The Georgetown Black Student Alliance (BSA) and the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) hosted an event March 3 in honor of Black American cuisine.
The event, which took place at Launch, a weekly-rotating location at the upstairs portion of Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall, featured chef Jerome Grant, the inaugural executive chef for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Grant performed a culinary demonstration showcasing reinvented dishes from Hercules Posey and James Hemings, enslaved people who served as chefs to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Serving black-eyed pea fritters, crawfish macaroni and cheese and pepper pot short ribs, Grant emphasized the importance of Black cultural foods in the white-dominated field of culinary arts.
Food has the ability to connect people from all backgrounds, according to Grant.
“One of the most important things that I learned about food is that it’s the callus that connects all together. No matter where we’re from, no matter what culture, what background we are, we all have this thing called food that connects us. It feeds us, it nourishes us, it tells the story about who we are, our heritage and our traditions,” Grant said at the event.
American cuisine is defined by the contributions people of color have made, according to Grant.
“I really enjoy telling stories behind food. We’re here to talk about Hercules Posey and James Hemings, both who really started to help guide what American food is,” Grant said. “American food was built on the backs of Brown people, Latinos, Asians, many diverse people because of the migration through the transatlantic slave trade.”
Posey, an enslaved man, was widely admired for his culinary skills and was brought to Philadelphia by Washington to cook for the presidential household. Later in his life, Posey emancipated himself and was one of few enslaved people who managed to escape enslavement from Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, during his lifetime.
As a boy, Hemings was taken to Virginia to serve in Jefferson’s household. Later in his life he was trained as a chef in Paris and later in his life negotiated for legal manumission.
Hercules and Hemings are critical figures in the history of American cuisine, BSA and GUSA president Nile Blass (COL ‘22) said.
“Hercules and Hemings are very unique figures. Even in their enslavement, they became foundational to not only Black cuisine, but American cuisine in general,” Blass said. “The important thing to understand is that despite their skill, neither of these men were freed by Washington or Jefferson, they either had to run away or contractually negotiate their manumission.”
Food allows people to engage at a deeper level with Black history, according to Blass
“When we’re talking about Black history, it’s very intangible, and it’s not really something we get to interact with, it’s something we read about. So I think through different elements, especially food, it becomes something we are actively interacting with and something that’s meaningful,” Blass said at the event.
White people have historically left Black history out of American history by pushing sanitized, inaccurate depictions of Black people and culture. Most recently, states across the United States have attempted to block the teaching of critical race theory, with many conservatives comparing the theory to socialism or Marxism.
People often tokenize Black chefs for their identity rather than their talent, according to Blass
“This contemporary understanding of what it means to be Black in the cuisine field, and what it means to be loved in that superficial sense and not as a person is something that a lot of Black and Brown people still experience in the culinary field,” Blass said.
Food provides an invaluable opportunity to connect with history, according to Grant.
“People who put a lot of love, tradition and heritage in food, the food is always great because it always tells a story. It always brings you back to a particular time in your life or a particular time throughout your travels,” Grant said.
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