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.
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.
Rib Tips, Hot Links, and the Mississippi Roots of Chicago Barbecue
In “Rib Tips, Hot Links, and the Mississippi Roots of Chicago Barbecue,” Gravy producer Courtney DeLong dives into the history of Chicago barbecue and its connection to the Great Migration.
When people think about the best barbecue cities in America, they tend to think about places like Memphis, Kansas City, and Austin. In doing so, many neglect a unique and innovative barbecue hub: Southside Chicago. Melt-in-your mouth rib tips and seasoned hot links sitting on freshly-crisped french fries, topped off with a slice of white bread. Sweet and tangy sauce on the side. Almost always served to-go.
The story of Chicago-style barbecue begins, in part, in the Great Migration. Between 1910 and 1970, six million Black Americans left their homes in the South to escape the violence of Jim Crow segregation and pursue greater economic, educational, and social opportunities. Chicago became a major destination, especially for migrants from Deep South states like Alabama and Mississippi. From 1910 to 1940, the city’s total Black population grew fivefold. By 1970 it had grown from under 50,000 to over 1 million.
Once early migrants traveled to Chicago, they established community networks that encouraged family and friends to join them. Facing discrimination, red-lining, and sometimes debilitating homesickness, Black migrants built neighborhoods and community structures that supported each other and welcomed Black Chicagoans.
Barbecue was one of the practices that made the journey north. Pitmasters built outdoor smokers made from box springs or empty barrels, and learned to use aquarium pits. They set up takeaway stands in vacant lots and front lawns across the city’s Black neighborhoods. Operating within the constraints of their spaces and supplies, they created rib tips from the edges of pork ribs, and hot links, a spicy sausage.
For this episode of Gravy, DeLong interviews Charlie Robinson, who moved to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta and founded Robinson’s Ribs with the techniques he learned in his youth. Dr. Marcia Chatelain, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who studies the Great Migration and food, describes the experiences, challenges, and opportunities that migrants faced in their new homes. DeLong also speaks with Dr. Barbara Ann Bracy, whose parents started the beloved barbecue restaurant Barbara Ann’s, and Mimi Johnson of Alice’s Bar-B-Que. Chicago-style barbecue tells the story of Black Americans who made the best of impossible decisions.
To learn more about Chicago and the Great Migration, this episode’s producers encourage readers to explore Dr. Chatelain’s books Southside Girls and Franchise, Michelle R. Boyd’s Jim Crow Nostalgia, and Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. For more on the history of barbecue we recommend Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke and for an understanding of the political power of food we recommend Frederick Douglas Opie’s Southern Food and Civil Rights.
The episode was produced and reported by Courtney DeLong and co-produced and co-reported by Jess Eng.
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.