Early in the evening of Tuesday, August 30, we will be gathering on the patio at Zingerman’s Roadhouse for the unveiling of a new artwork that will then be hung in the restaurant for all to see. The piece was painted by the Brooklyn-based artist Patrick-Earl Barnes to celebrate the contribution of Black American cooks, chefs, and writers over the centuries. Patrick-Earl will be here that evening to talk about art, life, and the significance of this new work, which he titled “Blacks in Culinary.”
Why commission the piece in the first place? Because, as Patrick-Earl taught me many years ago, art is how we think, and the piece will, I hope, inspire all of us to think more inclusively, more equitably, and more meaningfully about the significance of diverse contributions to American culinary history. We want to honor the people who put themselves out there over the centuries to make a difference in the cooking of this country, even while they’re being pushed down by mainstream culture. And because, having known Patrick-Earl for nearly 20 years now, I trust him fully to create art that will be true to his own creative spirit, true to history, and that will fit, both ethically and creatively, with what we do here at Zingerman’s.
I believe that “Blacks in Culinary” will, like all of Patrick-Earl’s work, draw people in. I am, I know, biased, but I think it’s a wonderful piece. If you want a non-Zingerman’s view, artist, anarchist, U of M political science professor, and friend Christian Davenport says, “I love the piece!” It will, I hope, get diners thinking about the amazing, though all-too-often-unacknowledged contribution to American cuisine that has been made over the centuries by Black chefs, cooks, and writers. On the evening of the 30th, Patrick-Earl will talk about all that, show the new painting in public for the first time, show (and sell) other pieces of his art, and more. Of “Blacks in Culinary” Patrick-Earl says:
I use symbolism for this piece, the toque aka chef hat was used to act as the visual cue. I wanted to pay homage to all the blacks in culinary by using the toque motif, so viewers can recognize the majesty of blacks in culinary. The use of the toque design and last name underneath provides viewers an opportunity to do further research on blacks in culinary. The toque is the visual language for cooking and baking.
Since the toque was meant to signify station and rank in the kitchen. I felt that all the past and present of blacks in culinary were all high ranked due to their personal and family stories I read.
I’m excited that you all will have the chance to meet Patrick-Earl in person and to be among the first folks to see the piece, as we pay homage to the great contributions of Black culinarians in American history. The event will, as it should, honor both the successes and the simultaneous suffering that centuries of racism have imposed on Black Americans, and the obstacles that people have had to push through—whether they’re culinarians or not—to get to the success to which they aspire.
One hundred three years ago, also on August 30, a history very different than what we’ll be doing at the Roadhouse in a few weeks, was playing out in Knoxville, Tennessee. Unlike the unveiling of Patrick-Earl’s new art piece, what happened that day in 1919 was neither positive, nor inspiring. Earlier that day, a white Knoxville woman named Bertie Lindsey was shot. The painful story that followed is, sadly, all too familiar to anyone who reads the news. It was alleged that she was killed by a Black man. Though Knoxville had been known as one of the most “racially tolerant” cities in the American South, within hours of Lindsey’s death, violent anti-Black riots broke out. Later in the evening, Lindsey’s cousin claimed that the murderer was Maurice Mays. At 3:30 in the morning on the 31st, Mays was arrested by a patrolman who later admitted that he held a grudge against Mays and fabricated bits of the story while suggesting to Lindsey’s cousin that Mays was the killer.
Maurice Mays is not portrayed in Patrick-Earl’s piece, but he could be—he ran Stroller’s Café, which means that he too was a Black man in culinary. What happened to him may seem extreme, but is still all too common in American history, where being Black, we know, can make life more difficult, or, in Mays’ case, lead to your unwarranted killing. Mays was well-known and widely respected in the community, but being an upstanding, engaged citizen didn’t stop the city’s police from putting him in jail. With tensions in town running high, authorities, fearing violence, transferred him to the jail 100 or so miles to the southwest in Chattanooga. An angry mob came to the Knoxville prison looking for Mays. Refusing to believe the sheriff who told them, truthfully, that Mays had been taken down to Chattanooga, the rioters violently forced their way into the jail. Once inside, they ran wild, drinking confiscated whiskey and stealing weapons, before taking it upon themselves to unlawfully free 16 white prisoners. Two platoons of the National Guard were sent in, but were still unable to stop the attacks. Knoxville’s Black citizens, well aware of the racist violence that had been spreading across the country during what came to be known for the blood that flowed in the streets as “the Red Summer,” got their guns and barricaded themselves for safety. Sadly, they were overrun by the rioters, and in the process, many died, including a deaf Black woman who was shot in the back after she failed to stop when a policeman yelled for her to freeze. Fifty-five white rioters were quickly acquitted.
