|Page 2 of 2 <|
Eatonville restaurant and Eatonville, Fla.
"This is awesome," Mount says, waving at the crowd. "Is it always like this on weekends?"
Oh, yes, says Shallal, handing him a menu, with the history of Eatonville and Hurston chronicled among the dishes. The mayor takes the menu as a souvenir and says, "I will submit this at a council meeting Tuesday." Then he orders the shrimp and grits.
Feasting on inspiration
Shallal works with the intense attention to detail of a historical re-enactor and the savvy of an entrepreneur with his finger, for now, on D.C.'s cultural pulse. One of the murals he commissioned for Eatonville is inspired by the Hurston play "Mule Bone," over which she had a bitter falling out with collaborator Langston Hughes. Shallal located Eatonville across the street from his flagship Busboys and Poets restaurant -- founded in 2005, its name inspired by a line from Hughes -- as a kind of poetic architectural reconciliation between these two Harlem Renaissance writers with Washington roots. Sales are up at Busboys, he says, and he is expanding his two other Busboys in the area.
Friday night at Eatonville featured a "food and folklore" meal presided over by Valerie Boyd, the Atlanta-based author of "Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston." About 50 diners paid $45 each for a four-course menu inspired by the rent parties that Hurston and her literary friends used to throw in Harlem, where she moved in 1925 with $1.5o in her purse. Guests would chip in a few coins and eat and dance all night.
"I don't think we're helping Andy pay the rent," Boyd said. "I think he's doing all right."
Eatonville's upscale Southern kitchen produced versions of the fried shrimp and okra that Hurston used to serve. But for $45, it wouldn't do for the chef to be too authentic to penny-pinching Harlem cooking. So the fried green tomatoes, for example, came with red pepper aioli. And in the main course of crispy catfish, the presence of shrimp took the fancy form of rock shrimp creole sauce, with fried okra as a garnish delicately deployed in threes at the top of the pile.
Dessert? The self-described "Zora-heads" sitting around the tables could guess. Cinnamon tea cake, of course! Tea Cake is the nickname of the beloved third husband of Janie Crawford, the groundbreaking strong black female protagonist who discovers her sense of self in Hurston's most famous novel, published in 1937, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
As they ate, the diners retold Hurston stories. They dwelled on her singular personality. If Zora were here, she might jump up on the table and dance. Or she'd be at the center of the room, doing all the talking. The women, especially, said the fearless example of Hurston's art and life was essential to their own growth.
"If I had been born in that era, she would have been one of my running buddies," said Camille Giraud Akeju, director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum.
"We're all Zora's daughters," said Jacqueline Stallworth, a high school English teacher in Arlington, who each year assigns "There Eyes Were Watching God." "She has a lot of daughters."
On Saturday there was a walking tour of Hurston's Washington, and Shallal donated 5 percent of that day's restaurant proceeds to Nathiri's organization, which came to about $800.
On Sunday afternoon the dining room was given over to literary and historical discussion featuring Nathiri, Mount and Boyd. The speakers held forth from the porch.
Shallal announced he is organizing a $539 package tour to the Hurston festival in January. The restaurant is planning a short-story contest, with first prize being a free seat on the tour, from Eatonville to Eatonville.