Generations in the Kitchen: Alice Randall on Food’s Family Roots

Soul Food Love - Alice Randall

Editor's Note: Alice Randall is the author of Soul Food Love. For Signature, Randall joins us to discuss her love of 'foodoirs,' her appreciation for Alice B. Toklas, and the journey she's traveled with her daughter Caroline to uncover how deeply rooted her family tree is in the kitchen. 

I am intrigued by hybrid genres -- particularly memoirs that double as cookbooks. The first of these I ever read, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, remains a favorite. Published by Random House in 1954, five years before I was born, that volume gave the world a recipe for hashish brownies -- very popular with boys at my progressive private high school -- but it also gave a kitchen-centered, intimate, sensually-grounded taste of bohemian ex-pat life in Paris. And it gave me my first glimpse into the loving life and homemaking of Alice and her partner, the poet Gertrude Stein.

As my seventeen-year-old self read my way through Alice’s book, stopping at first to eat some of what Picasso ate, I became increasingly intrigued with tasting Alice and Gertrude’s wartime deprivations and innovations. As I tasted, chewed, and swallowed, I became hooked on the possibility of how combining recipes with memories can make the past peculiarly present.

Years later, I gifted my teenaged daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, with The Alice B. Toklas cookbook and Vertamae Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking: Travel Notes of A Geechee Girl. I wanted her to love cookbook memoirs as much as I did.

The gifts bore fruit. A decade later, Caroline and I set out to write our family history with kitchens and recipes at the center of the telling.

Soul Food Love, our memoir/cookbook, tells the story of five kitchens. It is the story of a hundred years of cooking and eating in one black American family.

Kitchens, like people, migrate. The kitchens we recollect were located at various times in three different Southern States (Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee), in the Midwestern metropolises of Detroit and Chicago, and in Harlem, the imperial black city of the East Coast.

While shaking our culinary family tree and tracing kitchen migrations, my daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, and I frequently encountered the unexpected. For instance: the black Seventh-day Adventists, one of the earliest black vegan movements.

Adventists believe that "flesh food" should be avoided. In the early 1930s Caroline’s great-grandfather, Arna Bontemps, taught at Oakwood, a historically black Seventh Day Adventist college, in Huntsville, Alabama. While Arna taught and wrote Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800, his wife, Alberta, did a whole lot of vegetarian cooking in a mansion on a rundown antebellum plantation where she lived with her husband and children.

Caroline and I spent a lot of time searching for a Black Adventist cookbook from the thirties and never found one. What we found was The Message, a black Seventh-day Adventist magazine.

The Message began publication in 1934. (Its precursor, the Gospel Herald, was founded in 1898 and specifically targeted blacks living in the deep South.) Grandma spent a good part of her life as an Adventist cooking vegetarian recipes she discovered in the pages of the Gospel Herald or The Message.

The Message is but one of the lost details of Black Kitchen life we found researching our kitchen history, details we discovered belonged to so many more families than our own. We encountered people who remembered seeing the newest issue, folded open on a kitchen counter, turned to a recipe that would be that night’s family dinner. Others remembered recipes clipped out from its pages and tucked into larger cookbooks.

The Adventist dish I recall Grandma mentioning most often was bean loaf. I spent hours pouring through digitized issues of The Message looking for recipes for bean loafs. When Caroline and I baked and tasted our first one we had a new understanding of Grandma as a different kind of different.

Not different because you were black in the 1930s and therefore 'inferior,' or different because you ate mashed beans instead of hamburgers. Just different. Or perhaps, even, different and superior. For a black woman living in Alabama in the throes of the Great Depression, to be different and superior was a radically different kind of different. To be a vegetarian was to be that kind of different.

In our family, we discovered that that difference usually started in the kitchen.

The surprises were not always pleasant. Until we started working together on this volume, we knew the kitchen was a difficult territory for some black women, but we had never contemplated the significance of kitchen rape -- an event we discovered was sufficiently common in our family history as to merit the coining of a phrase so the atrocity might be better mourned.

And so it was weaving the recipes into kitchen memories, kitchen gossip, and foodways that sustained our family. Through two great-grandmothers, a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter, we came to know the women in our family far more vividly, for we had sought out the forgotten tastes of their lives.

Taste my life. That is an intimate invitation. That is our invitation to readers of Soul Food Love.