During the holiday meals of B. Smith‘s western-Pennsylvania girlhood, the children of her extended clan learned some essential lessons: How to set a table. How to arrange flowers. Which dishes had been prepared by whom. How to chat with the one adult who invariably sat at the children’s table, signifying the next generation’s importance in the broad connectedness of family.
What she took away from those hallmark meals, said the lifestyle maven, TV commentator and cookbook author, were their conviviality and the full-out comedy of her kin. “There was lots of conversation,” Smith said. “It was the children learning about grace and poise. There are many things that we do in life to make things beautiful, and when children are exposed to that, they act so much better.
“The holiday meal,” she added, “is a learning tool as much it is about having a great time. It’s almost learning without knowing it and creating a foundation. Aunts and uncles and cousins are coming to a meal. There’s a lot to take from that.”
The owner of restaurants in New York City’s Theater District, Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and the Hamptons in New York, Smith was recently tapped as the first spokesperson for the National Park Service’s decade-old African American Experience Fund, which spotlights and raises money to preserve 21 black-heritage sites.
From inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where she’d spent the day before as a presenter at the Soul Train Awards, she offered her reflections on how Thanksgiving is more than corn bread dressing, Grandmama’s signature collards, Auntie’s mac and cheese and such. It is a sharing of stories and backstories about how families, how a people, came to be.
“We’ve got to get more of the word out about who we are, where we’ve been and, hopefully, that we’re moving forward,” said Smith as she stood in the place that launched civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
Sunday suppers at her childhood church, Morning Star Baptist, provided a respite for her pastor while also letting him get to know his flock up close. For so many reasons, she added, food is an entry point for exploring the expanse of black American history.
The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor became the 21st Experience Fund site last month. The food of the Gullah and Geechee people is as central to heritage as anything else, what with making-do enslaved and recently freed blacks improvising in the kitchen, said native Carolinian Michael Allen, a 20-year National Park Service veteran and community-partnership specialist who directs the Gullah/Geechee Corridor, which extends roughly from Wilmington, Del., to St. Augustine, Fla.
“If you understand the food, you understand the people,” Allen said. “Food was central for the slaves, who actually did have some control over what came to their table in some areas. Eating was a social hour. Sitting to eat was an education; it was a training opportunity.”