Gravy shares stories of the changing American South through the foods we eat. Gravy showcases a South that is constantly evolving, accommodating new immigrants, adopting new traditions, and lovingly maintaining old ones. It uses food as a means to explore all of that, to dig into lesser-known corners of the region, complicate stereotypes, document new dynamics, and give voice to the unsung folk who grow, cook, and serve our daily meals.
Buying and Selling Food in the Black South
“Buying and Selling Food in the Black South” is the fourth installment in reporter Kayla Stewart’s 2022 Gravy podcast season, where she explores Black foodways in the South and beyond. For this episode, she speaks to Black business owners who are trying to improve food access in Black communities. Stewart explores the history of Black-owned grocery stores and shops, and why these institutions matter in Black communities.
For centuries, Black Americans have been finding their own ways to feed themselves and their communities. From farms, to grocery stores, to corner store establishments, Black folks in the south have created their own ways to gain access to fresh food, demonstrating that one size doesn’t fit all.
Christopher Williams is the chef and owner of Lucille’s in Houston, and founder of the nonprofit Lucille’s 1913, which aims to combat food insecurity in underserved communities. In the summer of 2022, he opened Bates Allen Farm in the primarily African American community of Kendleton, Texas. The farm’s mission is twofold: making fresh food more accessible, and resurrecting a farming tradition that had previously sustained the community.
Chris is part of a growing number of Black American culinary leaders looking for ways to provide fruits and vegetables to Black people located in food deserts—low-income areas where a large number of residents lacks easy access to high-quality, fresh food. In Philadelphia, PA, Farmerjawn Community Greenhouses is known for its produce offerings, and at Black Market Kentucky grocers sell healthy food to combat food apartheid.
In April 2022, Christa Williams opened Uncle Willie’s Grocery Store in Columbia, South Carolina. She wanted to bring quality food access to her Black community in the historic Elmwood-Cottontown area, a community that’s been historically underserved. Christa’s vision for the store was rooted in community, like the neighborhood groceries that used to be common in Black communities. While Black Americans make up about 40 percent of Columbia's population, there aren’t many Black-owned businesses. Christa says that for that reason, her store has been a source of pride for the Black people in the city.
Here, Stewart interviews Chris Williams and Christa Williams about their respective projects, exploring different approaches to the question of food access. She also speaks with Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. Williams-Forson has written extensively about Black food and identity, most recently Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America, which examines the history of food shaming in Black communities. She delves into the history of Black grocery stores, emphasizing the importance of respect for people’s personal choices. Leaning into lessons from the past and having hope for a better future that makes a range of food options more accessible to Black communities across the South is the most promising way forward.
In Houston, Three Tastes of West Africa
In the episode “In Houston, Three Tastes of West Africa,” Gravy producer Kayla Stewart takes listeners to her hometown of Houston, Texas, which boasts one of the most vibrant international food scenes in the country. It’s a city where Black Americans have built their own communities and pathways to success, and where diversity is prized. It’s also where West African immigrants—from Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, and beyond—have created their own stories, including through food.
To find out why Houston is the center of this West African renaissance, Stewart starts at Safari restaurant, which Margaret and Hector Ukegbu opened in the 1990s. Safari helped appease the homesickness many Nigerians felt when they first arrived in the United States in the late 20th century.
To understand why the restaurant is so significant, we’ve got to understand Houston’s Black community and the landscape of Nigeria during the second part of the 20th century. During the 1960s and 1970s, decades critical to the Black Power Movement across the country, Black universities sought ways to connect with African countries, and vice versa. When the U.S. passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, it became easier for Africans to migrate to the U.S. Houston universities welcomed a huge number of students from several African countries, particularly from Nigeria.
This was a period of political instability in Nigeria. The Nigerian Civil War was technically only three years, culminating in 1970 but the war created emotional, economic, and political ramifications. Many Nigerians sought new opportunities in the United States, as did immigrants from nearby countries like Ghana, Senegal, and Liberia. Houston, thanks to its numerous universities, ample job opportunities and hot, familiar climate, was appealing.
And once they were here, they looked for the foods they loved from home. Margaret Ukegbu started cooking and selling Nigerian food out of her home, such as rice dishes and plantains. Eventually, she and Hector opened Safari, which serves traditional Nigerian dishes like pepper soup with goat meat and egusi soup. For 25 years, they’ve served families and leaders from across the West African diaspora.
Over time, Houston has become an incubator of sorts for West African chefs and restaurateurs to get creative and explore the possibilities of West African dining.
In this episode, Stewart interviews Kavachi Ukegbu, the daughter of Margaret and Hector, who currently runs Safari with her mother. She also speaks with Ope Amosu, the chef and entrepreneur behind ChòpnBlọk, a West African fast-casual restaurant in Houston, who’s on a mission to share the cuisine with American diners and change the narrative around the continent’s bounty. Finally, Stewart hears from Cherif Mbodji, the Senegalese-American general manager of the elegant restaurant Bludorn, about bringing Senegalese food and flavors to fine dining.
