Illustration by Natalie Nelson.

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor Is the Unsung Godmother of American Food Writing

Mayukh Sen

Mayukh Sen

'Vibration Cooking' was a landmark cookbook. But the culinary pioneer has yet to get her due.

Illustration by Natalie Nelson.

White folks would ask Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor the weirdest questions.

They noticed that she called herself a "Geechee girl" in her 1970 cookbook-memoir, Vibration Cooking: or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. But what the hell was a Geechee girl? Was that anything like a "geisha girl," they wondered? If she was black, then why didn’t she consider herself a “soul food” writer like most other black food writers? And what was this concept of vibration cooking, anyway? Was it cooking with a vibrator?

You’d think that she was speaking gibberish when she wrote the book. In it, she’d introduced America to a radical concept: Cooking isn’t rocket science as much as it is an outgrowth of feeling.

“When I cook, I never measure or weigh anything,” she wrote. “I cook by vibration. I can tell by the look and smell of it. Most of the ingredients in this book are approximate. Some of the recipes that people gave me list the amounts, but for my part, I just do it by vibration. Different strokes for different folks. Do your thing your way.”

Trace the evolution of modern-day American food writing and Smart-Grosvenor may be one of its most fearless pioneers, encouraging the form to be less stodgy and cautious. She used food as her medium to share with the world who she was: a woman, then just 33, who’d been born in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, speaking Gullah as her mother tongue. In this book, there are no steps or measurements for recipes. Recipes are stories; stories are recipes. She blurs the line between the two so effectively that you start wonder if the line was even there in the first place.

Take the Harriet Tubman ragout, a brown beef stew simmered in peanut oil with potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, and okra, just as her Uncle Costen told her it was served in the Underground Railroad. Or the simple pound cake she made with sugar, butter, flour, eggs, salt, vanilla extract, lemon extract, and mace. (It got her a marriage proposal from a “fine fly young man"—she did not accept.) Consider the eight-line recipe for terrapins, which “ain’t nothing but swamp turtles" in her view. "Now they are the rare discovery of so-called gore-mays," she would write. "White folks always discovering something … after we give it up.”

Photos courtesy of Kali-Grosvenor Henry.

It’s an unflinchingly funny text, diaristic without being meandering, with no trace of the self-seriousness that can plague memoirs. She casually refers to Christopher Columbus as “Chris.” She calls Julia Child and James Beard “Julia and Jim,” noting that they’re the exact kind of white tastemakers who have the license to “act like they invented food and like there is some weird mystique surrounding it.”

Smart-Grosvenor didn’t have the same liberties that Child and Beard did. She wasn’t credentialed in the familiar ways they were, for one. But there was also that simple fact that she was a black woman, and the world saw her, as she wrote of a 1969 visit to Venice, as someone in “the shape of a woman with black skin.”

Vibration Cooking concerns the various ways America’s imaginings of food are stained with racial prejudice. The book’s centering of Smart-Grosvenor’s blackness still reads as “revolutionary,” in the eyes of Chef Therese Nelson, founder of Black Culinary History, a project that aims to preserve the overlooked histories of black cooking in America.

“She showed us that when you break down a culture through its food, you cut through a lot of nonsense and get to the truth much more clearly than any other medium,” Nelson tells me of Smart-Grosvenor. “The book starts from a space of fullness and asks that we see the genius in this culture in a world that is built to diminish and marginalize it. Her work wasn't about acceptance or translation for the mainstream as much as it was about killing the myth that we were less than. Her work blew my mind because it was so rooted and so specific, and didn't need to qualify itself.”

When Smart-Grosvenor died in 2016 at the age of 79, most obituaries fixated on a rather unavoidable fact: She’d worn so many hats, almost too many to count. She was a food writer and culinary anthropologist; an actress on film and Broadway; a backup singer, dancer, and costume designer for Sun Ra & His Solar-Myth Arkestra; a correspondent on NPR beginning in 1980; the host of The America's Family Kitchen with Vertamae Grosvenor on PBS. She defied classification, which makes her ripe for a new surge of recognition. Her legacy is so far-reaching, and yet she’s flown under the radar.

“Relatively speaking, she's more well-known than other [black women food writers],” Toni Tipton-Martin, author of 2015’s The Jemima Code, explains to me. “Yet, to broader America, she is still one of the more obscure figures.”

