Yesterday morning, just before we went on the air to invite everyone, everywhere to honor the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday by serving “Peace Pie,” my friend and partner Luanne Stovall revealed to the staff and guests at KAZI radio in Northeast Austin the warm, golden-brown, homemade apple pie she had tucked inside a shallow Steve Madden shoe box. Mouths were watering. By the end of our time with Dora Robinson on the Soul Vibrations show, eyes were watering, too.
Our movement to establish a food tradition that honors the legacy of Dr. King and his passion to build the “Beloved Community” unifies in greater ways than other holiday food traditions like Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas cookies, Valentine chocolates and Easter ham. And, it has begun catching on in cities across the nation — from Austin, New York, Chicago, Houston, and Cleveland, to Seattle and Utah.
Maybe it is because Peace Through Pie socials are inspired by the Jemima Code women who for generations brought people together at the table to solve problems, salve wounds, and uplift communities. From their pulpits at the kitchen table, African-American women practiced servant leadership. As agents of reconciliation, they quietly and subtly brought people of diverse backgrounds together at the table in southern homes and restaurants to enjoy their good cooking. But unlike the fictional women of the bestselling book and film “The Help,” who served poop-laced pie with the intent to harm, Jemima Code women baked and served pies filled with love. These role models encourage Americans to serve pie with the intention of cultivating peace and harmony at the table by making room for all and respecting every voice.
Cookbook author, caterer and community servant Bessie Munson is one of those remarkable women. Munson was raised on her grandparents’ farm near Bartlett, Texas, where the food was always plentiful and sumptuous, she says in her 1978 cookbook, Bless the Cook. She taught cooking classes in Arlington and wrote fondly of the memory of festive and wonderful gatherings around the family table… and of all the “bountiful and beautiful meals that became the reflection of a happy outgoing lifestyle in which anything can be achieved when you share and reach out to others.” In her book, she illustrates the proper way to crimp pie crust to make the edges beautiful, along with several pie recipes, including one for perfect crust.
Why reach out with pie? For three reasons: You don’t have to be a great cook or spend all day in the kitchen preparing an entire meal; Pie is universal, symbolizing inclusiveness with its round shape and diverse ingredients — whether sweet or savory, sugar-free, or gluten-free. It comes in many shapes and sizes from around the world — Latin empanadas, Indian samosas, Italian calzones and pizza pies, Jamaican and Ethiopian meat pies, British and Aussie pies, Greek spinach pie, even Asian dumplings. Finally, “Peace Pie” provides nourishment for heart and soul, creating Beloved Community and enacting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s message of hope, equality and social justice with a food he reportedly really enjoyed (simple recipes are everywhere on the web and on the back of the bottle of Karo Syrup).
On Jan. 18, 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed Proclamation 5431 establishing the first MLK Day, he encouraged “…all Americans of every race and creed and color to work together to build in this blessed land a shining city of brotherhood, justice, and harmony. This is the monument Dr. King would have wanted most of all.”
As I left the station, I reflected on the conversation about Peace Through Pie and the multiple ways that sharing a piece of fresh-baked Peace Pie with a family member, friend or neighbor is an enduring recipe for an edible monument. It reminds us year after year to follow Munson’s lead by reaching out to others. This weekend, as you put down social and political weapons and break down generational, race and gender differences to honor Dr. King, why not gather the ingredients for your own edible monument, craft them with your heart and hands, and share with a friend.
To learn more about hosting a Peace Through Pie social or to see a listing of Peace Through Pie Socials in your community, visit www.peacethroughpie.org.
Betty Simmons sits leisurely on the back porch at 2515 Holman, in Houston’s historic Third Ward with a big, round metal pot in her lap and a curtain of voluptuous hydrangeas as her backdrop. She has a small knife in one hand, peeling what appears to be potatoes. Her white hair is brushed back away from her face, revealing a surprisingly supple and healthy look for a woman of nearly 100. The chain link of a porch swing is barely visible beyond the ornate railing.
Betty is one of five Jemima Code women who are on exhibition through June 19, at Project Row Houses, Round 34 Matter of Food. My artist friend and Peace Through Pie partner Luanne Stovall and I are co-curators of Hearth House, a traveling installation where Betty and the cooks of the Blue Grass Cook Book (the Turbaned Mistress, Aunt Frances, Aunt Maria and Aunt Dinah) are capturing the hearts of visitors just about as much as they enchant us.