Maurice Mays was not so fortunate. Although there was no motive and virtually no evidence, the case against Mays was tried and convicted. The State Supreme Court overturned the decision, but Mays was convicted again in a subsequent retrial. On the 15th of March at 6 in the morning in 1922, Maurice Mays was executed. The Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville has a campaign going to exonerate Mays, writing that Mays was “Wrongly Accused, Wrongly Convicted, and Wrongly Executed. Nearly a hundred years later his Black life still matters.”
His story is chronologically close to home as well. In another coincidence of calendars, Mays was executed by the state on March 15—60 years to the day that we opened the Deli for the first time in 1982. This intertwining of realities—a century-old racist attack; an inspiring art piece; exceptional Black American culinarians; the hard work of creative cooks who never won the fame or fortune they deserved; the celebration of all their contributions to the culinary worlds—will all be there with us when Patrick-Earl’s new artwork is unveiled on August 30.
Realizing the coincidence of dates will remind me, each year on our anniversary, to celebrate the start of our business while simultaneously honoring the pain of this historical reality. And in the same way, we can come together at the Roadhouse to honor Patrick-Earl’s painting and the exceptional culinary and cultural contributions of the people who are portrayed in it, while also feeling fully responsible for working to correct centuries of imbalances, inequities, and injustices that continue on apace all these years later.
This new piece, “Blacks in Culinary,” includes many great people: Adrian Miller, Jessica Harris, Stephen Satterfield, and Michael Twitty who are all in the news today. You’ll also note the names of the late Leah Chase and Edna Lewis who did inspiring, pioneering work for years without getting the credit they deserved, women who did business in a time when segregation was the norm and Civil Rights were anything but. And you’ll see people like Malinda Russell, Abby Fisher, and Hercule Posey, who contributed, without getting credit, to American food and cooking in centuries past working in a world where enslavement, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and lynchings were everyday realities.
I wouldn’t have said it out loud the day Patrick-Earl and I met when he was selling his art on the street in Soho in NYC in 2004, but the energetic connection between us was one of those positive ones that has the potential to lead to great things. Although neither of us knew it that day, a relationship began that has led us both to new learnings, new insights, and new inspirations. Friendships, I have learned over the years, are little talked about, but highly influential, inspirational, and important. I wrote a piece about it last year, in which I shared, “My close friends don’t show up on our company’s org chart, nor do they appear anywhere on my family tree, yet they quietly continue to be hugely important contributors to the quality of my life and my leadership.” Patrick-Earl, though he lives far away and we don’t talk every week as I do with some friends, fits that category.
Over the many years that we’ve now known each other, I’ve started to have the sense that the way Patrick-Earl paints might well run parallel to what happens in my head when I write. I’m drawn to his creative portrayal of relatively obscure but nevertheless, important people who are generally ignored by mainstream history; his love of books, reading, and research; and the fact that the messages in his work are heartfelt and strongly held, but shared in ways might, just maybe, on the right day, in the right way, help a few interested folks start to see the world in a bit of a different way than they did the day before. Which is one reason that he seemed the perfect person to paint this new piece.
