Ark Republic followed up with Chef Wanda Blake on food culture in San Francisco. Through the waves of gentrification since the late 1960s, we wanted to know about the shift in the food culture of the city.
Named as the “Best Food City” by Bon Appetit in 2015, San Francisco received praises for its authenticity and diversity. Ironically, outside of the five star restaurants receiving accolades, gentrification had been rapidly erasing longtime communities that created the soul of its palette.
In our Q&A with Chef Wanda Blake, she talks about her exposure to the two cuisines that make up up the flavor of the city African American culinary traditions and East Asian food. In particular, she explains how the Black Panther Party was the first group to implement the idea of food justice through their breakfast program. Now that many restaurants and people who once fed the city are gone, we ask Chef Blake, about the identity and culture of San Francisco in a post-gentrification reality.
Ark Republic: Tell me about Black food culture in San Francisco and how it defined the city?
Wanda Blake: When you look at the food scene in general in San Francisco, it’s very much an umbrella of immigrants. Because when you look at the food here in San Francisco it is the most diverse selection of food that you see anywhere in the United States especially during the times when I grew up”.
It’s very unique that in San Francisco, not only do you find, what we called growing up, Chinese food. And at that time, it was primarily Cantonese. But, as the city grew and expanded and the immigrants increased the breakdown of the food, the diversity of the culture of the food broke down. That now it’s Asian food; and it’s Mandarin; and Hunan; and Szechuan; and there’s Thai food; and Korean food and there’s Vietnamese food.
Within the Black culture, we had our barbecue food and we had our southern food and we had [another type of food lineage that] I consider [to be important is] the Nation of Islam to be food based on our religious culture within the Black community. It’s the immigrants who have made the food scene of San Francisco very very unique.
Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program in Oakland in 1969. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth Marion Baruch.
AR: Do you remember an intersection between food and activism? What did that look like?
WB: The thing about San Francisco is, it was very much a part of the activism, social activism [during the time]. San Francisco was the second chapter of the Black Panther Organization, that started in Oakland. And San Francisco was also very much a part of the . . . free breakfast program for children at the Sacred Heart Church in the Fillmore area of San Francisco. The San Francisco chapter of the Black Panther party also provided free food to the people in the community. So, food and activism primarily started within the Black Panther Party within the black culture of San Francisco.
You know today I don’t, I don’t really see as much of a cultural food presence in San Francisco. I’m not saying that there aren’t Black-owned, Black food restaurants in San Francisco, they’re just not as many and not as many in the sense of what I grew up with.
There is this one place that I still go to today, that is Black-owned and has always been Black-owned and actually it’s in its second generation. Where the daughter is running it. It was originally called ‘Two Jacks’ [ at 401 Haight Street] and now it’s ‘Nikki’s Place.’ [Actually called Two Jacks Nik’s Place] and it’s a fried fish place. And it’s one of the only places I know that you can get fresh fried fish, particularly catfish that has bones in it. And I know people are like, ‘I can’t deal with bones, give me fillet.’ But you can’t, a fish with bones in it is like steak with a bone in it. You’re getting more flavor because of the bone. And Nikki’s Two Jacks, the consistency of how fresh the fish is and how well that fish is cooked, has stayed consistent for all of these years. So that’s one of my favorite places to go to eat in San Francisco”.
AR: How did those coming in create a uniquely SF food scene?
WB: San Francisco is still my primary place to eat my Asian food and it’s not that I can’t get Asian food in Oakland or Berkeley, but one thing about San Francisco is the variety of Asian food is larger than it is in Oakland . . .
My taste buds tend to be more of a garlic and spicy. So, I’m more into the Hunan and Szechuan and Mandarin cuisine of Asian food. My Vietnamese, my Thai food, [in] which those you can get those in Oakland, but I have my places that I go to in San Francisco”.
The other thing that I’m remembering is that I got introduced to Dim Sum in San Francisco and it was because Betty, who had brought the neighborhood corner store from Fred. She was going to a supervisor’s meeting about the zoning of stores in the neighborhood and she wanted me to go to the meeting with her because I mean, she’s a store owner in the neighborhood, but I was a resident of the neighborhood. She says, ‘We’re going to go to the meeting and then I’m going to take you for some Dim Sum.’ And I’m like, ‘you’re going to do what?’ (hearty laughter). And I remember her taking me to Chinatown and watching that [lazy Susan rotating tray on the table] go around with all these little delicacies and all these little pots and containers and that was one of my best food experiences of eating Dim Sum.
AR: Is that culture still present? If so, what does it look like? If not, how has it changed the identity of the city?
WB: Changes. Changes in the city. I think not having as many Black-owned food businesses has definitely changed the identity of San Francisco, but it goes in hand with the gentrification of San Francisco and also of the displacement of Black people from the city.
I was reading that San Francisco has the highest number of displaced rates of Black people from a city, then any city in the United States. Now, how accurate that might be, I’m not really sure. But if I look at a comparison of the number of Black-owned restaurants here in San Francisco based on what I grew up with, that could be pretty, pretty accurate because you have . . . a supply and demand based on demographics. And If you don’t have the people there, then [you don’t have] the commerce [for] it. You also lose it hand-in-hand.
So that diversity of San Francisco and its Black history and development is not advancing, let’s put it that way. It’s not advancing and I’m holding on to memories of what that food scene was, and as I grow my own food business. I will express myself through my food, through my culture, through a history I have lived that was based in San Francisco.
Feature photo of Hazel’s Southern Bar & Kitchen on 1446 Market Street, San Francisco, California. Be dope and support.
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