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GRACE – Beyond the Stage

GRACE – Beyond the Stage

A Colloquium to Celebrate African American Foodways
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
at the REACH
Jordan Wright
July 17, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Left to right – Carla Hall, Erin Tucker-Oluwole – Nolan Williams Jr., Furard Tate, Dr. Lance London and Rock Harper (Photo/Jermoni K Dowd – Courtesy of NEWorks Productions)

As the rain poured down in sheets against the wraparound windows of the Reach, guests listened to vocals by local African American performers, bathed in the warm glow of storytelling and bonded together in recognition of shared experiences. During discussions and performances, we enjoyed samplings of African American cuisine with a modern twist, while panelists spoke on the history and culture of African American foodways.

The panels were led by Nolan Williams, Jr. who was appointed Social Practice Resident at the Kennedy Center in 2019. Williams, as you may recall, is the co-book writer, composer, lyricist and music director of Grace – the groundbreaking musical that ran from March to May at Ford’s Theatre. Williams is the recipient of ten Telly Awards including the Gold Prize for ‘Best TV Documentary”. Grace is a story of family, food and Black culture and references early African American chefs and modern Black restaurateurs who struggle against gentrification of their traditional Black neighborhoods.

Nolan Williams, Jr (Photo/Marvin Joseph – Courtesy of NEWorks Productions_

Kennedy Center’s VP and Artistic Director of Social Impact, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, introduced the impressive lineup of panelists that included TV celebrity chef and author Carla Hall; Joanne Hyppolite, Supervisory Museum Curator of the African Diaspora at the National Museum of American History and Culture; Psyche Williams-Forson, Ph.D. Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland; Furard Tate, Owner of Inspire Hospitality Group and Co-Founder and Organizer of DMV Black Restaurant Group; Erinn Tucker-Oluwale, Ph.D. Associate Professor of the Practice at Georgetown University, Director of the Global Hospitality Leadership master’s program at Georgetown University and Co-Founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week; and Dr. Lance London, Founder/Owner of The Carolina Kitchen. These speakers offered historical context and explored the social impact of food history.

In addition, there were soul-stirring performances of songs from the musical by well-known local singers Nova Y. Payton, who starred in Grace, Kevin McAllister, Monique Steele Griffiths and Anitra Raquel and conducted by pianist Leigh Delano.

Inaugural Grace Awards were presented to Dr. Lance London, Dr. 5, Chef Furard Tate and Culinary Pioneer Virginia Ali, Founder/Owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl. Ali opened Ben’s in 1958 when DC was a segregated city. “U Street was known as Black Broadway,” she recalled. “Now young, educated professionals have moved in and we’re no longer known as ‘Chocolate City’.”

Williams-Forson, who explained that “Soul food is an experience,” was pleased to announce the release of her new book, “Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America”.

Carla Hall was one of my first interviewees and I am a huge fan of her work. In 2009 she invited a group of her friends to a watch party at CulinAirie, her DC-based cooking school. She was a finalist on the TV show Top Chef.  She didn’t win that year but took it gracefully.  “Winning to me was feeling good about what I did,” she told me that night.

During the discussions, Hall reminded attendees of the foods that originated from Africa like benne seeds, watermelon, yams (I learned “sweet potato” was a made-up name to please the American consumer.), bananas, millet, okra, sorghum and many more we take for granted in our American kitchens including the Coca-Cola and potato chips invented by a Black man and later stolen by Lay’s. Hall also spoke of the popularity of “Nashville hot chicken” created at a roadhouse called Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. “I will always call it Prince’s Hot Chicken,” she promised.

Hall has graciously given me permission to publish three of her fabulous recipes for the dishes served at the event.

(Photo/Jordan Wright)

Black-Eyed Pea Salad with Sweet Potatoes and Fennel

Hot Sauce Vinaigrette by Carla Hall
8 servings

  • 2 cans black-eyed peas, drained
  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced (1/4” cubes)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 fennel bulbs, diced (1/4”)
  • 1 lime, zest and juice
  • ½ small white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves only
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • ½ cup finely cut chives or scallions
  • ½ – 1 teaspoon salt

Hot Sauce Vinaigrette:

  • ¼ cup hot sauce
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ cup canola or vegetable oil
  • S&P to taste

Heat a large nonstick skillet to medium high.

Place the cubed sweet potatoes in a large bowl, then drizzle with the olive oil and toss with the salt and pepper until well-coated. In two batches, spread the sweet potatoes in a single layer in the hot pan. Leave them for 1 minute, toss the sweet potatoes, continue to allow them to brown. Cook for 3-4 minutes until they are dotted with color and al dente. Remove the potatoes from the pan and place on a sheet pan or large plate in a single layer to cool. Repeat with remaining potatoes.

Prepare the Hot Sauce Vinaigrette: Put all ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, toss the roasted sweet potatoes and diced fennel in lime zest/juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the black-eyed peas, onions, garlic, thyme, chili flakes and chives. Toss to combine. Start by adding ½ cup vinaigrette, and gently stir to combine. Add the sweet potato/fennel mixture to the black-eyed peas.

Add more vinaigrette, if desired, and salt and pepper to taste.


(Photo/Jordan Wright)

Potato Chip Shortbread Cookies by Carla Hall


Makes 2 dozen

  • 1 cup butter (softened)
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup crushed potato chips plus an additional 1/2 cup for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • Confectioner’s sugar (for dusting)
  • 1 cup chocolate chips (melted)

Preheat oven to 350°F. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Reduce speed to low and add the 3/4 cup potato chips and mix until incorporated, and then add the vanilla, and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the flour and mix until just combined — do not over mix the dough!

Use a spoon to scoop small 1-inch balls of dough onto a lightly greased sheet pan, spacing them at least two inches apart. Dust each of the cookies with a bit of confectioner’s sugar, and press flat.

Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown, and allow to cool. Dip each of the cookies in melted chocolate. While the chocolate is still soft, dip the cookies in the crushed potato chips. Allow to set before serving.

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