Last weekend, I watched an episode of the Netflix foodie series Chef’s Table about a female African American chef who co-owns a restaurant in Historic Downtown Savannah, Georgia called The Grey. If you haven’t watched Chef’s Table, I recommend it; each episode highlights the personal story of some of the most renowned chefs of current times.
Chef Mashama Bailey was born in the Bronx, New York (homegirl!) and spent her younger years in Savannah. Her family moved back to New York and after a stint in the social work arena, Mashama decided to do a culinary apprenticeship in France. I don’t want to tell you the whole story if you’re going to watch (I hate spoilers!), so I’ll just end by saying Mashama became a chef, and eventually returned to Savannah. She and her partner opened The Grey, which is housed in a Jim Crow-era Greyhound Bus Terminal that was restored to its original luster (www.thegreyrestaurant.com). The foods on the menu are largely fancy Southern, but are also inspired by Mashama’s culinary tutelage and inspirations from the South, across the waters and New York and ancestral African touches. You might say that she married the cuisines and cultures of all of the places she has been and placed them on the menu. The thing I liked best about her story was that Mashama was happy to be back home.
My father was born and raised in Crewe, Virgina, a small town about 50 miles from Richmond. The last time I was there, they still only had one traffic light. My father was a country boy and although he moved to New York City in the 1940’s after he got out of the Army, he was still a country boy at heart. He sopped the last bits of food and gravy from his plate with the last piece of roll or biscuit. He poured his coffee from the cup into the saucer so it would cool off enough to drink. Dessert for him and my grandfather when we went to Crewe to visit was a piece of chicken and a piece of cake (the salt and the sweet). All of my grandfather’s vegetables came from the garden in the backyard. Despite how much I claim New York as home, New York Red has Southern blood running through her veins.
During the Great Migration of the early to mid 1900’s, African American people relocated from the South to northern industrial areas such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit for jobs and better opportunities. They arrived in the North ingrained with the same strength and survival skills of their ancestors who were brought over to America as slaves. Imagine how tough our slave ancestors had to be to forge for themselves and adapt to a strange new land where they were indentured against their will and didn’t speak the language. They concocted meals for themselves from the food scraps they were given and many of those dishes became what is known today as Southern cuisine or soul food.
After the Great Migration ended around 1970, Black people began to trickle back down to the South for some of the same reasons they left for the North – opportunity and better living. The population in Atlanta has grown so rapidly over the last 30 years that people who live in Atlanta tell others who live elsewhere that it’s okay for them to visit, but they’re not allowed to stay – we are full! Ha!
But when I think about it, when people from the Northern cities move to the South, they’re not moving somewhere new. The South is in our blood. As African American people, we can rightfully claim with pride that our roots originated in Africa. While this may be true, we cannot deny the blood, sweat and tears of our slave ancestors that worked its way into Southern soil. We can’t deny what our forefathers unknowingly did to survive; which, in essence, became tradition for us here in America. Think of how colorful we all are as a result of the marriage of traditions and cultures and flavors they left behind. So, like Chef Mashama Bailey, some of us have come back home. Like Mashama Bailey’s food, it’s a marriage between the South and the North. North is the place we went for a while, but now we are back. The generations before us are speaking to us and telling us that we can come home now.