Her name may appear on lists of history’s most important culinary bellwethers, but to anyone outside the food world, her name is likely to elicit a thudding “Who?”

"She showed us that when you break down a culture through its food, you cut through a lot of nonsense and get to the truth much more clearly than any other medium."

Smart-Grosvenor’s life has been the subject of recent resuscitation efforts, most notably filmmaker Julie Dash’s The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. The documentary project was set to come out last year, but that hasn’t happened due to funding roadblocks, even though Dash and her team are sitting on hours of footage.

“It’s not the kind of documentary where people say, ‘Oh, I get it’ right away, and ‘I’m gonna finance it and help you get it made,’” Dash tells me. “This is the story of a woman whose life touches so many people, but she wasn’t Maya Angelou—she was Maya Angelou’s best friend. She wasn't Nina Simone. She was one of Nina Simone’s best friends.”

The world didn’t entirely understand Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor when she was still alive. Maybe it still doesn’t.

Smart-Grosvenor had grown up gangly and awkward as a young girl. She was born in 1937 in the village of Fairfax, South Carolina, an only child by cruel circumstance; her twin brother died during childbirth. When she was ten years old, she and her parents moved to Philadelphia, where she felt like an alien in a foreign land. It wasn’t until she was 16 when she learned that she was the only kid in school whose family ate rice three times a day.

High school, she would recall in Vibration Cooking, was the worst. She was cursed with being six feet tall and skinny—not thin, she clarified, but skinny, the adolescent equivalent of a tragedy. (Her one source of solace was a young girl named Eunice Waymon, whom the world would later know as Nina Simone.)

She sailed to Paris in February of 1958 in pursuit of a career on stage and, more crucially, the bohemian lifestyle she felt befit a budding artist like her. If Josephine Baker fared well in that city, she figured, why couldn’t she? She found many of the people in Paris cold in spite of the city’s cosmetic allure. “Paris has got the best public relations firm in the business working for them,” she would observe.

Still, in those years, she would grow into a self-possessed woman. She met a man there, sculptor Bob Grosvenor, and fell in love; they married and moved back to his native New York City, where, at 23, she gave birth to her first child, Kali Grosvenor-Henry. The couple divorced soon after, but two years later, she gave birth to another child, Chandra Weinland-Brown, whose father is sculptor Oscar Weinland.

Photo by Coreen Simpson, courtesy of Kali Grosvenor-Henry.

The family lived in various walk-ups in the Lower East Side during the girls’ childhood. Wherever they moved, though, the kitchen was the heartbeat of the home. The girls would come home for lunch from school, occasionally bringing their teachers to try their mother’s oxtail stews.

“Food was part of the magic of the day,” Grosvenor-Henry tells me. “The way I used to wake up for school in the morning was that I would smell her coffee. I would just lie in the bed. That smell meant she was awake. Then you’d start smelling what would be your breakfast, and she’d yell, ‘Hey, it’s seven o’clock! Get up!’ Of course you’d wake up, because you’d just stumble into the kitchen to whatever beautiful surprise she had for breakfast, like salmon cakes or grits.”

Smart-Grosvenor kept one eye on her community, always. She used to cook for the Free Breakfast Program for the Black Panthers. This desire to nourish those around her was an extension of a more overarching philosophy: Think globally, but have a local address. Cooking was her way of roaming the world.

“Sometimes, you would never really know what country you were going to go through in that day until you sat down for dinner,” Weinland-Brown recalls of her childhood meals. “It was really important for her to raise global citizens in the 1960s, because that’s who she was.”

Conflicts would be hashed out before dessert even arrived. Food couldn’t possibly satisfy anyone who ate it, Smart-Grosvenor figured, if the mood at the table was piss-poor.

Her mother, as Weinland-Brown recalls, would be remarkably methodical about every aspect of her meals. She’d treat the food with dignity, because, to her, it had life. Don’t bruise the lettuce, she warned. If you were eating off banana leaves with your hands, she’d ask you to wash up gently with lemon juice before you sat down. She’d set the table carefully and think through who’d be sitting next to whom, no matter if the tables had two or 20 people.

She would mediate through food, too, inviting two quarreling friends to dine at her house. The food would be so delicious, Weinland-Brown remembers, that everyone's toes would just curl. Somewhere along the way, conflicts would be hashed out before dessert even arrived. Food couldn’t possibly satisfy anyone who ate it, Smart-Grosvenor figured, if the mood at the table was piss-poor.

