have with regional Southern cuisine.
Soul food finds itself represented in different ways, depending upon the locale and the places where those migrations landed. You’ll find different distinctions within the soul food canon, and oftentimes, those things include parts of other immigrant cuisines and experiences within that location.
If you were to go to Los Angeles, it’s not far-fetched to have a jazzed-up, soul-food version of a taco or tacos next to macaroni and cheese or something like that. The same can be said here in the Northeast with a huge injection of Italian. It’s not far-fetched to see people eating spaghetti with turkey meatballs. So it’s an amalgam of things with soul food being the nucleus, then grabbing from other cultures intermingling at the dinner table.
Do other elements of the African Diaspora pop up in your pop-up, or factor into your conception of Black food in America?
Not very many, and that was very intentional. The unique thing about Honeysuckle is that all of the context and the things built around the food make it a very uniquely Black experience, but you can’t categorize it — I wouldn’t categorize it — as a cuisine representative of people. It’s really food as a means to tell stories. I use French, West African, Italian techniques. I use anything that I have at my disposal to assert Blackness. That’s Honeysuckle in a nutshell.
What I do do is I intentionally use certain things, like okra powder to thicken sauces. I source intentionally from Black producers and farmers that I met in my travels and in my research. I would intentionally not use Eurocentric or French language when I was talking to the cooks that I was working with, like I wouldn’t use the term “mise en place.” That was a deep part of the deconstructions I had to endure to rebuild and recreate a framework that made sense for me that was Afrocentric and free.
What about a pop-up makes it the best medium for exploring these ideas?
It doesn’t have the restrictions of a brick-and-mortar space. I’m not paying rent, I’m not paying a lease, my labor cost is really low, our food cost is whatever I want it to be. I don’t have to make a profit to make sure it exists. Basically, I’m not beholden to capitalism to make this thing happen.
I like to look at it like how rappers make mixtapes. They’re not working with a label, they’re not paying into an institution. It is literally their words over beats, and they distribute it in the way that they want, which, again, kind of speaks to freedom. But I never wanted this to only be a pop-up. My goal was to assert this experience as valuable and put it on par with an experience that one could have at, like, a Blue Hill or at Osteria Francescana, or anything like that where chefs are delivering an experience that’s larger than the meal components and the dining experience itself.
How are you continuing the work that the pop-up started with your current projects and your community space?
The values of Honeysuckle still exist even without the pop-up: the value of Afrocentricity, the value of highlighting Black experiences, the value of sharing capital and being in community with other Black folks who are artisans or producers. All of that still exists, even in a pandemic world where I can’t do the pop-up like I used to do.
But what the pandemic has really done for me is broaden the scope of value of my work and how it can serve multiple needs within the community. It still exists in the professional realm, but with Black Americans or the Black population being my inspiration, I wanted to bring that back home and back down to earth, and learned that I could use all of those ideas around sourcing and growth in agriculture to serve the needs of my community and bring that economy into my community. And then I want to still also do pop-ups when it’s time to do so again, but make it a more accessible experience, as opposed to an artistic, ephemeral experience. Those experiences always have barriers. No matter how far I reached, I still felt like it was happening in an ivory tower.
Salimatu Amabebe’s Black Feast dinner parties were designed to create space at the table for Black people in Portland, Oregon, although they have since expanded to other cities. Each event was hosted by Black people and centers Black people as its audience for a four-course, vegan, gluten-free, and cane sugar-free meal themed around the work of a Black artist. During the pandemic, Black Feast has embarked on another project that celebrates and centers Black people with “Love Letters to Black Folks,” which sends desserts and care packages to anyone identifying as Black.
Jaya Saxena: Were you drawn to pop-ups as a format because they led to more creative freedom, or was there something about the traditional restaurant world that was off-putting or inaccessible to you?
Salimatu Amabebe: When I moved to Portland, I had just finished an artist residency in Berlin focusing on food, art, and ecology. What I really wanted to do was focus on merging food and art, and playing with the entire format of a sit-down dinner. Pop-ups are great because you can constantly shift the format, and you can play with new ideas, both in terms of the culinary experience and the sit-down dining experience. You can try something out, see what works, see what didn’t, and then your next event can incorporate those things that work and then try something different. I also liked getting to be able to try new recipes that were exciting to me, and just constantly breathing new energy and new life into the dining experience.
How do you think food winds up making people look at things like art, queerness, or Blackness differently?
My intention is to literally put these concepts and ideas on the table for people to discuss, think about, and process on their own, to the extent that they want to. There’s something really approachable about the dining table; it feels like people are more comfortable. A lot of what we’re focusing on with Black Feast is creating a space that centers Black people, but is also open to everyone. That experience of being a white person in that space, from what I’ve heard, is somewhat uncomfortable, but also you get to eat really delicious food.
