David Lauderdale

3 takeaways from the life of Vertamae Grosvenor, Lowcountry champion

Vertamae Grosvenor sits in her Ridgleand apartment in 2013.
Vertamae Grosvenor sits in her Ridgleand apartment in 2013. dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

I took biscuits to Vertamae Grosvenor.

And a little pot of Bluffton oyster stew.

It was the best I could offer the Hampton County native who put “Geechee” on the world map beginning with a 1970 book “Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.” She was nationally known as an NPR correspondent and PBS cooking show host.

It was near the end of a remarkable life. She died Saturday in New York at age 79.

Please, please take the lid off the melting pot and let the culinary truth come out.

Vertamae Grosvenor

We ate together in her public-housing apartment in Ridgeland.

That was three years ago, and she’d just gotten home from Oxford, Miss., where she received the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance.

It seemed like an odd place to meet someone who rose from her premature birth near Fairfax, to a Philadelphia upbringing, to the Left Bank in Paris and the East Village in New York, to rub elbows with a “who’s who” of 20th century culture.

Her apartment was filled with books and splashed with artistic color, like her life itself — red labels from Daufuski brand oysters, her stylish purple and gold scarf with matching, dangling blue earrings.

Reflecting on that special opportunity now, I’m seeing three takeaways from Vertamae’s life.

Take pride

Vertamae, called Verta by her friends, was so animated that even eating Bluffton oysters didn’t stop the choreography of a casual conversation about “Vibration Cooking.” That book was to the Gullah culture of the Lowcountry, and its worldwide audience, what James Brown was to music. It was different. It was sassy, daring, bold, uppity, whatever you want to call it. It showed a take-it-or-leave-it pride in a place and a people who were in 1970 looked down upon, even by each other.

This from a gangly, tall, self-conscious child who was made fun of in Chicago because she took to school her Geechee food of warm rice when they all had citified sandwiches.

Vertamae held up a milky soup spoon and said, “The other people I wanted to reach, was not just white people, but black people.”

She had started the book with the premise of her life: “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.

“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!”

Don’t just wing it

Vertamae expanded her horizons, to put it mildly, and got up to her elbows in the world around her. She didn’t merely spout opinions, she did research. That’s different from so much of what we see today.

She had to be accurate to be so bold, especially on such a large stage: Doubleday, NPR, PBS.

She told me she’d spent a lot of time at the National Archives searching for the direct words of the enslaved. It helped her connect the dots of an amazing life.

Get busy

Vertamae’s books were to the Gullah culture what Jonathan Green’s paintings are. They brought it front and center with reckless abandon.

Vertamae wrote a number of books, including a forerunner to “The Help” that unraveled the lives of domestic workers. And she told me she was working on a memoir called “Ricely Yours,” borrowing a line from Louis Armstrong to tell the tale of we “rice-eaters” from the Lowcountry.

She acted, she cooked, she performed for everyone she met.

She wrote 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, Bessie Smith’s kitchen man ... and a pig foot and bottle of beer on Saturday night.

And she went to her grave still working on the old Lowcountry story: Africans came across the water with nary a cookbook, yet created a true, nouvelle cuisine.

“Please, please,” she said, “take the lid off the melting pot and let the culinary truth come out.”

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

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