“Afro-American cookery is like jazz—a genuine art form that deserves serious scholarship and more than a little space on the bookshelves” (Smart-Grosvenor xviii).
Originally published in 1970, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s cookbook/memoir Vibration Cooking: or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl really began in the coastal waters of South Carolina, where the Gullah Geechee people, descended from West Africans, created their own unique culture, language, and foodways. A self-proclaimed culinary griot, Smart-Grosvenor uses food, and stories about food, to bring people together—an early visionary of the self-stylized food documentarian genre. What her work captures—beyond the literary imagination of an African-American woman in the mid-twentieth century—is the need for serious scholarly attention to recipes as a form of storytelling.
Vibration Cooking is a series of vignettes about Smart-Grosvenor’s life, but what connects each vignette are the recipes. Integral to the surrounding narrative, the recipes extend, complicate, or connect the stories quite literally—they are often dropped in the middle of a sentence which continues after the recipe concludes (see recipe for Cousin Gussie’s Coconut Custard Pie, Figure 1).
Sometimes recipes are layered on top of one another, like when a story about returning from a hunting trip leads to a recipe for smothered rabbit, which is immediately followed by a recipe for squirrel, then venison, before moving onto “recipes” (but really just humorous statements; Figure 2) for peacocks and pheasant and others, before finally returning us to the hunters.
When I assign Vibration Cooking in an introductory literature class on food at a predominately white institution, students are immediately struck by Smart-Grosvenor’s familiar and engaging tone: she treats her audience like an insider, writing as though we intimately know all the people of her world. Simultaneously, she maintains a critical analysis of race: Smart-Grosvenor doesn’t like being essentialized as a “soul food” writer, as it minimizes the culinary traditions celebrated and embraced by Black people around the world. She loved saltimbocca just as much as collard greens, and she wrote for a similarly global audience. Other critiques of racism are woven throughout Vibration Cooking alongside experiences of shopping and food culture writ large. In one vignette, she writes of a greengrocer where the Black employee always packages the greens but is never allowed to take the customer’s money; in another, she writes how “so-called gore-mays” are just like plantation owners who take credit for what Black folks created or discovered long before it was considered sophisticated.
My first question to students after assigning Vibration Cooking is always: “Did you actually read the recipes?” Almost resoundingly the answer is no. Students skip or skim through them, as though they are simply instructional tidbits sprinkled throughout the text and included just to interrupt the “real” narrative. Discussions about why they skip them range from individual preference (I’m not going to cook anything, so why bother) to a critical disavowal of recipes as literature (they’re just instructional, right?). What students often overlook in these moments are how they perpetuate misogynist and racist stereotypes by refusing to see this domestic aspect of Smart-Grosvenor’s writing as valuable and intentional: Black women in particular use food in creative and ingenious ways to combat racism and oppression, as scholars such as Dr. Williams-Forson suggests in her work on Black food history. What Smart-Grosvenor’s work teaches us through the act of reading it is how much knowledge can be embedded in what, on the surface, might appear trifling.
That most of the students skip the recipes upon the first read tells me something about our relationship to food and identity, particularly as Smart-Grosvenor obviously intends for them to be read. Even when directly embedded into the story, readers still don’t stop and fully listen to the Black woman speaking. Some people ignore her expertise and knowledge in light of preconceived ideas about what makes a narrative whole. Upon a second reading, students realize the recipes contain more than instructions—they are moments of humor, and history, and, perhaps most importantly, integral to the understanding of the narrative. What Smart-Grosvenor does through her writing is create an active, participatory work of literature that requires a reader to recognize meaning-making as an embodied experience: if we really want to know how to cook, learn, or be human, we must respect the intentionality behind others’— and our own—narratives. We have to unpack what identities we claim through our own food choices. Without deep, mindful engagement with the whole text, we miss out on all the good stuff.
Looking at recipes as narrative highlights the performance embedded in all texts; just as a moving picture captures the physical embodiment of the individual on film, recipes capture the entangled embodiment of people, place, and food. Recent feminist scholarship has determined that recipes are valuable artifacts of literary history (as the very existence of the Recipes Project alone demonstrates). Recipes are always embedded in a culture and time; they capture a moment rich in historical meaning and detail, particularly of those whose narratives have often been excluded from white European canonical spaces. Smart-Grosvenor’s work in Vibration Cooking is just one such example of a Black literary tradition rich with possibility.
Dr. Rhiannon Scharnhorst is a Lecturer in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University and an affiliate with the Kenan Institute for Ethics What Now? network. Her current research explores the complex negotiation, construction, and contestation of authenticity through a food studies curriculum in the writing classroom. When not writing, she is throwing pottery on the wheel in her backyard.