Some years ago, as I fretted on a Southern Foodways Alliance excursion over the loss of these women, my friend and mentor John Egerton asked me whether they were haunting me. I shared his silly question with some artsy friends who were having their own unique, spiritual responses to the women. Before we knew it, the idea for the Project Row Houses exhibit materialized.
That phenomenal creative team (Ellen Hunt, Meeta Morrison, Luanne and I) digitized and enlarged the women’s images onto seven-foot-tall, transparent screen-like fabric that is suspended from the ceiling in one of seven shotgun-style houses at PRH.
Of course, we all knew that in order to break the code, the space had to be beautiful, so the walls were painted in warm colors that bring thoughts of sweet potatoes, sorghum and sunflowers to mind. The text is minimal — drawn from the inspirational words of Mary McLeod Bethune and from the women themselves. And, a fourth wall, painted in chalkboard paint, provides a space for the community to share kitchen memories and pie stories (which we erase periodically to symbolize the way the women were erased from history). A rough-hewn long table invites guests to linger and to leave their kitchen tales on recipe cards that will become part of our permanent archive.
When the banners were first unrolled, I actually lost my footing and crumbled onto the floor. And cried. I’d spent so many years waiting for these women to finally be honored. To top it off, on our final day of installation, my mother noticed that as I stood on the back porch of the house just beyond the screen of my favorite, the Turbaned Mistress, my silhouette was eerily superimposed into the screen like the shadow of a child, ready for tutelage at her side. Thank goodness she had the sense to photograph the moment. Obviously, the mystery of the women is very personal. And, it is palpable.
Since Opening Day, people visiting the exhibit have written to confess their experiences, too. They tell me how Aunt Frances looks over them in different ways depending upon the sunlight, or when the hot, humid breeze blows through the house at different times of day.
Is there something special to know about Betty?
Betty was one of those extraordinary slave girls, who grew up in the kitchen in the shadow of a phenomenal Texas cook who had absolutely no idea she was saving a child’s life as she passed on culinary skills casually, one meal at a time. But, she did.
Betty was born a slave to Leftwidge Carter in Macedonia, Alabama, then she was stolen as a child and sold to slave traders, who later sold her in slavery here in Texas, where her cooking skills protected her from a harsh life of field labor in slave times, and helped her manage scarce resources in freedom.
She was interviewed at a time when national pursuits – from board games and radio to mystery novels by Agatha Christie – helped Americans escape the rigors of Depression-era living, and field writers for the Federal Writer’s Project recorded the life stories and oral histories of former slaves.
Sadly, the government didn’t think to ask many questions about food and cooking, but I’m not mad at them. Fortunately for all of us, the conversational style of Betty’s narrative gives an intricately detailed look at the precarious life of a slave cook working at a Texas boarding house. I learned a little about humility, charity and self-respect from Betty. And, after months of putting the wrong things first in my life, I’m hoping she will help me get my priorities straight from today forward.
What do her words encourage you to do?
Here is a bit of her story:
When massa Langford was ruint and dey goin’ take de store ‘way from him, day was trouble, plenty of dat. One day massa send me down to brudder’s place. I was dere two days and den de missy tell me to go to the fence. Dere was two white men in a buggy and one of ‘em say I thought she was bigger dan dat,’ Den he asks me, ‘Betty, kin you cook? I tells him I been the cook helper two, three month, [Betty’s aunt Adeline was the Langford’s cook] and he say, ‘You git dressed and come on down three mile to de other side de post office.’ So I gits my little bundle and when I gits dere he say, “gal, you want to go ‘bout 26 mile and help cook at de boardin’ house?
Betty’s narrative ends with a sad revelation that her massa eventually did lose everything he owned to creditors — including his slaves. She and the remaining servants were sent to various traders — some benevolent, some harsh — in Memphis and New Orleans. Eventually, Betty the child winds up in Liberty, Texas, where she conveys a message that still resonates for for everyone trying to make it through difficult times — including me:
We work de plot of ground for ourselves and maybe have a pig or a cuple chickens ourselves…We gits on alright after freedom, but it hard at furst ‘cause us didn’t know how to do for ourselves. But we has to larn.