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Black Foodways


AADS has taken a leading role on the Vanderbilt campus in the use of food and foodways as a lens to explore culture, history, art, identity, health and health disparity. Our signature course focused on African-American Foodways, AADS 3104W, and provides both an intensive immersion in African-American foodways through engagement with classic African-American cookbooks; depictions of African-American foodways in literature, painting, song, and film; scholarship that investigates the history and economics of African foodways across the Diaspora with a particular focus on both the USA and Nashville; and a general introduction to foodways as an academic discipline and mode of thinking that can be a powerful tool for knowledge workers working in a variety of disciplines and on a variety of cultures and time periods.

Students leave the course with an ability to read cookbooks analytically, with experience in conducting original research on archival material, with experience searching for and often finding “lost” and historically significant artifacts, and with an experience of conducting fieldwork, that takes them to farms, homes, archaeological dig sites, restaurants, food trucks and other venues where, after substantial preparation. They interview, photograph, record and/or otherwise document. Eventually they analyze and write.

Significant biographical cookbooks using notes, recipe cards, and interviews as a jumping off point for further research that has taken them to new kitchens, new libraries, and to cities beyond Nashville have been created by students in the class.

Many African-American community cookbooks have small print runs; too many vanish without finding their way into any archive for further research. Every year students in the class find lost Black community cookbooks and document their existence, breaking ground for future scholars to till.

Interviews students have conducted that culminated in profiles or essays include interviews with Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, native of Mobile, Alabama for the Paulette Garrett Cookbook Project: with Poet Kevin Young, a founding member of the Dark Room Collective, Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory, editor of The Hungry Ear, and Curator of Raymond Danowski Poetry Library for work on representations of African-American cooking in 21st century poetry; Professor Eugenia W. Collier, 1948 Howard grad who retired from a career teaching at the University of Maryland in 1996 and is known for her short story “Marigolds.” Soul Food students argue that her story, "Sweet Potato Pie“ deserves and merits a second deeper look and is perhaps her most significant work. John Egerton, founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance was interviewed and chose to write a foreword to The Corinne Steele Cookbook Project edited by a student as part of her work in the course, Soul Food: In text, As text. Steele was a native Alabamian who grew up on the campus of Tuskegee University in the era of George Washington Carver. Prior to our student’s work, her only published recipes appeared in the Darden’s iconic text, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine.

Through the study of African-American foodways, we are able to offer all students unique opportunities to connect to, learn from, and give back to our local Nashville community. The whole nation now knows about Nashville’s hot chicken. Students in our class know about and contribute to the understanding, appreciation, and documentation of Nashville’s hot fish sandwiches and the unique-to-Nashville tradition of the African-American Fish and Spaghetti Fish Fry as an instrument of political fundraising. Ed’s Fish, Bolton’s Fish, East Side Fish, and the Hermitage are but a few of the sites we have ventured to in our exploration of Nashville’s African-American Foodways. By establishing a tradition of converting the cooking notes of certain recently deceased Nashvillians into biographical cookbooks, the students have created a legacy of acknowledging the invisible labor and creativity of African Americans working with food, paid and unpaid.

Many graduates of the class have reported the course has been invaluable to them as they pursued education and careers in medicine and law. Students have also gone on to pursue careers in fields directly related to foodways, including working in food-related television, food writing, owning an inn, publishing, and attending Cornell Graduate School of Hotel Management.

The Curb Center at Vanderbilt and The History Makers Foundation are ongoing partners in this work.


Special Topics students have chosen to investigate include:

  • African-American fishing culture at The Hermitage during slavery
  • The evolution of the repast as a post-funeral meal in Black America
  • Black Seventh Day Adventist vegetarianism
  • The origins of the iconic short story “Sweet Potato Pie” by Eugenia Collier
  • Race-based wage discrepancy and job opportunity in a particular barbecue chain
  • Origins, variations, and uses of the song “Welcome Table”
  • The foodways of acclaimed African-American outsider artist “Big Al” Carter
  • Yakamein and other intersections of Africa and China in US foodways
  • Intersections of Jewish and African-American foodways in the American South
  • Afro-veganism in the 21st century Nashville
  • The evolving foodway traditions of the HBCU tailgate
  • African-American cooks in predominately caucasian sorority houses on Vanderbilt campus
  • The role of genetics in type two diabetes
  • Soul food recipes appropriate for those battling diabetes
  • Various biographical and autobiographical cookbooks
  • Black church foodways


Group Projects have included:

  • Labor of Love a 58 page biographical cookbook based on the recipes of long time Nashvillian Paulette Garrett a black retired elementary school principal born a 10th generation native of Mobile, Alabama whose family has cooked at the White House for more than one President.
  • A “virtual table” that connects classroom to community and scholarship to bellies. The culmination of the project was a “virtual soul food feast” a website that identified 10 Soul Food Superfoods, provided recipes, and connected visitors to the website to interviews with African American HistoryMakers who treasured these foods.
  • Hot Fish Repast a performance art piece in conversation with a series of paintings created by African-American artist Allen “Big Al” Carter. It was a Welcome Table and a Repast involving the creation, or elaborate repurposing of tables, chairs, plates, napkins and more to create a performance space, for a performance centered around a meal, food related music, and the creation of a space for students to host and celebrate significant members of Nashville’s African-American community while honoring Big-Al and sharing his work.


