Vertamae Grosvenor first gained attention with her 1970 book, "Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl."
In her sassy, unorthodox way, Grosvenor used the Lowcountry food of her upbringing in rural Allendale County to tell the world to quit stereotyping people of African descent. With pilau, peppers and pig parts, Grosvenor taught us to recognize the worldwide contributions made by African Americans.
"In reading lots and lots of cookbooks written by white folks, it occurred to me that people very casually say Spanish rice, French fries, Italian spaghetti, Chinese cabbage, Mexican beans, Swedish meatballs, Danish pastry, English muffins and Swiss cheese," comes the opening salvo in "Vibration Cooking," published by Doubleday.
"And with the exception of black bottom pie ..., there is no reference to black people's contribution to the culinary arts. White folks act like they invented food and like there is some weird mystique surrounding it -- something that only Julia and Jim can get to. There is no mystique. Food is food. Everybody eats!"
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Last weekend, the 70-something Geechee girl traveled from her apartment in Ridgeland to Oxford, Miss., to receive the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Since 1999, the alliance has tried to help the South appreciate more of its ethnic ingredients, to know that black people have last names and were first with a lot of our culture, perhaps most enjoyably in the kitchen.
"That luminous voice itself, this woman's voice, was speaking to, awakening something in my soul," writer Ronni Lundy said about the new award-winner last weekend. "It gave me permission, invited me, encouraged me, shoved me out the door and said, 'Speak up, sister. Find your own voice.' "
Grosvenor almost had no voice at all. She was born prematurely into the hands of a cousin called "Granny," a midwife. She was a twin, unexpected and half the size of her brother who came out first and soon died.
Her grandmother called for goat's milk, an eye-dropper and a shoe box, quick. The baby was kept alive on the open door of a wood stove.
Her other grandmother was a pistol, too. When Estella Smart got married, her husband brought her back a few days later. Her parents said they'd take her, but they'd never been able to do anything with "Tella" either.
Tella was the first of the extended family living off the land near the railroad hamlet of Fairfax to migrate to Philadelphia. Frank and Clara Smart, Vertamae's parents, moved up when she started school. Her mother was a domestic worker until she got a factory job. Her father, a good cook who taught his daughter how to repair Harley-Davidsons, worked nights and died young.
Grosvenor was a tall, dark, funny-talking, inquisitive girl who never felt like she fit in. At 18, she went to visit the sidewalk cafès of Paris to hear writers discuss ideas. She stayed two years, living with artists of the Left Bank.
She married two artists and had two daughters. They lived among artists in New York City's East Village, where Grosvenor's kitchen was the place to be.
Grosvenor wrote about the racial divide in American homes long before "The Help" arrived. In 1975, Doubleday published her book, "Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap."
Grosvenor has been a correspondent on National Public Radio, with award-winning stories including two looks at Daufuskie Island. She hosted a program on food called "Seasonings." And for two years, she had a public-television cooking show called "Vertamae Cooks."
With that show came the publication of two cookbooks, and a funny scene back home in the Lowcountry. She once called her Hilton Head Island friends Emory and Emma Campbell in a panic, begging them to Fed-Ex her some field peas. The simple Gullah ingredients that have informed Grosvenor's life were needed quickly for the bright studio lights.
Grosvenor still has a lot of spunk and strong opinions, but she is not someone who shakes a fist at the world.
When we met last week, she intstead wagged a spoon to make points during rambling stories, filled with dialogue and humor. She dipped a biscuit in a bowl of May River oyster stew and said, "The other people I wanted to reach, was not just white people, but black people."
Grosvenor doesn't want blacks to be boxed or to box themselves into someone else's stereotypical expectations.
To help people acknowledge and appreciate African influences on the world, Grosvenor has written a food folk opera called "Nyam," a Gullah word meaning "to eat."
In a recording of it, her late son-in-law brings to life a slave auctioneer, a watermelon man, a pig foot and bottle of beer on Saturday night, and Bessie Smith's kitchen man.
And in the end, Grosvenor says that Africans came across the water with nary a cookbook, yet created a true, nouvelle cuisine.
"Please, please," she says, "take the lid off the melting pot and let the culinary truth come out."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.
Southern Foodways Alliance
Post and Courier: Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor: Writer, actor, cook looks at her many-sided life, 2011
Each year, the Southern Foodways Alliance honors one of our leading lights, a man or woman whose life work has proved a beacon for us all. The first award, to Edna Lewis, the one-time doyenne of American regional cooks, set the standard.
The award goes to an individual whom all thinking eaters should know, the sort of person who has made an indelible mark upon our cuisine and our culture, the sort of person who has set regional standards and catalyzed national dialogues.
Source: The Southern Foodways Alliance
The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor -- all who gather -- may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.
A member-supported nonprofit organization, based at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, we stage symposia, produce documentary films, collect oral histories, sponsor scholarship, mentor students, and publish great writing. Donations from generous individuals, foundations, and companies fund our good work.
Source: The Southern Foodways Alliance