“You were not supposed to serve food with bad vibes,” Weinland-Brown says. “You don’t serve no dead food, like Geechees say. Dead food is made with bad vibes.”

Grosvenor-Henry can’t really recall how Vibration Cooking came to be. She just remembers the image of her mother spending her days in a kitchen, huddled over a typewriter she’d borrowed from a neighbor. Her mother had been fighting an existential urge to create something—anything—in a period when she’d only been acting only occasionally on Broadway and in Tompkins Square Park, along with serving as a backup singer and dancer for Sun Ra & His Solar-Myth Arkestra. Writing gave her a steady way of satisfying her creative longings, and the most organic place for her to start was to write about what she’d eaten and cooked in her own life. So she started writing casually, as if writing letters to friends. She wasn’t writing to be published.

Luckily for her mother, Grosvenor-Henry herself was a child prodigy who dabbled in poetry. She’d been working on what would later become Poems by Kali, a book of poems published concurrently with Vibration Cooking. One day, a friend-of-a-family-friend who worked at Doubleday came to their apartment and took an interest in her poetry.

“You don’t serve no dead food, like Geechees say. Dead food is made with bad vibes.”

“I didn’t like the attention, so I mentioned that my mom is a writer, too, trying to deflect,” Grosvenor-Henry remembers. She showed the Doubleday employee her mother’s manuscript. Both manuscripts were promptly mailed over to Doubleday.

Smart-Grosvenor’s manuscript landed in the hands of a 27-year-old black editorial assistant at Doubleday—the now-legendary book editor and agent Marie Dutton Brown. Vibration Cooking was the first book Brown had ever been tasked with editing. She found it curious, this collection of recipes without measurements, sprinkled with anecdotal vignettes about this woman's life and how food influenced it. Everything was written in lowercase.

“What I didn’t realize was how nontraditional the manuscript was,” Brown tells me. “I had only been exposed to traditional cookbooks.”

The editing process took roughly a year and a half. Smart-Grosvenor relented on her request that all sentences be kept in lowercase, but not a single page of her anecdotal vignettes was left out.

Together, the two women shaped a book that has inspired, in Brown’s view, a number of pale imitations. When Smart-Grosvenor passed away in 2016, Brown picked up one of her copies of Vibration Cooking and was stupefied anew by its charge.

Photos courtesy of Travel Notes of a. Geechee Girl and Chandra Weinland-Brown.

“I was like, Oh my God! We published this book? They quote-unquote let us?” she laughs. "A lot of it is still bold and truthful, and it represents another level of blackness that is not so exposed in the narrative since.”

Vibration Cooking and Poems by Kali came out at the same time in 1970. The mother-daughter pair was briefly the toast of the town, embarking on a joint press tour that had them on the Dick Cavett Show and the David Frost Show.

Vibration Cooking was an unusual book by 1970’s standards. It was, for one, not a vessel of recipes in the tradition of most other cookbooks. Instead, Vibration Cooking borrowed its structure from the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, a 1954 cookbook-memoir crossbreed written by Toklas, then Gertrude Stein’s partner.

“[Toklas] wove recipes into the recollections of people, places, and events,” Doris Witt, author of 2004’s Black Hunger: Soul Food and America, writes me. “So it is not that Vibration Cooking is completely unprecedented as a cookbook memoir if you look even just at that one precursor. But there are ways in which the book stands out.”

Vibration Cooking was derivative of Toklas’ book only in conceit, for Smart-Grosvenor wrote with a voice, and of an experience, that was unmistakably hers. It’s a particularly subversive text when you consider that it came out in a critical period nudged between the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements—a time, according to James Beard Award-winning author Ronni Lundy, in which black writers could often feel stymied by writing for white audiences, even liberal ones who readily digested certain fantasies about black food that Smart-Grosvenor didn’t subscribe to.

“The prevailing narrative about black food was that, no matter where an author lived, a black person in America was always one step away from always wanting to have fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, chitlins, cornbread,” Lundy says. “That was the story that writers had to tell in order to sell their books.”

Smart-Grosvenor didn’t play by those rules. She was unabashed in her love of salade Niçoise, Turkish coffee, and that saltimbocca she ate one night in Rome, with thin veal cutlets covered in bacon and drizzled with a sauce made from tomatoes, thyme, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, rosemary, and butter.

