Uncovering Forgotten Black Philly Food Stories

Khaliah D. Pitts and Nia Minard

You may not know their / names / but it’s doubtful / you haven’t felt /their presence. / Tasted their stories / on your tongue

We’ve searched for the crumbs of blackness speckled throughout Philly’s food history. This exhibit adds to the conversation around Black erasure in history, specifically in culinary history. As more of us step up to highlight and share Black foodways, it’s crucial to look back and give love to those who came before us: the Black folks who created much of what is now American (Phildelphian) cuisine. To this day we eat the foods, the dishes and recipes, crafted by people who we don’t even have names for. Now we invite their spirits to the table, to be loved on and celebrated for the legacies they’ve left.

Mama in the Blackground: Footprints Hands + Memories (2022)

Khaliah D. Pitts and Nia Minard

what if we saved our stories / like we save / seeds: / totem of hope / carrier of life / potential. / precious. / what more  /could we / hope / for? / what precious lives / have been lived?

“Pepper Pot Woman,” illustration in Cries of Philadelphia (1810)

Johnson & Warner
Free Library of Philadelphia – Rare Books Department

“Pe — pper pot! Jawn be / Smo — king hot! Made by Black / Hands; you done forgot.”

The Cries of Philadelphia was originally published as a children’s book in 1810. The booklet features block prints of the various street vendors found throughout the city of Philadelphia. Vendors would create unique “street cries” to attract customers and distinguish themselves from other merchants.

Pepper Pot vendors were free Black women who sold this rich stew composed of peppers, honeycomb tripe, meat, root vegetables, and greens. Rooted in the culinary traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean, Pepper Pot was Philadelphia’s first iconic food in the 19th century. Long before there were Philly cheese steaks or hoagies, there were Philadelphia Pepper Pot women crying about the city, selling stew, and ultimately shaping Philadelphia’s street food culture.

You may not know their / names / but it’s doubtful / you haven’t felt / their presence. / Tasted their stories / on your tongue

Vibration Cooking, or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (1970)

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor
Kislak Center for Special Collections – Joanna Banks Collection

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor is one of the most prominent culinary artists of the last century. Her hands have fed the likes of Maya Angelou, Sun-Ra, Ed Bradley, Victor Cruz, and many more. A Geechee girl from Lowcountry South Carolina, Vertamae’s family migrated to North Philly. Her book Vibration Cooking are her Travel Notes, a documentation of the experiences, stories, tales, recipes, ruminations, and anecdotes. Most importantly she encourages us to cook by vibration. She reminds us that food is art and history and passion. And most importantly, life.

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America (2012)

Thomas J. Craughwell Kislak Center for Special Collections – Joanna Banks Collection 

Baba James Hemings – there ain’t a table on this land his hand ain’t grace. Hemings was the enslaved chef of Thomas Jefferson, prominent and renowned. And yet he is little known. Even when acknowledged, how often are Black folks relegated to degrading titles? “Slave.” No. He was an enslaved Black chef. And beyond talented. He was almost certainly in The Room Where It Happened*, but made a ghost: just a nigga in the blackground, his consummate culinary conceptions from l’aperitif to dessert (probably the talk of the room) but not worthy of a song? 

*“The Room Where It Happens” is a song from the hit musical Hamilton, which depicts a secret dinner meeting hosted by Jefferson. The meal would have definitely been prepared by Chef Hemings though in the lyrics Jefferson claims, “I arranged the menu.”

The Brown Betty Cookbook: Modern Vintage Desserts and Stories from Philadelphia’s Best Bakery (2012)

Norrinda Brown Hayat
Kislak Center for Special Collections – Joanna Banks Collection

Birthed in 2002, Brown Betty Dessert Boutique is the living legacy of a Black family. Norrinda Brown Hayat grew up in her mother’s kitchen and watched her, Linda Hinton Brown, experiment with the recipes of her own mother, Betty. To this day this renowned bakery pulls in the food elite with the humble recipes and practices of three generations of Black women. It’s remarkable, ’cause surely this story is beyond three generations. Who taught Mama Betty to cook? Her mother, her mother’s mother, her great uncle? How many stories are folded within this book? What if we all could take the initiative and immortalize our own “Betty”?

Their (our) spirits are bigger than books. But these are a good place to start.

David Mink (White Shirt) Owner of Sansom Street Oyster House with Unnamed Oyster Shucker

Unknown, undated
Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Collection

aw shucky ducky, quack quack / niggas ain’t got no / name if they Black, “just / shuck my oyster + / boy, you make it quick” / what’s the difference ‘tween // your smile + a whip?

While the original owner of Sansom Street Oyster House is the subject of this photo, what of the being who takes up a good portion of the frame? Who is the oyster shucker? What was his name, his story? Where did he learn to prepare oysters? Did he enjoy the job? How was he feeling about the photo? Unbothered and busy at work? Annoyed? Overlooked? How many niggas in the service industry have you overlooked?

Countless times we walk into “white” establishments, overflowing with white patrons, all gushing about how rich and flavorful the food is … and time and time again, we peer back into the kitchen to find nothing but color, nothing but different shades of sun and soil.

How many Black and brown hands have stirred those that you ooh and mmm over? When you give compliments to the chef, does the man in white say thank you, or this unknown Brother?

Tasty Baking Co. Employee Mutual Benefits Assoc., January 27, 1925

D. Sargent Bell
Free Library of Philadelphia Print and Picture Collection

Let us tells ya / how much / us don’t enjoy / playing Where’s Waldo / with this shit …

This photo incited a great deal of our conversation. Taken on January 27, 1925, this photo immortalizes a dinner of the Tasty Baking Company’s Employees Mutual Benefit Association. At quick glance, you wouldn’t notice the table of Black folks, in the back, behind that pillar. If you look closely, they don’t look happy. My brother in the front right in particular is giving off some serious expletive vibes. But, can you blame him (them / us)?

Deep Down In The Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore From The Streets Of Philadelphia (1970)

Roger D. Abrahams
Free Library of Philadelphia

This white man done went / Deep Down in the jungle, look / – in for a nigga’s / blues / ‘stead, peeped sumn new / niggas spit rhyme on rhythm / stories that resist (persist?) /and / white folks stay late.

Deep Down in the Jungle (first published in 1964) is a sociological text chronicling folklore as told by the residents of the black “12th Street neighborhood” located in South Philadelphia. Roger D. Abrahams, a white man, moved to the area initially hoping to document “old time” songs from neighborhood residents that had immigrated from the south. However, Abrahams realized that most residents considered those old blues songs quite passé. Instead, Abrahams documented the emergence of what is known in the Black community as “toasts” (an oral tradition of stories and poems which are often considered the precursor to rap and hip hop). These stories, poems, jump rope songs, and folk tales reveal the tendency of Black folks to create contemporary art that displays a humanity resisting narratives of Black folks’ “absence of culture.”

Years later, when Abrahams returned to the “12th Street neighborhood,” most of its residents were white, just like you would see today. Perhaps if you find yourself wandering along one of those streets today you just may see the ghost of folks sitting on a stoop telling lies and laughing, or a gaggle of young girls jumping double dutch to a rendition of an old pop song, and maybe you’ll look up and see a historic city marker chronicling the Black people who no longer live there.

Resistance rooted in


Interested in more stories about hidden Black genius? Check out the work below:

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