New MOFAD exhibit highlights the history of African-American cuisine

The celebration of all things delicious begins and ends with the foods and culinary traditions brought to this country by the African diaspora. This complicated history is deftly unpacked in a spectacular show hosted by the Museum of Food and Drink, a mobile museum based in Brooklyn. This fascinating culinary dive curated by Dr. Jessica B. Harris and a long list of luminaries.

Here’s why you need to experience Afro-American: laying the table for the nation.

The Heritage Quilt

When it comes to setting a welcoming table, nothing will likely ever top this exhibition’s impressive centerpiece, a tour de force by Harlem Needlework. It’s a massive quilt — 14 feet high, 30 feet wide — that lays out the history of African-American cuisine in a deeply engaging way.

The quilt features 406 blocks that recognize the contribution made to the country’s cuisine. That includes famous faces and more than a few people who might surprise the most ardent food historians. For example, culinary legends Edna Lewis and Leah Chase, Marcus Samuelson and Carla Room are immortalized on this incredibly colorful canvas. But there’s also a tribute to the Payne family of Memphis, a team that has worked hard to cook up some of the best barbecues in the universe for decades.

“Payne’s Bar-BQ in Memphis, Tennessee, is a family business that opened in 1972. When Flora Payne’s husband, Horton, died in 1984, she and her mother-in-law, Emily, took over the restaurant. It is now run by Ron and Candice, the children of Flora and Horton,” reads the block’s accompanying message.

According to MOFAD, graphic designer Adrian Franks created 400 illustrations, which were printed onto fabric, then expertly cropped and applied to his respective quilt block by artists. Journalist Osayi Endolyn provided a copy for each block, describing that particular contribution to American cuisine. Michelle Bishop is the founder and director of Harlem Needle Works.

What a warm collaboration all around.

Ebony’s test kitchen

The Chicago-based magazine space for recipe development famous for its mind-blowing psychedelic style was saved by Landmarks Illinois and transported to The Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall for her starring role in this special.

Charla Draper, former editor of Ebony food, was moved when she returned to the kitchen: “I hadn’t really thought about my connection to food history until I saw exhibition and reflect on what it meant. It was very rewarding,” she said in a phone interview.

Draper – whose image is woven into the Legacy quilt – helped give 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 experienced cooks,” Draper said.

This wider audience led to strong advertising campaigns by food companies in the magazine and an increased profile of African-American foods across the country. Yet the contributions of black cooks, farmers and culinary pioneers have not received the recognition so deserved. Until now.

Food historian and award-winning writer Adrian Miller provided some context on why this exhibit is essential viewing:

“It’s fantastic that African-American cuisine is finally receiving full homage. Every aspect of African-American culture – the way we dress, entertain, play sports, talk, wear our hair, etc. – has received global attention, except for our food traditions. When the dishes of our food traditions go global, they are often disconnected from African American culture. I think it’s because our food has been stigmatized and lacks of consistent promotions from our culture’s leading tastemakers.

And, yes, Miller’s cup is adorned on the Legacy quilt, a tribute he said was thrilling: “I’m honored to be a part of MOFAD’s much-needed and timely culinary celebration!”

One of the many advisors to this colossal undertaking, Dr. Scott Barton, is full of praise for the tireless efforts of the exhibit’s senior curator: “Dr. Jessica B. Harris championed African-American/African culinary hitherto invisible, making them visible and in full view.

Many will recognize Dr Harris for starring in the hit Netflix series, High on the Hog, which was based on his award-winning book.

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Tell your story

Taking the expo to a new level of engagement, organizers invited everyone to the table, asking African American food companies to submit your information for an interactive map and for individuals to chime in by shouting out for their favorite food hero they’d like to see on the Legacy quilt. “Think of someone you know who made their own contribution to food and drink. This could be a historical figure, someone in your family, or someone in your community,” reads the invitation. MOFAD website.

Legacy quilt stories are regularly shared on MOFAD Instagram Feed, including the well-deserved spotlight on chef/farmer and author Matthew Raiford, who credits the strong black women who raised him with fueling his passion for all things edible. It’s the best kind of social media.

Watch this preview of the exhibition African American: Making the Table of the Nation, which runs through June 19 at the Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall. General admission tickets are $15 and can be booked online.

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