SAXAPAHAW, N.C. — There’s a sharp chill in the air. Donning a goldenrod-yellow shirt with the words “Pay Black Farmers” emblazoned across the front and with long two-strand twists tied back away from her face, Gabrielle E.W. Carter tends to tomatoes steaming in a cast-iron pot atop a live fire, the light glinting off her skin as smoke wafts upward into the night sky.
Though she also peels and mashes white sweet potatoes with a wooden spoon — “To honor our grandmothers,” she says with a laugh — and cuts collards into ribbons to go into a Ishapa-inspired shepherd’s pie for a large dinner the following night, Carter balks at describing herself as a chef. Instead, she is a cultural preservationist and multidisciplinary artist who uses food as one of her mediums. “It is so sensory, and it’s such a great way to pull people into the work without even saying anything,” she says.
The dinner, titled “Ode to Rural Imagination | Between Wheat & Revival,” serves as a thank you for the work of the attendees, who include more than 50 Black farmers, brewers, educators, community activists, artists and others. Because of the pandemic, it’s the first dinner of this magnitude that she’s hosted since 2019, a year after she moved back home to North Carolina.
After studying film and communications at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, she moved to New York City and started a career in fashion, including work as a stylist and running her own made-to-measure clothing company. Along the way, Carter realized that the path she ended up on wasn’t what grounded her, so she looked for other ways, one of which was an introduction to the world of food storytelling. In 2015, she started covering food events for a blog while she was still working in fashion marketing full-time. She eventually left that side gig behind, but it manifested into her hosting dinner parties for her core circle of friends.
“That was like my outlet, my release. That’s when I felt most at peace,” she told me on a video call from her home in Durham. “What prompted a lot of that was making trips home and getting bags full of okra, heirloom tomatoes to bring back.”
Carter eventually left her fashion job and went back into food, creating content for a friend’s Haitian coffee company, Zesa Raw. She then helped with an aid project led by the company and San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn to raise money for farmers in the country following Hurricane Matthew in 2016. “That was all the things I love in one. There is an element of giving back and I was learning about these farmers and their process and how much the land and these trees and this way of life means to these people beyond just selling coffee,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ve digested just how much of a part of my journey that was.”
In addition to a job as a line cook, she started doing research with chef JJ Johnson on a West African rice called Oryza glaberrima, which led her down a rabbit hole of Black foodways. “That ultimately led me back to the same stories my grandfather and his brothers have been telling,” she said. “I felt all of these feelings like I needed to be home where I’m actually rooted in something, learning directly from the men who are carrying this mantle who we may not have in a few years.”
In 2018, she moved to the land her great-grandfather purchased in Apex, N.C., and spent time in the field and kitchen recording her family’s stories. Spending time with her grandfather and great-uncles on their own land naturally led her to building community with other farmers in the area and then to hosting pop-up dinners “because of course I couldn’t come home and not cook.” More than just feeding people physically, these dinners sought to nurture guests emotionally and spiritually, as she used them to facilitate conversation, connection and the sharing of history and knowledge — the foundation of her work.
One form her work has taken is via Tall Grass Food Box, a community-supported agriculture model (CSA) she founded with her partner, Derrick Beasley, and friend Gerald Harris at the beginning of the pandemic to support Black farmers. The idea came after farmers told them how selling their produce had become a struggle. “Our model differed in that we wanted to pay our farmers retail for their goods in hopes to counter some of their loss,” she said via email. The trio started with 30 boxes, driving to the farms themselves and then having their customers pick up the produce out of the back of a U-Haul. Now there are four pickup locations for around 250 shares.
“It’s given me hope as a farmer because the other years when I was growing, I never really had an outlet to get rid of these things. I was having a lot of produce loss,” Julius Griffin of Jewels of Health Farm told me. “Now it’s sold before I even grow it.”
Plenty of people can cook a great meal. A modest group of others are working to document and uplift Black foodways. But only a few can do both at Carter’s level.
“Her culinary gifts and her gifts as a documentarian really come together in a powerful way,” Stephen Satterfield, journalist and founder of Whetstone Magazine, told me over Zoom. “We don’t even use the word activism when talking about her work, but what do you call it when you’re out here raising funds on behalf of your community and selling produce boxes from Black farmers? It’s a completely radical act in North Carolina.”