Artist’s Statement:

Hot Fish Repast is a meal in conversation with a series of paintings created by Allen Carter. It is a Welcome Table and it is a Repast. It is an invitation: Allen “Big Al” Carter is no longer on this earth; he left on this earth 20,000 art objects. Hot Fish Repast invites Big Al’s audience to look, for the first time or anew, at his work through the lens of foodways.

Specifically African-American foodways. Hot Fish Repast braids together the Welcome Table, the Repast, and the Fish Fry in an attempt to create a meal that is both provocative and evocative.

The Welcome Table is a complex concept central to the African-American experience. It is a place of inclusion, it is a place differences are set aside, it is a place of talk; it is a place of the talk that creates justice. The Welcome Table is also a place where some believe certain African-American and Jewish foodways traditions converge. Many believe the welcome table is, at least in part, inspired by the Jewish Seder table where a place is left empty for Elijah or a stranger. Noting that Jewish foodways and African-American foodways intesect in particularly interesting ways in the South and at the welcome table, we have included a fish from Russ and Daughters in New York. This is also an homage to the reality Big Al Carter avoided New York and the New York art scene. In this meal, at this moment we bring New York to Big Al.

Fishing is a prominent motif in Big Al’s work. Fishing and fish preparation is central to the African-American experience of celebration and freedom. Within African American communities the Fish Fry has come to have important political and cultural significance. The Fish Fry is a feast that defines and sustains community identity and the Fish Fry funds community endeavors. The fish fry frames Allen Carter’s work provocatively. Fishing was practiced in the slavery period. Fishing allowed for the possibility of private celebration. By choosing to offer our guests a hot fish sandwich we are choosing to honor this place, Nashville, home of the first significant posthumous exhibit of Allen Carter’s work, and Nashville’s particular African-American foodways that stretch back to the period in which enslaved African’s working on Andrew Jackson’s plantation caught and ate sturgeon and catfish. We are honoring Rufus Estes the freed slave from Davidson County who became a world renown chef and published author. And we are underlying the fact that Nashville has an exceptionally vibrant hot fish culture associated with African-American male culinary creations. With this choice we hope to emphasize the fact that Allen Carter loved to cook almost as much as he loved to paint.

We chose to close our meal with milk and honey, the food of heaven. This is a nod to the spiritual dimensions of Big Al’s work, and it reminds us that the phrase “welcome table” was first popularized in spirituals sung during the slavery period, spirituals that re-mixed to become freedom songs in the Civil Rights era. “The Welcome Table” was understood to be a table in heaven. And heaven returns us to the theme of repast.

Noting the relation of soul food to music and the fact that soul food migrated from the south to the urban north often functioning as a food of exile we have incorporated the song Fish Fry Saturday night into our feast as well as the song Welcome Table.

Our guest were purposefully chosen. The Rev. Kelly Miller Smith connects us to the spiritual aspects of the Welcome Table while Michael McBride connects Big Al Carter to an ongoing community of artists.

The place settings for “Hot Fish Repast” took inspiration from Big Al’s tremendous work “Blue Fishing at Point Lookout, MD.” Each place emphasizes the act of framing, an important motif in its parent work, with the popsicle sticks of the mats framing each plate and the rim of each plate framing the serving of food. While the dishes were executed with underglazes on whiteware, they mimic the ink washes of “Blue Fishing,” as the integration of the found objects does on the place mats. The centerpiece serving dish depicts the same fish central in Big Al’s work, straight from the hands of the fisherman to his own dinner plate.

The chairs and tables came from a store that benefits Habitat for Humanity. The books in the center of the table are the course books that served as a frame for our study.

The napkins on the table are decorated with colorful buttons in a nod to Big Al’s use of both buttons and everyday objects in his artwork.

We have also included on the table a gift for Big Al—a cookbook. Big Al’s favorite meal was baked blue fish, made with the fresh fish he caught. In honor of Big Al’s favorite meal, our cookbook is a compilation of fish recipes from the course books of English 288W. The front and back covers are constructed out of popsicle sticks a material commonly used by Big Al in his artwork. It is bound by fishing line to signify his love of fish.

Big Al Carter painted and he cooked. And he fished. We invite our guest to taste the honor we bestow on him with this meal. Freedom. Flavor. Autonomy. Nature. Death. Politics. Community. Nurture. Creation. Acknowledged.

