For Chef Wanda Blake, cooking is more than a trade, it is a spiritual calling to preserve and teach a tradition often homogenized under the term “soul food.” Her pop ups show the complexities of Black cooks in America, and the growing initiative to maintain their culinary history.
Wanda Blake is up at a quarter to 6 a.m. to prepare for an intricate and special ceremony. Before entering the sacred grounds of her home — the kitchen — she pulls out a housecoat that she has been wearing for the past week while formulating intricate spice mixtures.
Blake accents the housecoat by cautiously adorning it with a blue and white gingham apron with strips of yellow and red. She gently ties the apron around her neck while thinking of the picture of an ancestor who used to wear one just like that.
For Blake, this is her cassock, surplice and cinctures. Her ceremony is cooking in the tradition of her ancestors. Her altar is the countertop and stove.
In meditation, she thinks of textures, tastes, songs, smells — memories to retain the food from Black women — enslaved, freed, domestics, deaconesses and otherwise — who cooked many meals in kitchens across America.
Today, she only collects the essential spices and knives that she must take because she will conduct mass at one of kitchens that she uses for her pop ups. alaMar Kitchen and Bar, an Oakland-based eatery and event space supports good food and local chefs like Blake, will host her one-day “Gumbo Trinity” pop up.
Blake’s pop up focuses on a theme, the trinity: bell pepper, celery and holy onion.
Those three ingredients are the essential elements in gumbo. Along with a thickening agent such as a roux (flour and fat), filé (ground sassafras leaves), or okra. At the pop up, three types of gumbo using the trinity will be served.
Gumbo, “It ain’t bouillabaisse”
Gumbo, a dish emerging from the Gulf coast, and popular from Louisiana is more than thick soup and nothing like French bouillabaisse, Blake emphasizes. It is, in its essence, an African dish.
On a trip to West Africa, Blake was able to see the connections of the Angola word, interpreted through food in Nigeria. She journals her experience in what she calls, Gumbo Chronicles, a digital diary she posted leading up to the pop up.
Gumbo Chronicles – the word, the root The word Gumbo is a word that vibrates your – taste, smell, visual and memory. The word Gumbo is derived from the Angola word for Okra – “ki-ngumbo”. I was in Lagos Nigeria, and Mamabola served me a bowl of soup. The first spoonful hit my senses – taste, smell, memory. The taste was deep in my memory but what was it doing in Nigeria? “Mamabola, what is this soup”? She said it was Draw Soup. Ok – a couple more spoonful’s and I’m bugging because I know this flavor but I can’t grab it. The next spoon and I got it – Gumbo. It taste like gumbo. But where was my shrimp, crab, sausage, chicken, roux and okra? “Mamabola, how did you make this soup?” “I chop real small the Okuro (okra), add onion, smoke fish, seasonings and water and cook it down”. I said, “Mamabola this taste just like a dish back home called Gumbo”. Wow, discovering a real root of my food culture was a wonderful experience. I know there are people who don’t like Okra and make Gumbo without it –I can make you Gumbo without Okra. But for me Gumbo is Okra and Okra is Gumbo. See ya at the table.#gumbo #okragumbo #okra #drawsoup #okrasoup #nigeria #lagos #gumbopopup #wandascooking #wandascookingpassionforfood #okuro #soup
As Blake continues to prepare for the day, she begins to educate on the intricacies of the Gulf coast staple. The differences between New Orleans gumbo from Louisiana gumbo, and how recipes and ingredients can distinguish location and class ties. Some come with chicken and sausage (poor folk) versus those with seafood (NOLA folk), and in some cases, rabbit and squirrel meat to designate the more inland country folk.
Her understanding of the layers and depth of gumbo came after years of research between New Orleans and California. Part of that was knowing the traditions interwoven into making gumbo. And sadly, those that have been lost in migration and the lack of passing it to younger generations.
“Gumbo was a man’s dish. A lot of men cooked it because it has a building aspect to it,” explains Blake. “A lot of people shared [in my inquiries] that the men of the family made it, such as a grandfather or father. And when they died, they didn’t have it like that anymore.”
One of the gumbo dishes that Blake will serve is Gumbo Zherbes, a gumbo absent of meat, but filled with various greens. “This was a gumbo served on Good Friday for people who had meat restrictions [during the Catholic period of Lent].”
Gumbo comes out of a region where there is a large concentration of Black Catholics, so often, culinary dishes intertwine with spiritual practices. Though some opted to use seafood, Blake saw the dish as an excellent vegetarian plate, but also one that connects food to history and religion.