Her work in her home state reached a global audience when she was featured on an episode of Netflix’s “High on the Hog,” hosted by Satterfield and based on Jessica B. Harris’s book of the same name that showcases Black people’s vital contributions to American food. As a viewer, I was drawn in by the land loss her family was experiencing at the time, as the government cited eminent domain to expand a two-lane road into a seven-lane highway, but she reminded me when we spoke that her family’s story isn’t unique. “This isn’t just happening to us, it’s happening to people all over the world in different ways,” she told me.
“The idea of winning doesn’t mean we stop this highway, necessarily, it means that everyone has access to the right information, can make a decision for themselves, and that we’re communicating," Carter said. Though her relatives and others in the community have already been displaced, the messages she has received since “High on the Hog” debuted have validated all that she’s done. “What I am grateful for is a platform to make it known what’s happening and give other people access to tools that I didn’t have starting out.”
Community and collaboration are at the core of Carter’s work, and her innate charisma helps draw people in from a selection of industries and with a swath of talents to carry the work of cultural preservation forward. “I’m just learning what it really means to keep the culture — what that really looks like as a practice and a way of life — and Gabrielle is a constant reminder of that,” Satterfield said.
On the last Saturday of September, keeping the culture looked like Carter working in conjunction with members of her community to host a dinner under the stars on a nonfunctioning farm. The land is owned by a friend, but first belonged to the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, and guests were welcomed by Vivette Jeffries-Logan, a.k.a. Morning Star, in Tutulo, the language of her people. Her longtime friend, first-time professional collaborator, Germane James, helped coordinate the logistics; Brian Kennedy and Samantha Kotey, more friends, served as sous-chefs; Marcella Camara contributed an African-inspired cheese board; and Charla Rios created two large pieces of artwork to hang from the pillars of the open barn. For Carter, bringing in others is part of the fun.
“What I do is not really a dinner party,” Carter said. She’s not as concerned with the food — though every dish she served that evening, such as raw oysters with her family’s Carolina-style barbecue sauce and smoked cantaloupe buttermilk pie in a cornmeal crust, was absolutely divine. She would rather encourage people to share about lost food traditions, foster a discussion about how to change the food system, encourage attendees to build connections with the people responsible for growing the food we consume, and pique everyone’s curiosity. In the words of Lauryn Hill, “If you looking for the answers, then you gotta ask the questions,” and Carter seeks to facilitate the questions being asked about Black foodways. “It really does not take much for the spark to happen, especially over food,” Carter said.
Some of that history was shared during the dinner, such as Beverly Bowen of Blackwell’s Farm telling others about the spicewood tea she grew up foraging that she says would be consumed in springtime for its supposed medicinal benefits. Over the years, she forgot what the bush the tea was made from looked like, but four years ago an elderly gentleman helping her clean up some of the creek beds just happened to point it out. Now she is able to forage for the tea ingredients once again and share the tea and its story with others.
With a significant portion of Black culture and history having once relied solely on oral traditions, so much of it has been lost over time, but Carter is seeking to find and reclaim what she can. Once those answers are found, they must be recorded, archived and shared with current and future generations, which Carter does through writing, filmmaking, seed keeping and hosting dinners and events. “I want to make sure that I’m doing those stories justice, and that our history is being told through our lens, and not just a White anthropological one,” she says.
The dinner ended with guests looking at the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter with telescopes provided by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Staring at the night sky as a chorus of crickets chirped all around was certainly fitting for the “rural imagination” aspect of the night’s theme, encouraging me and the rest of the attendees to reflect on the events of the evening and dream about those to come.
For Carter, that dream is to turn her family’s land into a homestead and open it up to the public for performances, workshops and intimate dinners like this one. Her vision of success would be witnessing several generations asking the question “What is inheritance?” and finding answers outside the bounds of capitalism, along with rethinking their relationship to land and how they access what they need and create from where they are.
It’s a big goal, but Carter is up for the task, and she doesn’t plan to do it alone.
“This work is just so much bigger than me, and I only have this little piece of the pie that I get to impact and share,” she says. “I’ve already been given the opportunity to inspire people to get into archiving and understand that becoming a cultural preservationist is a valuable thing. It is not just valuable because there’s money to be made. It’s valuable because we’re actually able to reframe our history and tell the stories we want to tell through our own art and through our own point of view.”
Visit Carter’s website, revivaltaste.com, and sign up for her mailing list to get notified about future events.
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