Abby Barnes, Benjy Bundy, Alex Holtzman, Rowdy Lantis, Courtney Rogers, Westley Taylor, Jamie Ziemba, and Alice Randall


Our Guests:

The Reverend Dr. Kelly Miller Smith Jr. is the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, which he began serving in September 2010. He also serves as Executive Director of the Sunday School Publishing Board of the national Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. He is the son of the late and legendary Reverend Dr. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr. and Dr. Alice C. Smith Risby; he was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi and reared in Nashville, Tennessee. He was licensed to preach in 1974 and in 1979; he was ordained at First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill—ground zero of the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville—during his father’s thirty-three year tenure as pastor.

Dr. Smith received a B.A. degree in Music from Morehouse College in 1976. He later attended Morehouse School of Religion of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, graduating with a Master of Divinity degree in 1983. In 1993, he received a Doctor of Ministry (D. Min.) degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where he was a Proctor-Moss Fellow.

After serving, for six years, as pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee Dr. Smith accepted the pastorate of Mount Olive Baptist Church (Knoxville) in 1991. During his 19 year pastorate at Mt. Olive, the church experienced tremendous spiritual, numerical, and financial growth. Among the ministries established at Mt. Olive is a pre-school called the Garden of Discovery Learning Center and a music school called The Mt. Olive Music Academy. His favorite scriptures are Isaiah 40:31and Philippians 4:13 and his favorite hymn is “Blessed Assurance.”

Dr. Smith is married to Sue Hall Smith and has three children and three grand children. In his “spare” time, Dr. Smith enjoys traveling, sports, playing Scrabble, bowling—and baking sweets.

Michael J. McBride, a native Tennessean, earned his undergraduate degree in art, from Tennessee State University and his graduate degree in painting from Illinois State University, where he credits Dr. Harold Gregor with providing a world class artistic mentorship. Currently, as an instructor of art at Tennessee State University and former Adjunct faculty at Watkins College of Art and Design and Film school, his commitment to the Nashville art world's future has always been at the forefront of his own career. McBride has served as lead artist on many community-based projects in Nashville, Sister Cities Mural Projects as well as Nashville International Airport's Arts in the Airport program. Michael is currently a member of the Board of Trustees for the Frist Visual Art Center in Nashville. McBride was featured in Visions of My People, sixty years of African American art in Tennessee, an exhibit organized by the Tennessee State Museum and one of his pieces was purchase for their permanent collection. He was one of twelve Nashville artists selected by The Tennessean newspaper for inclusion in the Millennium 2000 Collection, a signal honor. Another honor was the Side by Side sister cities exhibition with Belfast, Northern Ireland, featuring 17 artists from Nashville and 17 artists from Ireland. His most recent honor was in 2005, a ten weeks artist in residence in Bermuda with the MasterWorks Museum of Bermuda Art. McBride’s work is included in both private and corporate collections in the US and abroad. His work has been featured on television sitcoms, such as "Living Single", "The Wayans Bros. Show", and "The Jamie Foxx Show". Michael has also illustrated children's books and book covers for several publishing groups. Much of his most recent work has focused on African-American horse trainers and jockeys who managed to thrive in slavery and reconstruction.

Labor of Love:

Paulette Henderson Garrett, A Life in Recipes



The recipes of this cookbook are a collection of notes from tenth generation Mobile, Alabama native Paulette Henderson Garrett. A self-described Creole of color, Paulette Henderson Garrett dedicated her life to creating flavorful cuisine for her family, friends and strangers. In celebration of Mrs. Garrett’s Creole heritage, the cover art is a portrait of Rosette Rochon, the first female Creole of color associated with cuisine in Mobile, Alabama. In the pages of this book, you will find a history of African-American foodways in Mobile, dating from 1767 to 2011, the year in which Mrs. Garrett died in Nashville, Tennessee. This cookbook is both a “welcome table” and a “repass” in her honor. In African-American culture and foodways, a repass is a meal created by friends at the death of a loved one. This work is created by friends Parker Bordeaux, Jess Brown, Nicollette Davis, Shannon Dawson, Alix Forstenzer, Niya McCray, Jake Sendar, Susan Serafin, Jaziree Smith, and Alice Randall to honor Mrs. Garrett and her family. Inside you will find Mrs. Garrett’s recipes and relevant snapshots from her life.


Notes and Acknowledgements:

A special thanks to Paulette’s daughter Stacey Garrett and brother Vincent Warren Henderson for sharing their time and stories with us.

We would like to thank the 19th century poets of color who wrote and published in 1845, Les Cenelles, the words that provide the epigraphs for our chapters.

We were immeasurably aided in our research by Shawn A. Bivens in her book Mobile, Alabama’s People of Color: A Tri-centennial History, 1702-2002 Volume One.

Also, a special thanks to Don Richmond for showing us around the Musee Rochon and to Andrew Hopkins for allowing us to use his painting of Rosette Rochon displayed in the museum.