It’s playing with that discomfort, and then also nourishing people and allowing people to be uncomfortable. It’s okay to be uncomfortable in a space that isn’t designed for you, isn’t meant for you as a white person. It’s important for white people to know that experience. Simultaneously, it’s really important for Black people to have all of these spaces that center us, center our community, and make us a priority.
Are there things that you learned while doing Black Feast that you didn’t necessarily anticipate?
One of my white friends said that she needed to tread lightly in that space. We’re not interested in equating Black experiences to white experiences. We’re not interested in cosplaying what it is like to be a Black person. That’s not the goal at all. But I think a side effect of centering Black folks, and centering Black community, in an event is that non-Black people are also going to have to contend with their own role in all of that. [The idea of] treading lightly, part of being hyper-aware of yourself is an experience that Black people have constantly — being unsure, [wondering] “Is this really for me?” or knowing that it’s not for me and yet choosing to purchase a plate in it anyway.
You’re talking about not wanting to play into the stereotypes of the Black experience, and you’re cooking food that is vegan, gluten-free, and cane sugar-free. I think unfortunately, a mainstream assumption about Black food in America is that it’s not vegan. What are your thoughts on expanding the definition of what Black food is, or why that assumption is wrong to begin with?
Black food is something that is still being defined, and will probably be defined and redefined forever. Black American, Southern cuisine, or soul food, is probably known for not being super vegan-friendly, but also, there are a lot of plant-based soul food eateries. That’s becoming more and more popular as we’re recognizing how many people have dietary restrictions. I’m interested in making food that a lot of people can eat. It would be a lot easier if I didn’t try to cater to a lot of different dietary restrictions, but those are also all of my dietary restrictions. If I’m making food for other people, it would be great if I could also eat it.
For Black Feast, all of this food is really about the art. That practice of creating a menu becomes somewhat spiritual and nebulous, and this game of free association. What sticks out from this work? What resonates with me personally? How do I see this reflected in food? How is this reflected in flavor and texture? That is something that transcends categorization in terms of what the roots are for this cuisine.
How do you want to keep using this format in the future?
I’m a Virgo with way too much Leo in their chart with the energy I’m bringing. I’m full of plans but also completely unreasonable. What I’m dreaming about right now is having a permanent space for Black Feast. Having a commercial kitchen, storefront retail so people can come into a space with an outdoor dining area, and also having a residency space so we can support artists in their artistic practice. I definitely see a multidisciplinary space for Black Feast. I would love to own a piece of property for Black Feast.
I want to create something that I can pass on to younger generations. Black Feast is not about centering me or my work. It’s about creating the space and freedom, something that I can leave, and someday that other people who are younger and smarter than me can take over. I have things that I want to do in my life, too, that go beyond Black Feast, but I think this type of work is something that I will always be involved in. These kinds of mutual aid projects are something that I want to keep doing until I am dead.
Vegan Hood Chefs
Three years ago, Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway started serving vegan soul food under the moniker the Vegan Hood Chefs in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. Their vegan versions of dishes like mac and cheese and fried chicken have been a hit, and their repertoire of dishes keeps expanding. But Johnson and Calloway are community organizers first, and their pop-up has a larger mission: to increase health education and access to healthy food for disenfranchised communities. Before the pandemic, they served their food at large events, but these days, they keep the pop-up going with weekly deliveries throughout the Bay Area.
Elazar Sontag: I would love it if you could tell me a little bit about your pop-up and what it is that you do.
Rheema Calloway: We like to say that the community chose us because we are community organizers by trade. Some of the work that we have done in the community around food justice has informed the way that we are now. We started doing pop-ups, basically trying to educate the community around the food disparities that exist in San Francisco. We both come from communities that are considered food deserts: We like to call it “food apartheid” because it’s very intentional that our communities have a lack of access to healthy food options. We’ve been able to broadly touch our community and introduce them to people who have healed themselves through eating healthy foods, and we started campaigns in the community around healing the hood.
Food has been something that you’ve thought about as part of social justice and part of finding security in your community, but when did that translate into actually starting the Vegan Hood Chefs? When did it become clear that that was actually at the center of your work, not just at the periphery?
Ronnishia Johnson: In 2017, I started an Instagram highlighting our personal food transition because, as we’re doing all this organizing, we figured that if you transform the way that you eat, it starts to transform other areas of your life. We were on a personal journey around how we were eating, and then Instagram became super popular, and we created a page called the Vegan Hood Chefs.
It was never any intention to be a business. That’s the crazy part about it, and that’s why Rheema says that the community chose us. We had an Instagram page, and it started to get a very small following, and one of our friends had an event and the chef backed out and she was like, “I know you aren’t professionals, but would you mind doing an event for me?” At the time, we had a partner, my cousin who was in culinary school. So, I was like, “Well, let’s just try it! Why not?” For our first event, we cooked for 200 people, and it was so popular that, ever since then, it has been in demand. We never thought at all that this was going to be a business, but after that first event, we were like, “Okay, we’re really on to something.”