Christian Davenport says, “When one spends any time around an artist, they are either left in awe, prompted to experiment, or both.” In Patrick-Earl’s (and Christian’s) case, it’s the latter. Since we first met, I have bought I think fifteen of his pieces which hang quietly but beautifully in our house. I have been inspired by his art, learned from his words, and written about it many times, most prominently in “The Art of Business” pamphlet. I have a t-shirt of one of his “Art is How You Think” pieces and another t-shirt that’s a scratchboard drawing of my chest while wearing the t-shirt of Patrick-Earl’s painting. Two and a half years ago, our collaboration grew when I invited Patrick-Earl to do a custom art piece for the Roadhouse—his style and his subject matter seemed a perfect fit for the culinary and artistic ethos of the restaurant and its long-standing commitment to “really good American food” in the most diverse and down-to-earth of ways. It’s hanging, centered on the far wall, in one of the Roadhouse’s four dining rooms. If you haven’t seen “Zingerman’s Roadhouse, LLC” in person, this is the essay I wrote about its arrival.
Patrick-Earl’s art has introduced me to amazing individuals. People like Miss S. E. Harris who, in 1911, was hired as the first female African American colporteur. Colportage, I learned, was the work of distributing religious books by carriers who were called "colporteurs.” Colporteurs like Miss Harris delivered Christian Bibles to African American communities across the country, helping many families learn to read and connecting them more effectively with the wider world in an era when isolation and intimidation of Black people was the norm in much of the country. George F. Grant is another guy I got introduced to by Patrick-Earl’s work. The first African American professor at Harvard, a Black dentist in a city (Boston) that had a long tradition of racial bias. As an aside, I also learned that 19 days before the end of the 19th century George F. Grant patented the golf tee.
It's also through Patrick-Earl’s painting that I learned about Carter G. Woodson. Probably the most prominent Black historian of his era, Woodson was a writer, a publisher, and an activist. He was the second African American to get an advanced degree in history from Harvard—following in the footsteps of W.E.B. Du Bois. Woodson saw that African-American contributions were being "overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them." He did not take the implications lightly. “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” In 1915, Woodson went on to found the Association for the Study of Negro [today, “African American”] Life and History, the mission of which was to study the "neglected aspects of Negro life and history." The next year he started the scholarly Journal of Negro History, which is published to this day under the name Journal of African American History. “Blacks in Culinary” is a small way to honor Woodson’s call to inclusive historical action.
Appropriately for this essay and for Patrick-Earl’s newly painted piece, W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous talk, “Criteria of Negro Art,” was given in October of 1926 at a dinner honoring Woodson. Earlier that same year, Woodson’s hard work led to the creation of “Negro History Week,” (which has evolved over the years into Black History Month) in 1926, to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The idea was that people would study Black history all year, and then report on their learnings during that special week in February. Woodson wrote that “those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Patrick-Earl’s “Blacks in Culinary” piece will, I hope help folks who come into the restaurant to see that although Julia Child, Alice Waters, James Beard, and Mark Bittman are who get much of the mainstream culinary world’s attention, American food history, can rightly, justly, and inspirationally be seen through a Black lens. That, when the subject of American cooking comes up we would be right, and do right, to look to Malinda Russell, Leah Chase, Edna Lewis, Stephen Satterfield, and others as the thought leaders and creative culinary contributors they clearly are.
In the spirit of the work and our shared values and beliefs, part of the proceeds from the event on August 30th will go to the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. The Museum, which will, coincidentally, be celebrating its 30th anniversary this coming March, is one of the little-known cultural jewels of our community. Last year, the Museum hosted an exhibit entitled “Where Art Meets History.” The “Artist in Restaurant” event at the end of this month and the release of “Blacks in Culinary” build on that good work. To take all that further, both financially and creatively, Patrick-Earl will be creating some pieces that will be for sale at the event, of which proceeds will also go to support the Museum.
In their own ways, all of the people portrayed in the "Blacks in Culinary" piece have had to live with their own less extreme and not-life-ending version of Maurice Mays’ experience, where no matter what you’ve achieved, you still live in the uncertain reality where you might get arrested for something you didn’t do, where you need to suffer indignities because of the color of your skin, or work a lot harder to get the same recognition you might of if you weren’t Black.
