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."
His own teenage daughter may not yet fully comprehend the incalculable cultural value of the cooking lessons that his wife recently began imparting in the family's home. But Allen is betting that she will someday realize that the exercise focused not only on food but also on other things — ephemeral, cultural and practical.
When you come from cooks who made do with what was on hand, you will likely not learn to use a measuring cup to gauge the proper amount of water for boiling rice. Instead, the lifelines of an index finger will show the way. Cooks from that school don't follow "what an Internet recipe tells you," he said.
"How do older Gullah people pass this style of cooking to the younger generation so that they will be able to fend for themselves in case hard times — as they have — do come?" Allen said. "For some people that means getting up early in the morning if they want fish for breakfast. Instead of going to the fish market, they can go out to the creek."
That same reality, combined with time-crunched daily schedules and shrinking household budgets, gave rise more than 20 years ago to Glory Foods, said Michael Moore, an African American Experience Fund trustee and president of that Columbus, Ohio-based grocery line. It is largely dedicated to producing what are conventionally known as soul food dishes.
"Food is a huge component of culture," Moore said. "It helps define who we are." If the foods of Africa were not entirely transportable by slave ship, if they were "erased from memory when we came across the Middle Passage," he added, Africa's children have created new traditions in a new land.
"I have profound memories that go back to my grandparents in North Carolina," Moore said. "I can still taste the food that my grandmother and, frankly, my grandfather prepared. She prepared the core meal, but my grandfather baked these amazing cakes … So it's this mash-up of the memories, the love, the family, food and culture, and this big stew on the table. Food is a vital anchor that grounds us and helps us celebrate what we've created in this country."
It isn't merely the sensory pleasure of food but what the food traditions — especially the communal meal — engender in the way of shared tales of success, hardship and even the lighter moments, B. Smith said, echoing her cohorts at the Experience Fund.
"I vividly remember the meals in the church basement when I was a little girl. We ate and the preacher rested," she said. "I remember going to my grandmother's for an afternoon meal. A holiday, a birth, a death — we celebrate with food.
"When it's perfect, we're in a comfortable place — our aunt's home, our grandparents' home, a restaurant … It doesn't matter where you do it," she Smith said. "If the children are involved, if there's a prayer involved, something that pulls us all together and makes us feel safe and makes us feel good, the food will do the rest."
Katti Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.