“The prevailing narrative about black food was that, no matter where an author lived, a black person in America was always one step away from always wanting to have fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, chitlins, cornbread. That was the story that writers had to tell in order to sell their books.”

So she’d go her own way, kicking down the door of American food writing and encouraging others to do the same. To Smart-Grosvenor’s critics, Lundy explains to me, this would be Vibration Cooking’s undoing. Smart-Grosvenor’s refusal, on the most basic level, to give readers easy answers and step-by-step recipes might be the reason why the book remained a cult favorite and nothing more in its day, even though it’s now become clear that Smart-Grosvenor anticipated the currents that are bubbling to the surface of modern-day food writing.

“Her book was considered a fun read, and a novelty,” Lundy says. “In this serious world, it was not considered to be a genuine cooking manual. Among people who cook in the home like she cooks, the whole concept of ‘vibration cooking’ made perfect sense—the whole idea that it doesn’t matter if I say, 'this took me five minutes'; it might take you two or it might take you ten. It’s taken a good 35, 40 years for cookbooks to start saying those kind of things.”

In the 1986 introduction to the reissue of her book, Smart-Grosvenor would write of her resistance to the label of being a “soul food” writer, a label fastened to black writers too casually where it didn’t apply.

“To limit her to soul food is to say that all black music is blues, and to dismiss gospel and jazz,” John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance (of which Smart-Grosvenor was one of many founders), tells me. “It’s essentializing her work.”

Edge says Vibration Cooking hooked him to Smart-Grosvenor’s larger body of work, pointing to 1972’s Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap, a thrilling sociological work concerned with the history of black servitude.

“To limit her to soul food is to say that all black music is blues, and to dismiss gospel and jazz. It's essentializing her work.”

But Vibration Cooking was Edge's gateway drug. He was drawn to this work that had been born of an academic spirit even though it was tonally more relaxed than any scholarly text. The casual, freewheeling nature of her prose in Vibration Cooking can bely its revolutionary undercurrents to the untrained eye. It’s a breezy read; the bulk of Vibration Cooking is just under 200 pages, not counting appendices. Edge compares Smart-Grosvenor to Zora Neale Hurston, belatedly regarded as a deeply important figure in American literary history, even though she wasn’t necessarily regarded as such in her time.

“She’s like an author who wrote the novel that all the other novelists respect,” Edge says of Smart-Grosvenor. “But the novel didn’t sell.”

Smart-Grosvenor would go on to write three more cookbooks, published throughout the 1990s, two of them companions to a PBS cooking show she hosted from 1996 to 1999. The books reflect a more conventional approach to recipes than Vibration Cooking. She would spend the years after Vibration Cooking expanding her reach across various media; she became an occasional correspondent for NPR beginning in 1980. Her assignments ranged from commenting on John Lennon's murder to visiting Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, where she encountered people who spoke Gullah like her.

"She was a guide to an area of the country I didn’t know at all, into a culture I didn’t know,” Art Silverman, now a Senior Producer at NPR who collaborated with her on the Daufuskie broadcast, tells me. “It was as remote as could possibly be for a white guy like me who grew up in New Jersey. I knew nothing about the Geechee islanders. But she knew the people, and she knew the food.”

Silverman would work closely with Smart-Grosvenor through the years on various stories. During her time with NPR, Silverman remembers, she was particularly drawn to stories about her own Gullah-Geechee people as well as the lives of white upper-crust communities.

But by the time Smart-Grosvenor died in 2016, Silverman tells me that there were few people in the NPR newsroom who even knew who she was. Smart-Grosvenor’s time at NPR was, in his recollection, “an institutional memory that didn’t carry.”

“Society perpetually ignores the stories told by and about black women, resulting in a continuous need for projects of reclamation,” Psyche Williams-Forson, Associate Professor and Chair of American Studies at the University of Maryland, posits in her foreword to the 2009 edition of Vibration Cooking. “Black women have been central to these recovery activities.”

Photo by Bernard Gourley.

Nearly nine years later, Williams-Forson isn’t quite convinced that audiences truly internalized what Smart-Grosvenor had to say in Vibration Cooking, though she believes appreciation of Smart-Grosvenor has increased marginally since her death.

