Oakland, CA –– February 13, 2012 –– The South owes much of its culinary tradition to the African American women who managed its kitchens, from the grand plantations to the proud, but impoverished hearth of the “freedman” engaged in subsistence farming as sharecroppers. These women turned out meals that provided sustenance and often livelihood for family, creating in the process the foundation for what is known as Southern Foodways. And in that food was not only sustenance, but comfort, celebration, sharing. It was food that nourished the soul.
Black History Month, an annual celebration of African American roots, culture and contributions to American life, chose Celebrating African American Women’s Role In Culture and History as its 2012 theme. Having Picán (www.picanrestaurant.com) feature a special prix fixe menu based on the Creole foods popularized by Leah Chase, the 89 years young grande dame of restaurant Dooky Chase, New Orleans, was instantly on the mind of Michael LeBlanc,owner/founder of acclaimed Picán. “I’m a New Orleans native and Leah Chase was a huge influence on me when I started conceptualizing what Picán would represent, how it would ‘feel,’” said Mr. LeBlanc. “Dooky Chase is a living embodiment of African American, Creole and Southern tradition, yet in spite of being an institution, it’s personal, warm, friendly –– it’s ‘all things Leah’ and her family.
Mr. LeBlanc also saw an opportunity during Black History Month to raise awareness of other prominent African American women chefs and cooks who have had a hand in shaping and preserving Southern cuisine throughout its history. “Mrs. Abby Fisher, author of the first published African American cookbook and first cookbook published by a former slave, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Preserves, Etc.,was intriguing to us. Born a slave in Alabama, couldn’t read or write, she eventually moved West and lived across the Bay in San Francisco as a cook and started a hugely successful business of making pickles and preserves with her husband,” said Mr. LeBlanc. “She was heralded from the dining rooms and salons of high society in Pacific Heights to the streets South of Market and along the waterfront, her food the common denominator, and was championed by the Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office in San, which published her cookbook in 1881.”
Mr. LeBlanc outlined the background of another Southern cook, Ms. Edna Lewis, noted African American chef and author best known for books on traditional Southern cuisine, and granddaughter of an emancipated slave, born in Virginia. “After finishing school when she was a teenager, she moved to New York, working as a seamstress to Richard Avedon’s wife and Marliyn Monroe, becoming a notable dress designer of African-inspired dresses,” Mr. LeBlanc recounted. “She later became a cook for the celebrated Cafe Nicholson, a haunt of bohemians and artists on the East Side, serving up her Southern cuisine for the likes of William Faulkner, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Julia Child’s editor, Judith Jones, encouraged her to transform her handwritten notes on Southern cuisine and The Edna Lewis Cookbook was published in 1972. She won the first ever James Beard Living Legend Award and was oft-referred to as the 'South’s answer to Julia Child,'" said Mr. LeBlanc.
Helping preserve “Geechee” or Gullah culture and tradition was not necessarily the objective of Ms. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Culinary Anthropologist, food writer and broadcaster. With the publication of her first book, Vibration Cooking, or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, Ms. Smart-Grosvenor traces her roots from the back roads of South Carolina to the culinary capitals of Europe and explores Lowcountry and Gullah cuisine. “Vertamae’s writings helped raise recognition of the Gullah tradition –– it’s food, language and rituals –– to the world,” noted Mr. LeBlanc. “She’s a force not only in the culinary world, but also an accomplished writer and editor for several publications as well as a long-time, award-winning contributor to NPR’s Cultural Desk as host of Seasonings.
“These women have all had an enormous impact on Southern cuisine –– that unique blend of African American, Creole, European, Caribbean, Cajun and native American –– and its place not only American culinary tradition, but illustrate how societies integrate food traditions...often long before accepting the peoples who have brought them. Food and its bringing together of diverse people, is something we all understand.
"These women are pioneering, inspriational...we're very proud to share their remarkable stories with our guests during Black History Month; I can say the more I learned about what they accomplished, the more connected I became to not only how the food we serve tastes, but what it represents, " he concluded.
Black History Month Special Tribute Menu available at Picán throughout February. The 55 per person four course prix fixe menu includes a 15 per person donation to East Oakland's Youth Development Council. Picán is Zagat rated; a back-to-back Michelin Bib Gourmand award winner and recently was named a February 2012 Open Table Diners' Choice Winner. http://www.picanrestaurant.com/Documents/Single_BHM_2012.pdf