The name Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor conjures smiles in culinary and literary circles alike. On Tuesday, August 23rd, those two circles formed a veritable venn diagram at Restaurant Eugene, as Chef Linton Hopkins, an avid reader, hosted Smart-Grosvenor – she insists everyone call her Vertamae – for the latest dinner in our “Eugene Author Dinner Series.”
Vertamae is best known as the author of Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, recently reissued by The University of Georgia Press with a new foreword by Psyche Williams-Forson. Referring to the book, Williams-Forson concludes, “Each time I read it now, I put it down with a sigh and think to myself, Ah done growed ten feet higher jus’ readin’ ‘bout you…Vertamae.” Guests, including poet and Emory professor and archivist Kevin Young, Joe Dabney, author of The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking, and Atlanta-based singer Virginia Schenk, got high on stories Smart-Grosvenor shared from her travels, her stint as a “Space Goddess” in the Sun Ra Arkestra, and her childhood in South Carolina.
Recollections of her mother, who worked as a domestic, formed the basis of her book Thursday’s and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap. Long before The Help captured the imaginations of readers and moviegoers, Vertamae was telling it like it was. A poet and frequent contributor to PBS and NPR, she is equally captivating whether she’s discussing a poem by Baraka, the best way to cook greens, or American politics. She once wrote a letter to Time magazine after it ran a piece that dismissed soul food as tasteless and ‘a fad.’ She ardently defended “the short-lived fad that brought my ancestors through four hundred years of oppression.” Elsewhere she insists, “Cooking is a creative thing. Cooking is one of the highest of all the arts. It can make or break life."
As Williams-Forson notes, “Vertamae… is herself regardless of time and place. Rather than limit herself to being a writer, commentator, performer, mother, culinary artist, or friend – she is all of these things at once and in contradiction.” John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has acknowledged that Vertamae is ‘very important.’
In the acknowledgements to Vibration Cooking, Vertamae thanks several musicians, including “John Coltrane and Miss Billie Holliday for singing and playing everyday as I sat in my corner in the kitchen, trying to get my thing together.” Chef Hopkins got his thing together over some hush puppies, souse with hot sauce, and champagne compressed watermelon. The puppies were paired with a low country punch consisting of Myers rum, Coca Cola reduction and fresh lemon. Dopff & Irion’s gorgeous Gris complimented Jamaican style fish escaviach over a bed of red rice with garlic. This was followed by another low-country favorite, crab cakes with late summer succotash. The main course was steak with beautiful black sauce, onion pie & greens a la shepp. For dessert, palettes were pleased with coconut custard pie, sassed up by Marchesi di Gresy’s marvelous Moscato.
The title of Vertamae’s underground classic comes from her philosophy, in life and in the kitchen. “When I cook,” she writes, “I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration.” If you’re looking for good vibrations, pick up a copy of this indispensable work of literature, and head for the bar at Restaurant Eugene. Vertamae (the Latin root words that give us ‘Vert’ mean both green and truth) will delight your soul, and our chefs and servers aim to do the same.