”This is always the case, isn’t it?” she writes me. “People pay more attention, it seems, when the source is no longer alive. I’m not certain that people ‘got’ her and the plane on which she was speaking.”

There's an aching sense among most people I talk to that any conferrals of legitimacy for Smart-Grosvenor have come far too late.

“She was sainted after her death, but still hasn’t really gotten her due in spite of laying so many foundations,” Michael Twitty, author of last year’s The Cooking Gene, writes me. “She was a royal among us whom many failed to crown.”

Smart-Grosvenor was writing about topics in identity and food before such conversations became de rigeur within food circles. She inhabited the skin of Gullah-Geechee woman publicly, long before the world around her was willing to swallow what that even meant.

“I personally think she was ahead of her time,” chef B.J. Dennis, Gullah-Geechee himself, explains to me. “So the impact was, in my opinion, not as great as it should have been.”

One of the most key figures in recirculating this legacy has been a black woman with Gullah-Geechee roots: Dash, the filmmaker who first met Smart-Grosvenor in the flesh in 1989 when she was gearing up to cast for Daughters of the Dust, one of the few films in which Smart-Grosvenor appeared (another was Jonathan Demme’s Beloved in 1998). The film was groundbreaking, the first by an African-American woman to be released in American theaters, though younger generations may know it for serving as mimetic inspiration for Beyonce’s Lemonade. Smart-Grosvenor has very few minutes of screentime in Daughters of the Dust, portraying a minor character credited as “the Woman with the Straw Hat.” But her presence, that of a woman with a firm and upright carriage, is hard to miss.

Dash first read Vibration Cooking at some point in the early 1970s. She was stunned by the fact that Smart-Grosvenor was bold enough to proclaim, right there in the book’s subtitle, that she was a Geechee girl. Dash had grown up in a Gullah family who’d told her that Geechee was a pejorative. “It was like the n-word,” Dash tells me.

The family could only claim it in private; there was nothing worse, Dash had been conditioned to believe, than for someone else to call her Geechee. She was struck by this contradiction, and drawn to it, too: How could a word be so strewn with love and shame in equal measure? How could someone shame her by calling her exactly what she was?

Well, Smart-Grosvenor put it on the cover of her book, which offered Dash some answers. Smart-Grosvenor was the consummate Geechee Girl. In person, she reminded Dash of a long-lost aunt; she was imposing and tall, using turns of phrase she hadn’t heard since was a child.

“That’s the way I felt about her and that’s the way I wove her into the story: a family member who had a keen eye and sharp mind,” Dash tells me. “That’s Vertamae.”

Smart-Grosvenor spent the last decade of her life in an artist’s colony in Ridgeland, South Carolina, just a county away from where she was born. She suffered an aneurysm in 2009, followed by a surgery that left her with residual health problems that eventually overwhelmed her body. Her daughters brought her to New York. She died in the Bronx in September of 2016 of indeterminate causes.

Photo by Bernard Gourley.

In those final years, though, her spark didn’t dim: She’d write every day, Grosvenor-Henry tells me. But she sometimes worried that she couldn’t hold her own against the rising tide of younger talents who were iterating on what she did; Grosvenor-Henry points to Anthony Bourdain, who traveled as a documentarian like Smart-Grosvenor did in so much of her journalistic work.

She never mastered the internet, either, no matter how hard she tried. In Grosvenor-Henry’s recollection, she began to feel that she could no longer participate in the very ecosystem of food and travel that she had fortified.

“My mom really wanted to be appreciated,” she tells me. “When she was living, she didn’t feel like she was appreciated.”

Though grief has been hollowing, as the loss of a parent is, Grosvenor-Henry hasn’t lost access to her mother entirely. She and her mother talk every day, she explains to me. When no one else is around, she speaks out loud to her mother in private. You don’t really lose a parent when she’s gone.

“My mom really wanted to be appreciated. When she was living, she didn’t feel like she was appreciated.”

It’s funny, actually: She’d been thinking of her mother a few nights ago when making some baked ziti. Once she got to the end of the process, she didn’t remember—did she have to wrap it? Cover it in tin foil, maybe?

“I wish I could’ve called her and asked,” she tells me. “She would’ve given me, just naturally, all the choices I had.”

She would have told her daughter to do things her own way, in other words; to listen to her impulse and embrace it. It’s what she wrote right there on the page, with a voice so clear you can almost hear it.