The H3irloom Food Group, a culinary organization in Baltimore, Maryland, is making the food contributions of Black culture known by incorporating education into their catering, pop ups, and other dining experiences. Executive chefs David and Tonya Thomas highlight the narrative behind the food, teaching about the history and sustainability that shape the meals they create.
“Maryland has an incredibly rich history…in food, in agriculture, and we want to make sure that we acknowledge that,” David tells Food Tank. He says this and a holistic mindset are behind their support of regenerative and organic farming. They purchase top quality ingredients from farmers whose practices invest back into the land, “because it’s just the right thing to do.”
David and Tonya use their purchasing decisions at the H3irloom Food Group to educate their customers as well as the vendors they buy from and their own employees. “They need to know why we source the way that we do, why only certain things are acceptable to us,” says David. Tonya adds, “we always try to teach people…where your food comes from, and what’s in your food, and…the health benefits of knowing those things.”
While the H3irloom Food Group views sourcing with great importance, their education efforts go much deeper. A central part of their mission is “to uplift the Black food narrative,” and doing so requires a look to its past. The knowledge of growing is “just a part of who we are,” Tonya tells Food Tank. “It’s a part of our history and our culture.”
The origin of African American influence on food systems in the United States is in the Atlantic slave trade. But David notes that the common teachings of it are often skewed. “The narrative is that they pulled us out of the bush and out of the jungle, and they brought us here and showed us how to pick cotton. That is far from the truth. The actuality is that they sought us out in different areas and regions of Africa based on our skill set,” he explains. Those skill sets included expertise in rice growing, fishing, and other specializations related to food.
“You brought us here, and then we enlightened you. And that’s what I want people to get to understand is that yeah, we’ve been a victim,” David tells Food Tank. “But at the same time, we made something beautiful out of it, and we’re going to continue to tell that story.”
That story includes the culinary contributions of African Americans, which helped define American cuisine. “Ask one of these young chefs now who Leah Chase is…ask a young chef who Edna Lewis is…you’ll run across a few that know,” David says, referring to two women who shaped a place for Black food culture in today’s culinary scene. “But the vast majority of them are like, who’s that?”
Tonya and David teach the young staff at the H3irloom Food Group about the people who paved the way for them in the industry. They highlight the importance of educating upcoming generations about great chefs from the Black community. This includes chefs who date back further than Lewis and Chase like Hercules Posey, who cooked for George Washington, and James Hemings, the first American chef to be trained in France.
It’s important to have “an understanding of how long we’ve been involved in the culinary field, and at all levels…and the contribution that we’ve made into the culinary world here in this country,” says Tonya.
For David and Tonya, the connection they have to food started at home. “It’s just about family for me. I mean, I don’t know if it’s any more than that. You know, we as African Americans, that’s all we’ve ever really had. We’ve never really had money or land or possessions to pass down to the next generation,” says David. “What they did pass down were stories, recipes, things of that nature. So those things are really important to the African American psyche, because that’s all we have.”
These gifts came together as expressions of love in the kitchen for both David and Tonya, especially from the women in their families. “We stand on the shoulders of those aunties and mothers,” says David.
Tonya remembers it as “being in the kitchen and you being told how to make this and the story behind it. And the story about your family, your past.”
David and Tonya recreate this connection for others through the stories they tell and the food they serve at the H3irloom Food Group. David says, “We call it soul food…because the connection of the people to the product…it’s simply about the connection of people to food. That is all it is. And that’s why it’s important to us.”
Articles like the one you just read are made possible through the generosity of Food Tank members. Can we please count on you to be part of our growing movement? Become a member today by clicking here.
Photo courtesy of H3irloom Food Group