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The celebration of everything delicious begins and ends with the foods and cooking traditions brought to this country through the African diaspora. This complicated tale is skillfully unpacked at a spectacular show put together by the Museum of Food and Drink, a mobile museum based in Brooklyn. This fascinating culinary deep dive curated by Dr. Jessica B. Harris and a long list of luminaries.
Here’s why you need to experience African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.
The Legacy Quilt
When it comes to setting a welcoming table, nothing will likely ever top the impressive centerpiece to this exhibition, a tour de force created by Harlem Needle Works. It’s a massive quilt — 14 feet tall, 30 feet wide — that lays out the history of African American food in a deeply engaging way.
The quilt features 406 blocks that recognize the contribution made to the nation’s cuisine. That includes some famous faces and more than a few folks who might stump the most ardent food historians. For instance, culinary legends Edna Lewis and Leah Chase, Marcus Samuelsson and Carla Hall are immortalized on this impossibly colorful canvas. But there’s also a shout out to the Payne family of Memphis, a hard-working crew making some of the best barbecue in the universe for decades.
“Payne’s Bar-B-Q in Memphis, Tennessee, is a family operation that opened in 1972. When Flora Payne’s husband Horton passed away in 1984, she and her mother-in-law, Emily, took over the restaurant. It is now run by Ron and Candice, Flora and Horton’s children,” the block’s accompanying message reads.
According to MOFAD, graphic designer Adrian Franks created 400 illustrations, which have been printed onto fabric, then skillfully cropped, and appliqued onto its respective quilt block by artists. Journalist Osayi Endolyn contributed copy for each block, outlining that particular contribution to American cuisine. Michelle Bishop is the founder and director of Harlem Needle Works.
What a heartwarming collaboration all around.
Ebony’s Test Kitchen
The Chicago-based magazine’s space for recipe development famous for its eye-popping psychedelic style was saved by Landmarks Illinois and transported to The Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall for its star turn in this special show.
Charla Draper, a former Ebony food editor, was moved when she stepped into the kitchen again: “I hadn’t really considered my connection to food history until I saw the exhibition and thought about what it meant. It was very rewarding,” she said in a phone interview.
Draper — whose image is woven into the Legacy Quilt — was instrumental in giving Ebony’s popular Date with A Dish feature a welcome refresh when she came on board in 1982. She was also the first to work in the now-legendary test kitchen.
“We wanted to appeal to novices, as well as the experienced cook,” Draper said.
That broader audience led to robust ad campaigns by food companies in the magazine and an elevated profile for African American foods across the nation. Yet, the contributions from black cooks, farmers and culinary pioneers has not received the recognition so deserved. Until now.
Food historian and award-winning writer Adrian Miller served up some context on why this exhibition is essential viewing:
“It’s fantastic that African American cuisine finally gets a comprehensive tribute. Every aspect of African American culture—the way way we dress, entertain, play sports, talk, wear our hair, you name it—has received worldwide attention except our food traditions. When dishes from our culinary traditions do go global they are often disconnected from African American culture. I think that’s because our food has been stigmatized and lacks consistent promotions from our culture’s prominent tastemakers.”
And, yes, Miller’s mug is adorned on the Legacy Quilt, a tribute he said is thrilling: “I’m honored to be part of MOFAD’s much needed and timely culinary celebration!”
One of the many advisors to this massive undertaking, Dr. Scott Barton, heaps praise on the tireless efforts of the exhibition’s lead curator: “Jessica’s breadth of knowledge and lived experience as an African Diaspora culinary historian, journalist and traveler for four-plus decades provided us with a strategy to organize and orient the quilt. We elected to use fabric patterns to signify change in status and identity through the centuries, and as best as possible consider who or what were change agents or keystone figures, events, technologies or skills that needed to be signposted.”
Many will recognize Dr. Harris from her star turn on the smash hit Netflix series, High on the Hog, which was based on her award-winning book.
Tell your story
Taking the exhibition to a new level of engagement, organizers have invited everyone to the table, asking for African American food businesses to submit their information for an interactive map and for individuals to step up with a shout out for their favorite culinary hero who they’d like to see on the Legacy Quilt. “Think of someone you know who has made their own contribution to food and drink. It can be a historical figure, someone in your family, or someone in your community,” the invitation reads on the MOFAD website.
Stories from the Legacy Quilt are being regularly shared on MOFAD’s Instagram feed, including the well-deserved spotlight shining on chef/farmer and author Matthew Raiford who credits the strong Black women who raised him with feeding his passion for all things edible. That’s the best kind of social media.
Watch this preview of the exhibition African/American: Making the Nation’s Table, which runs through June 19 at The Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall. General admission tickets are $15 and can be booked online.