The Majesty of VertaMae Smart-Grovesnor, Pt. 2.

LaToya R Jefferson-James
8 min readJul 21, 2023

Whereas the last post introduced the world to Dr. VertaMae Smart Grosvenor, I would like to introduce the world to her work with this posting.

Well, Dear Reader, haven’t I been gone for a long time? Let’s see: I have been teaching a gazillion classes, my kids have taken turns being sick, my uncle died of a massive heart attack suddenly, and I am battling asthma with all of my might! With that said, I need to do a better job of guarding my writing time.

Now, on to the posting: VertaMae Smart-Grosvenor is a towering giant of a Renaissance woman. Do we consider people Renaissance man or woman any more? A person who is excellent across a variety of disciplines? Who does that anymore? We are all specialists today and rarely do we take time to dabble in other disciplines or even look at them. Sadly, many of us arrogantly believe that our discipline or methodology is the only valid one. We do not leave room for new knowledge or new ways of thinking about and solving problems, but that’s another post. For now, let me get off my soapbox and back into this post.

Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor downloaded from Blackchicsmedia.com

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, the last Renaissance woman ever made, was excellent at whatever she chose, but her home medium was food. In a time when many African Americans all but ran away from ethnic roots, Smart-Grosvenor proudly proclaimed her Gullah (or Geechie) ethnic heritage and announced her rural beginnings with no apologies. Please click on the following link in order to hear a young VertaMae speak on artistry/heritage/politics/work/regional differences in the way that only she can.

(2179) Excerpt: Interview with Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor — outtakes — YouTube

Before I go on singing Smart-Grosvenor’s much-deserved praises, I have a question: what is American food? Can we even define a cuisine called, “American”? Maybe apple pie? That’s what my uncle just contributed to this blog post (For real, he just said, “All the rotten shit you can eat,” but then cleaned it up for my reading audience. Don’t tell him that I told ya’ll that, Reader). I do not think that we can define “American” food outside of what is fast and unhealthy. For some reason, well, I know the reason: African American food has been maligned as the original “heart attack food.” Is it? Did African Americans invent hot dogs? Furthermore, our eating habits have been stereotyped and used as racial canon fodder against us for more than a century. Even today, a Black person’s lunch bag can easily become the stuff of laughter and embarrassment in the wrong settings. In mainstream entertainment, for a long time, we were always shown as “cooks,” “maids,” “mammies” and servants, but never portrayed as chefs, cookbook writers, or the culinary geniuses that we know many of our ancestors to be. Last, Black people have been written out of greater American food culture through racialized stereotyping brought into publishing politics: this is unfortunate. Though our food is the stuff of racialized laughter and jokes, we originated much of what is considered the best of American cuisine during slavery. One cannot name an original American food tradition that has not been cycled through the hands of Black people. Period. And for those few foods that are considered American that are not Black, those belong to indigenous culinary traditions.

For the aforementioned reasons, Smart-Grosvenor is worth the effort to read, particularly her first cookbook.

Downloaded from French Grits. If you would like to purchase this text, please use the following link: Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl: Smart-Grosvenor, Vertamae, Williams-Forson, Psyche: 9780820337395: Amazon.com: Books

It is still in circulation and still resonating with Black audiences around the globe. This book is officially 53 years old: it was originally published in 1970. Vibration Cooking has been passed around specific Black communities, talked about in Black circles of all classes and educational levels, and used for its recipes even when it was hard to find in the book stores. Black people have kept this book alive: resuscitating it when the publishing industry wanted to declare it dead. But why? Why do Black people keep this book alive and in print?

First of all, this is a cookbook. There are great recipes from many parts of Black world culture. Sometimes, in the midst of Smart-Grovesnor’s storytelling, we can forget that. There are stories about where she was born, “Right across…from where Uncle Bubba lives today” (1). Her maternal and paternal grandparents make appearances. There are friends who are a virtual roll-call of everybody who was anybody in the Black Arts Movement. There is somewhat of a half of love story there. There is a glimpse of racist New York, intimate conversations in the kitchen, and interactions with her children. In short, this book is Black kitchen table talk in print! In this fast-paced life, how often do we forget that the kitchen is the heartbeat of Black life!

Weaved throughout her writing, Smart-Grosvenor acknowledges the paucity of published Black chefs and culinary artists. Her book, in its storytelling capability, seeks -not to correct this- but to acknowledge that the hole in our culinary American life is there. Black people have always cooked. Because we have been deprived entry to the greatest culinary school or even quality ingredients (in certain areas), we have always had to improvised and make gourmet meals from scratch. Rather than celebrate our ingenuity, we have been maligned for doing the best we could in impossible situations.