It is patently clear to anyone who takes the time to dive into the history of food and cooking in America that what all of us think of as “American food”—a good bit of which we cook at the Roadhouse—comes from the work of Black culture and creative, skilled, Blacks in culinary. I hope that in a small way, the piece can help give credit where credit is very much due. As Scott Woods wrote last year, “Arguably the greatest crime in American cuisine is the erasure of Black people in its founding. The origins of American food are frequently referred to as “diverse” or “a cultural gumbo,” while at the same time rarely making space to dig into why such diversity exists.” My hope is that Patrick-Earl's piece will get a few people thinking about the food world, and maybe the world, differently. If they’re curious, 21st-century technology allows them to find out who Edna Lewis was while they’re waiting for their food to arrive. They might read about how, although she didn’t get full credit for it at the time, she was working with fresh, seasonal food long before the food press was ready to write about it, but, in a time of segregation, she still had to enter buildings through the back door.
Or look up Leah Chase, born in Louisiana two months before Maurice Mays was executed, who wove together Civil Rights work and voter registration into her work at Dooky Chase, the first openly integrated restaurant in New Orleans. Or go all the way back to Malinda Russell, who wrote what ought to have been considered a cutting edge—and later, classic—American cookbook in 1866 that was essentially ignored for well over a century while comparable books by white culinarians became bestsellers. I hope and believe that Patrick-Earl’s new piece, hanging peacefully but powerfully on the wall at the Roadhouse, can invite those who are interested to celebrate their exceptional work while at the same time paying truthful tribute to the pain and prejudice they pushed through to do what they have done, and/or are still doing.
If as Patrick-Earl taught me, “Art is how you think,” then “Blacks in Culinary” hanging proudly on the wall in a restaurant, is a small way to start shifting the story. Who we feel connected to, who we choose to admire, whose life we aspire to emulate, is likely to alter our life path. As Michael Twitty, who’s in Patrick-Earl’s new piece, writes:
Before I officially began the journey to dig deeper into my food and family roots and routes, I was racking up an internal encyclopedia about other people and how food affected their lives as proxy for the stories in my own bloodline and body. … These were other people’s tales and paths—not my own. … What good is your own position as a culinary historian if you can’t find yourself in the narrative of your food’s story, if you don’t know who you are?
We have much work to do here at Zingerman’s to more effectively honor and make real one of the natural laws on the next list of twelve: Natural Law #17. Diverse ecosystems are healthier and more sustainable. Any way in which we can honor those who have been ignored—who are, I believe, just as important as those who became famous—to bring dignity back to places where it has been diminished. And as chef Therese Nelson explains:
We need to know where we come from. … Culinary schools, just like regular school growing up, don’t really teach you your history. You never heard about James Hemings or Hercules or Malinda Russell or Abby Fisher or anybody like that in any of your classes.… I am trying to be an authentic American chef, which necessitates exploring my African heritage, and we didn’t get that in culinary school, and a lot of students still don’t.
Robin Wall Kimmerer says that “Traditional stories are the collective treasures of a people.” “Blacks in Culinary” is then one way to help share our collective treasure. Patrick-Earl, as he always does, paints it with grace, humility, power, poetry, and poignance. The new piece will not resolve the inequities of centuries of systemic and individual wrongdoing, but, still, it is one small piece of dignity, a bit of insightful, intelligent, thoughtful art in the world that might alter a mind, change someone’s story, or open a mental door to a different way of seeing the world. Kimmerer writes,
We are told that stories are living beings, they grow, they develop, they remember, they change not in their essence, but sometimes in their dress. … Sometimes only a fragment is shared, showing just one face of a many faceted story, depending on its purpose. So it is with the stories shared here.
What she says is true, too, of this painting. In the scheme of the world, it is a mere fragment, but perhaps on the right day, at the right time, Patrick-Earl’s inspiring painting will invite those who notice and who are open to letting their own many-faceted stories shift a bit, so that those stories might be told a bit differently, and slowly but surely shared a bit more widely. It will, I know, inspire me to do better today, tomorrow, and, looking ahead, for many years to come. On the Beck Center’s page pushing for the vindication all these years later of Maurice Mays, it says, “How can we atone for a history of racial injustice? History must never be left alone, we must wrestle with it until all are set free and until this world is a better place for all to live.”