Culture is Culinary
“Gumbo Trinity” is part of Blake’s idea to use her pop ups as a platform to educate and pass on African-American culinary tradition. “I found out that so much of our cooking is done so naturally that many people do not know about the intricacies of our food. And the young people, do not know how to cook their food.”
Blake continues, “People would say to me, ‘Oh, you do soul food.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, but there’s so much to it.’”
She explains traditional Southern food protocol in Black families. “Sunday dinners were special. They were like holiday dinners, but not as intense.”
Monday was leftovers, Tuesday through Thursday were normal meals, and Saturday’s were fun meals for the kids. But when Sunday came, you went to your grandmother’s or you ate at your house. Food was prepared early and you ate early. But those meals were special. And that is what I bring to my pop ups, those cultural elements around food, meals and community. No one eats alone.
Rolling her eyes as she locates a picture of her ancestor in a gingham apron, a textile she says was traded heavily during slavery, she stops to say, “Culturally, food in this country is our legacy because of the dominance that we had in America’s kitchen. It’s our food.”
Blake is part of a cadre of Black chefs who have been carrying out back-breaking work to maintain their traditions. More importantly, they work to protect the rich culinary history of African-Americans that often gets appropriated or white washed; especially in the American food revitalization where so much historical amnesia occurs.
Last week, several Black chefs received some of the highest honors in the culinary world by receiving a James Beard Foundation award. Edouardo Jordan won Best Chef for the northwest region and best new restaurant while Nina Compton won for best chef in the south. Dolester Miles earned the Outstanding Pastry Chef, and Rodney Scott walked away with Best Chef in the Southeast. As well, Michael Twitty snatched the Book of the Year, for The Cooking Gene.
Recognition that is long overdue, people like Clarke celebrate the win, as it is seen as a collective feat, but the everyday grind is hard and the reasons, vary. For Clarke, who is committed to keeping ancestral traditions alive, it is spiritual.
“This is culturally emotional,” says Blake, whose parents were from the south, but she was born and brought up in a pre-gentrified San Francisco.
When I cook, I feel the nurturing in the food. Right now, I feel like all the kitchen ancestors are talking to me and through me. All the cooks who nurtured those on the plantation. Yes, they fed those in the [plantation master’s] house, but they cooked and fed themselves and others. There are those who will eat my food [today] and say that it is good, but for those who understand the culture, and the significance of food culture, I want them to feel my ancestors.
Finding Black Food in ‘Frisco Gentrification
Blake grew up cooking with family members at family gatherings. After several noticed her skills, she was encouraged to pursue catering, so she attended culinary school in San Francisco while also completing studies to work in accounting.
Now, the Bay Area is light years away from when she was a child. Growing up, her mother took her to different sections of ‘Frisco (as locals call it) to taste diverse culinary presence.
“If we wanted Chinese food, my mother took us to Chinatown. If we wanted to eat Mexican food, we went to the area where Mexicans lived,” Blake reminisced.
Today, absent is a place where African-American culture can be tasted through food. Gentrification, and years of pushing out Blacks and modest-income residents who have resided in the area since the city developed, has racially and economically sterilized a city saturated with tech corporate-types and venture capitalists.
“It’s almost economically impossible to have your own place here now,” she says.
Even in Oakland, Black residents are far and few between these days, along with businesses. Pop ups have become the most viable option, not only for chefs who do not have a brick-and-mortar, but for the brick-and-mortar itself. Says Blake:
Big-named chefs have an audience, so when they have a pop up, people will come because of their name. For chefs like me, I use themes to draw people in, and I rely on the richness of African-American culinary tradition. But this is a partnership with restaurants that get it.
alaMar Restaurant and Bar is owned by a couple. The chef, Nelson German, a New York native with Dominican roots, creates flavorful dishes, while partner, May, works in marketing. To subsidize the growing costs in the area, they partner and promote small events like Blake’s pop up.
“It’s a village concept in trying to maintain the restaurant. This isn’t a food truck, this is a space where I can cook food my way, but with that, we all work together, and everyone is working hard,” says Blake.
The pop up is a pre-paid event that sold out in less than two weeks. Blake must serve almost 100 dishes of three kinds of gumbo to sit-in and take out customers. “It is new to have options at pop ups. Usually, you have one menu, but I wanted to try something new.”
Though, Blake is taking a risk by adding options to her menu, being a risk-taker and stepping out on faith is embedded in the Black experience.“When I cook, I feel my ancestors in my hands … the Sunday suppers, the church ladies and the cooks who fed America. That is the legacy I cook with.”