Bay Area Soul
February 19, 2010
Chef Robert Dorsey’s love of fresh seasonal foods started in his grandma’s West Berkeley garden. “As many of my friends were riding bikes and skateboards, I was pushing the hoe and the rake and picking green beans,” he recalls.
Dorsey has thought about the days of his grandma’s hot water cornbread and garden vegetables a lot lately, as he prepares to open a café in the soon-to-re-open Oakland Museum. The chef, who started Oakland’s Blackberry Bistro, plans to source a great deal of the cafe's food from local farms, such as the Scott Family Farm, run by Will Scott, an African American farmer who also provides produce to Farmer Brown. Dorsey’s parents are from the South and he grew up eating soul food, so like most of the menus he’s planned, this one will be a combination of California cuisine, Mediterranean-style fare, and classic soul food. He’s particularly interested in the way Black chefs in the Bay Area embrace sustainable practices.
“Our community comes from organic farming and sustainable agriculture — so it’s really interesting for us to come full circle to get our hands back in the soil,” he says.
Like Dorsey, Herve Ernest, the founder of sf|noir, the San Francisco-based arts and cultural organization that hosts the annual San Francisco Black History Month Celebration, believes the convergence of sustainability and black cuisine is worth noting. To honor that connection, the 9th annual celebration will focus entirely around food and it's impact on local Black culture.
“It was a natural progression to come to this point,” says Ernest. In an area where world cuisines compete for the spotlight, he hopes to give often-overlooked African American cuisine its day in the sun. “We have chefs here who are who are pushing the notion of black cuisine, so we wanted to highlight that, change people’s perspectives, and open their minds.”
The 5-day celebration includes a food-related spoken word event called “In Defense of Food,” a jazz brunch, a shrimp and grits taste-off featuring chefs from seven restaurants, and a food and wine gala featuring chefs from 10 restaurants. “The gala promises to be a great opportunity to get a taste of many different restaurants that do really great cuisine within a soul food aesthetic — all under one roof,” says Ernest.
Of course, it’s the emphasis on fresh, sustainable ingredients that makes Black cuisine in this area unique. Or as Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen puts it: “In the Bay Area you have people with roots in the deep South, so you have families who have the memories of cooking and eating and growing food from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc.; and then you have it in the context of the ‘ground zero’ of the food sustainability movement and, this being the bread basket of the country, you also have some of the most cutting edge fresh, local ingredients.” The result is a renaissance of sorts.
“Most ethnic cuisines in this country have been kind of denigrated because of the industrialization of our food system and the globalization of our agriculture system,” says Terry. His goal is to expand notions of Black food from an historical point of view.
“I want to help people understand that the type of food that my grandparents ate, and that many of the auntie and uncles ate — that was from their backyard gardens, that was fresh, local, and seasonal — is just as authentic as some of the stereotypes of African American cuisine.” The stereotypes he refers to are subsistence food, or “what enslaved Africans pulled together often times from plantation owners, or scraps, or discarded foods” and — on the other end of the spectrum — fatty and sugary comfort foods that rely heavily on animal products for flavor.
In reality, says Terry, many traditional African American foods made abundant use of nutrient-dense root vegetables, seasonal produce, leafy greens or “the foods that many advocates of healthy eating and a sustainable food system argue we should all be eating.”
In addition to a renaissance of the cuisine, says Dorsey, many local black chefs are rediscovering their roles in the community. A few years ago, Dorsey adds, there wouldn’t have been enough chefs to fill the room at the sf|noir event. Now he’s heartened to see more black chefs recognized for their contributions.
“It was not only [a challenge] getting our cuisine to the forefront, but a battle to get recognition as African American chefs. It’s one of those things we’ve taken in stride, but I’m kind of enamored, kind of glowing about what’s happening.”
Photo of Bryant Terry by Bart Nagel.