Second, Reader, Dr. Smart-Grosvenor’s conversational style can be deceiving. She can throw anti-racist and anti-colonial punches within her stories just when you have gotten accustomed to her kitchen-table style tone, Reader. This is a direct stylistic nod to Zora Neale Hurston. If we recall, Hurston was SEVERELY criticized by her Harlem Renaissance cohorts for not addressing systemic oppression. Hurston, for her part, did not mince words against racism. Rather, she demonstrated the racism with her stories and passages within novels. There is this poignant scene in Their Eyes Were Watching God when the Floridian powers-that-be were trying to enforce segregation after a devastating hurricane. The bodies were too decayed to positively identify them racially. The workers were forced to use hair texture as a racially-identifying marker. What God erased, the Florida government officials tried to retrace. If that is not resistance in writing, what is? Somewhere in my rabbit-hole of notes and Youtube clippings featuring Smart-Grosvenor, she says that Hurston was one of her biggest influences and it shows.

Dr. Smart-Grosvenor uses the same easy, conversational technique. In the midst of talking about a recipe, she may drop a line that reads something like (and I’m paraphrasing here): “to white folk, soul food is a trend that is in passing, but to Black folk, we have always had soul in our food the world over; Black Americans do not have the recipes for soul food.” I use this as an example, because Smart-Grosvenor was adamantly opposed to the term, “soul food.” In another example (and I am not paraphrasing here), she drops the name of Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the South African heart surgeon. While Barnard is generally celebrated for his expertise, Smart-Grovesnor references the fact that Barnard and many medical pioneers used Black people as experiments. Ouch!

Christiaan Barnard (on the left). Downloaded from NPR. The original article: In 50 years, heart transplant surgery hasn’t changed significantly — WHYY

In addition to taking verbal swipes at systemic racism, Dr. Smart-Grosvenor’s friends are a roll call of Black Arts Movement participants, cementing her unacknowledged role as a BAM activist. While some names, such as John Coltrane, are included in the text, she mentions several, lessor-known figures such as actor Raymond St. Jacques or Broadway actress Vinie Burrows.

Last, this book is important, because Smart-Grovesnor embodies the long Black tradition of collapsing the organic and traditional intellectual knowledge in one body of work. Traditionally, African Americans are taught that personal experiences and wisdom gained through life have no place in hallowed academic spaces. Smart-Grosvenor, like Hurston, demonstrates that we can carry our lived, Black experiences with us to the classroom, marry them with what we are learning, and produce an entirely new battery of knowledge. There is nothing wrong with our organic intellect and traditional intelligence does not and should not negate it. Smart-Grosvenor’s ability to cook rice like an adult and her attention to the details of her family’s and community’s cultures that drove her to seek more academically. At the time, Dr. Smart-Grosvenor was the only culinary anthropologist -Black, white, or otherwise — in the country. Likewise, Hurston’s attention to the stories around her drove her anthropological curiosity. The stories told at the community store in Eatonville formed the bases of many of her creative works. Hurston was both organic and traditional, and she weaved those two separate ways of knowing together seamlessly: so did Smart-Grosvenor.

Like Hurston, Smart-Grosvenor was both creative writer and trained social scientist. Her academic training and storytelling prowess gave way to a sociological tract.

Image downloaded from Amazon. Please use the following link for purchase: Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap by Verta Mae: Smart-Grosvenor, Vertamae, Nadasen, Premilla: 9781517906078: Amazon.com: Books

This book details the plight of one of America’s most silent/silenced constituents, the army of underpaid Black domestic workers that once populated megacities during and after the Great Migration. Before the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas affair, Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off gives glaring accounts and analyses of domestic woes that include the sexual harassment of Black women workers by white husbands and the inhumane treatment of Black women by white women. Because Smart-Grosvenor is an excellent teacher and trained social scientist, this book begins at the beginning (slavery) and stretches to New York in the 1950s and 1960s. She does the same in Vibration. Right in the middle of a great story, Smart-Grosvenor may stop to explain the origin of gumbo or how the Roman used some dish to celebrate.

Well, Reader, I was never good at crafting conclusions. It seems that there is always much to say and little time to say it. I could go on talking about Smart-Grosvenor, but I have done something a little different this time. I have including links to purchase her works. Fall down your own rabbit hole of culinary and cultural joy this summer. I have tried several of the recipes myself and have remembered how much fun our church programs were in the process. The food made the programs that much greater, and they were as much a part of praise and worship as the sermon.

Until next time, Reader. Also, this is not coming from my teaching binder, but from my own research interests. Who knows? Maybe I will craft a pedagogical essay or a Black Arts Movement Encyclopedia article about Grosvenor. But this is not the last time you will hear from me and Dr. Smart-Grosvenor. She was a phenomenal scholar, activist, and as I hear it, cook. She deserves the same lionization as Hurston. We need to be sure that she gets it.

If you like this article, you know what to.

--

--

LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.