The portrayal of veganism in mainstream media tends to be overwhelmingly white, but there’s nothing inherently white about veganism, and it’s central, in so many ways, to other cultures. As you were getting into vegan cooking, but also sticking with soul food, how did your vision and understanding of veganism as part of Black food culture grow or develop?
RJ: It’s empowering. This is a huge part of who we are — merging the food with our culture. There are a lot of myths, especially growing up in our communities, that veganism is not for Black people. Although what we feel comfortable cooking is soul food, we also have traveled to a lot of different places as well. As two girls from the hood, we went to Jamaica during this process of building the Vegan Hood Chefs, we went to Panama, we went to all of these different places.
Traveling outside of our neighborhood broadened our horizons of how connected the diaspora of Africa and people from Africa are. There were people who looked like us who didn’t necessarily speak the same language. Although the culture isn’t the same, you will see many similarities in the music or the way people look, the style of dance, and, in particular, the food. For example, a lot of Black Americans make jambalaya, and jambalaya is very, very similar to dishes like jollof rice or paella.
When we went to Jamaica and came back, we made an intention to go to different restaurants throughout San Francisco to try different foods because, up in the hood, we weren’t exposed to that at all. It really was an aha moment, knowing that plants had been a traditional diet for a lot of us. We tend to talk about soul food around all of the fried stuff, and that has been a direct reflection of our oppression: the idea of having the scraps and being able to turn them into something beautiful. But you will also see that with a lot of plants and our connection to a lot of the plant-based foods. We want to use our food as a conversation piece to debunk the myth that veganism is not something that is connected to our culture when it really is.
As you planned out your menu and moved forward in this project, were there certain challenges that you two faced in adapting these traditional soul food dishes to be vegan but also feel familiar to your customer base? What was that process like?
RC: It’s mostly in the seasonings. We were able to take some of our traditional meals that our grandmas made, and did a lot of research around what vegetables would take that consistency. For chicken, we fell in love with jackfruit. We went through the traditional practice of frying it or cooking it like our grandmothers would and then started to learn more about different techniques like using spelt flour or chickpea flour. Then, we focused on using our traditional seasonings but finding different fresh herbs to season our foods. It’s a lot of trial and error, but we were basically taking staple meals that we would eat at home and figuring out ways to transform them into healthier alternatives.
RJ: People often want us to cook fast food, and our whole goal and our mission is to make sure that we can cook food that is good but that is also still nourishing for the soul. That’s challenging because comfort food is great, but we want to make sure that we continue to brand ourselves in a way where people know that if you need something that is healthy, that you can come to us.
Who are you feeding these days?
RC: Recently, we’ve had a lot of vegan folks, but in the beginning, it was a lot of people who were interested in trying something new and on that journey of self-exploration and trying to heal themselves, folks who have had some health scares. A lot of the people that we’ve touched have been people that are not vegan and just wanted to come in to see what it was about.
RJ: Most of this is transitional vegan. People are like, “I’m trying” or “This is my first time eating vegan food.” Then, we’ll see them come back as repeat customers.
What are your plans for the future?
RJ: Our goal this year is to use our blog and our YouTube to do more online recipes along with dropping our cookbook. We have our signature sauces that we would always use for our po’ boys that we have now bottled as a product. We want to saturate the market as much as we can around providing healthy food options.
We also started a partnership with a young man called Cat Fitness to put on what we call “Heal the Hood.” We visited three different communities — the Bayview, West Oakland, and Richmond — where we partnered with community gardens and gave away produce and also had a lot of speakers talk about health and plant-based eating, and we gave away 200 to 300 meals to the community. We recently made our first partnership with a school — Aspire Public Schools — where we did an online version of that. We hope to get more grant funding and support to be able to do that piece as well this year.
Your work is still intersectional in providing for the community. Are there ways in which being a pop-up and maybe being a little bit more fluid than a brick-and-mortar has actually allowed you to explore more arenas than if you had started as a more traditional restaurant space?
RJ: People who have been following us for a long time are like, “When are you going to open up a restaurant?” But if we had walked in and opened up a restaurant, we probably would have limited ourselves in many different ways in terms of who we can reach. When we did our sauce orders, we serviced almost every state. So much of our community engagement is around who we are, and it’s missing in the conversation around veganism.
People are happy to support Black vegan businesses, but we’re super overt around saying, “This is for the community, by the community, for us by us.” Having a pop-up model has allowed us to go to different communities and talk about who we are and have more flexibility to go into people’s homes or provide health education. If we were in a brick-and-mortar, we would, honestly, just be there every day, just serving meals.
Lead image photo credits: Klaus Vedfelt, Vegar Abelsens, Evergreen Planet via Getty Images