Smart-Grosvenor’s life has been the subject of recent resuscitation efforts, most notably filmmaker Julie Dash’s The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. The documentary project was set to come out last year, but that hasn’t happened due to funding roadblocks, even though Dash and her team are sitting on hours of footage.
"She showed us that when you break down a culture through its food, you cut through a lot of nonsense and get to the truth much more clearly than any other medium."
Smart-Grosvenor had grown up gangly and awkward as a young girl. She was born in 1937 in the village of Fairfax, South Carolina, an only child by cruel circumstance; her twin brother died during childbirth. When she was ten years old, she and her parents moved to Philadelphia, where she felt like an alien in a foreign land. It wasn’t until she was 16 when she learned that she was the only kid in school whose family ate rice three times a day.
Her mother, as Weinland-Brown recalls, would be remarkably methodical about every aspect of her meals. She’d treat the food with dignity, because, to her, it had life. Don’t bruise the lettuce, she warned. If you were eating off banana leaves with your hands, she’d ask you to wash up gently with lemon juice before you sat down. She’d set the table carefully and think through who’d be sitting next to whom, no matter if the tables had two or 20 people.She would mediate through food, too, inviting two quarreling friends to dine at her house. The food would be so delicious, Weinland-Brown remembers, that everyone's toes would just curl. Somewhere along the way, conflicts would be hashed out before dessert even arrived. Food couldn’t possibly satisfy anyone who ate it, Smart-Grosvenor figured, if the mood at the table was piss-poor.
Conflicts would be hashed out before dessert even arrived. Food couldn’t possibly satisfy anyone who ate it, Smart-Grosvenor figured, if the mood at the table was piss-poor.
Grosvenor-Henry can’t really recall how Vibration Cooking came to be. She just remembers the image of her mother spending her days in a kitchen, huddled over a typewriter she’d borrowed from a neighbor. Her mother had been fighting an existential urge to create something—anything—in a period when she’d only been acting only occasionally on Broadway and in Tompkins Square Park, along with serving as a backup singer and dancer for Sun Ra & His Solar-Myth Arkestra. Writing gave her a steady way of satisfying her creative longings, and the most organic place for her to start was to write about what she’d eaten and cooked in her own life. So she started writing casually, as if writing letters to friends. She wasn’t writing to be published.Luckily for her mother, Grosvenor-Henry herself was a child prodigy who dabbled in poetry. She’d been working on what would later become Poems by Kali, a book of poems published concurrently with Vibration Cooking. One day, a friend-of-a-family-friend who worked at Doubleday came to their apartment and took an interest in her poetry.
“I didn’t like the attention, so I mentioned that my mom is a writer, too, trying to deflect,” Grosvenor-Henry remembers. She showed the Doubleday employee her mother’s manuscript. Both manuscripts were promptly mailed over to Doubleday.Smart-Grosvenor’s manuscript landed in the hands of a 27-year-old black editorial assistant at Doubleday—the now-legendary book editor and agent Marie Dutton Brown. Vibration Cooking was the first book Brown had ever been tasked with editing. She found it curious, this collection of recipes without measurements, sprinkled with anecdotal vignettes about this woman's life and how food influenced it. Everything was written in lowercase.
“You don’t serve no dead food, like Geechees say. Dead food is made with bad vibes.”
“The prevailing narrative about black food was that, no matter where an author lived, a black person in America was always one step away from always wanting to have fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, chitlins, cornbread. That was the story that writers had to tell in order to sell their books.”
But Vibration Cooking was Edge's gateway drug. He was drawn to this work that had been born of an academic spirit even though it was tonally more relaxed than any scholarly text. The casual, freewheeling nature of her prose in Vibration Cooking can bely its revolutionary undercurrents to the untrained eye. It’s a breezy read; the bulk of Vibration Cooking is just under 200 pages, not counting appendices. Edge compares Smart-Grosvenor to Zora Neale Hurston, belatedly regarded as a deeply important figure in American literary history, even though she wasn’t necessarily regarded as such in her time.“She’s like an author who wrote the novel that all the other novelists respect,” Edge says of Smart-Grosvenor. “But the novel didn’t sell.”
“To limit her to soul food is to say that all black music is blues, and to dismiss gospel and jazz. It's essentializing her work.”
Smart-Grosvenor would go on to write three more cookbooks, published throughout the 1990s, two of them companions to a PBS cooking show she hosted from 1996 to 1999. The books reflect a more conventional approach to recipes than Vibration Cooking. She would spend the years after Vibration Cooking expanding her reach across various media; she became an occasional correspondent for NPR beginning in 1980. Her assignments ranged from commenting on John Lennon's murder to visiting Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, where she encountered people who spoke Gullah like her.
Smart-Grosvenor spent the last decade of her life in an artist’s colony in Ridgeland, South Carolina, just a county away from where she was born. She suffered an aneurysm in 2009, followed by a surgery that left her with residual health problems that eventually overwhelmed her body. Her daughters brought her to New York. She died in the Bronx in September of 2016 of indeterminate causes.
It’s funny, actually: She’d been thinking of her mother a few nights ago when making some baked ziti. Once she got to the end of the process, she didn’t remember—did she have to wrap it? Cover it in tin foil, maybe?“I wish I could’ve called her and asked,” she tells me. “She would’ve given me, just naturally, all the choices I had.”She would have told her daughter to do things her own way, in other words; to listen to her impulse and embrace it. It’s what she wrote right there on the page, with a voice so clear you can almost hear it.
“My mom really wanted to be appreciated. When she was living, she didn’t feel like she was appreciated.”