The Joyful Black History of the Sweet Potato
In “The Joyful Black History of the Sweet Potato,” Kayla Stewart reports for Gravy on sweet potatoes, which Southern-born Black Americans have baked, roasted, fried, distilled—and long revered. Stewart takes listeners across the United States to learn how African Americans are finding new, interesting ways to enjoy sweet potatoes.
Harvey and Donna Williams own and operate Delta Dirt Distillery in Helena, Arkansas. Both grew up in Arkansas, and Harvey was raised on a farm that has been in his family for generations. His father began growing sweet potatoes to make efficient use of his small acreage, and Williams grew to love the root for its nutritional value. At a conference, he met an entrepreneur distilling sweet potatoes and decided to try it himself. In 2021, Delta Dirt Distillery was born, earning a host of beverage awards. But for the Williams family, success is about more than medals. It’s about recognizing the history and pride associated with sweet potatoes–a history that’s likely made the product even more compelling to Black Americans in the area.
Jeremy Peaches is an agriculture consultant who works at Lucille’s 1913, a non-profit organization operated by Houston chef Chris Williams that aims to combat food insecurity in vulnerable communities. While sweet potatoes are beloved for their sweet, earthy flavor, Peaches says they were also one of the first major sources of economic opportunity for Black American farmers, in part thanks to their resilience during the annual harvest.
Though sweet potatoes can be enjoyed raw, roasted, or distilled, there’s nothing quite like the sweet potato pie. To understand how these pies have been comforting Southerners around the holidays for centuries, Stewart steps into the kitchen with restaurateur and cookbook author Alexander Smalls, who explains the history of sweet potato pie and why Black Americans make such a strong claim to the dish. Finally, Joye B. Moore, owner of Joyebells Desserts and Countrysides, tells of the generational traditions that make her famous sweet potato pies so exceptional.
For this episode, Stewart interviews Harvey Williams, Jeremy Peaches, Alexander Smalls, and Joye B. Moore to learn how this root vegetable nourishes Black entrepreneurs, cooks, and communities—bodies and souls.
Annie Laura Squalls and Her Mile High Pie
In “Annie Laura Squalls and Her Mile High Pie,” Gravy producer Kayla Stewart tells the story of Annie Laura Squalls, who, in 1960, became head baker at the Caribbean Room, the popular in-house restaurant at New Orleans’ renowned Pontchartrain Hotel. It was there where Squalls created her “Seven Mile High Pie,” known colloquially as the “Mile High Pie.” But while many people know the legendary pie, most don’t know the baker behind it.
Squalls was no ordinary baker. Though she never attended culinary school, she could make sweet magic happen, often thinking on her feet to tweak a recipe to perfection. Chef Nathaniel Burton and activist and socialite Rudy Lombard included Squalls’ Mile High Pie recipe in their 1978 book Creole Feast: Fifteen Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets, writing, “No one could duplicate her expertise.”
The Mile High Pie is a twist on a Baked Alaska, with layers of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry or peppermint ice cream in a pie crust, topped with tall peaks of meringue and chocolate sauce. The dessert is prominently on display in New Orleans. Vogue once named it one of the city’s most decadent desserts. Still today, it’s the first item listed on the dessert menu in the restaurant at the Pontchartrain Hotel. The hotel promotes their long-running Mile High Club, an exclusive dining experience named for the dish. Yet Stewart found no reference anywhere to Annie Laura Squalls.
That lack of recognition speaks to a bigger issue. Despite the multicultural influences that have made New Orleans cuisines so globally-lauded, Black pastry chefs, cooks, and culinary innovators have rarely been given adequate appreciation or recognition for their invaluable influences on the city’s cuisine.
In this episode, Stewart speaks to Zella Palmer, chair and director of the Dillard University Ray Charles program in African American Material Culture who aims to trace and amplify the work of Black chefs and cooks in and around New Orleans. She also interviews historian Theresa McCulla, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and Kaitlin Guerin, pastry cook and owner of New Orleans’ Lagniappe Baking. In her reporting, Stewart shows how remembering stories like Squalls’ allows us to understand a true, fuller history of New Orleans.
SFA Symposium and Spoonbread
A reflection on the 2004 Southern Foodways Symposium, by soul food scholar Adrian Miller.
A Symposium Memory
A reflection on the first Southern Foodways Alliance Barbecue Symposium, by Founding Director John T. Edge.
I’m a massage therapist and sometimes I get bored during a massage so I put in an ear bud to listen to podcasts and pass the time faster. I listened to the first episode and haven’t been able to put it down! I tell EVERYONE about this show!
This is weird
I joined SFA for food, recipes fun. This podcast is some strange NPR like show with unintelligent commentary that is in a word weird.
The content is completely unrelated to southern food. The politics and historical insights are incomprehensible and some episodes are under 5 minutes. This is not podcasting. Please start over tell me how to make low country boil, gumbo, talk about poor boys, frying, tailgating, church picnics. Are you really in the douth?
Love your show.
I just found your podcast and I love it. I love the information you have and the guests that you have on the show. Keep up the good work.