Okra vs. Gombo

Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl by Verta Mae. Doubleday & Company, 1970.

The groovy 70s cover

Sarah: A while ago I was reminded of Gil Scott-Heron. He was very influential, like a pre- hip hop hip hop artist.
Gene: He’s mentioned in an REM song, but I’ve got no idea who he was.
S: Yeah? He was a poet who set his poetry to music. So I go on to a music subscription service to start listening to him, and I’m really enjoying it, then all of a sudden there is a song that centers around a slur that’s very homophobic. I was like, “Huh, I guess that’s of its time,” then thirty seconds in, “I can’t listen to this anymore.” So. Then I read a wonderful book and at almost the very end of it, apropos of nothing, there’s a homophobic slur. It’s of its time, it wasn’t enough to make me stop reading the book, but it really took me out of the flow.
G: It’s this book, Vibration Cooking?
S: Yeah. It’s by Verta Mae, who also went by Vertamae Grosvenor and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor at different parts of her career. I don’t think anyone would have blinked at the slur in 1970, when it was written, except that you wouldn’t have said it in polite society. If I could have just skipped that page, that would have been great. I don’t know if it’s in the later reprints, too.* But other than that, as a whole, I really enjoyed the book! It was published in 1970, and was written when the author was in her late twenties. It’s a combination of autobiography and recipes.
G: Where did she grow up?
S: In South Carolina. The subtitle of the book is The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. The Geechee are a people, also called Gullah, in that area. They are descended from slaves from West and Central Africa and have their own unique language and traditions. She talks about the farm where her family lived and where she was born, then how they moved to Philadelphia and had a tough time getting by there. Her family was pretty poor. Then in the middle of a sentence, she’ll put a recipe. Like “Aunt Rose used to cook” and then the heading “COWPEAS,” and then the recipe for cowpeas.
G: Was this book famous when it came out?
S: I don’t think so. The author later wrote a lot of other stuff, was a commentator on NPR, had a PBS cooking show, stuff like that. She definitely had a following.
She became an actress in New York for a while, then moved to Paris, then she was an activist in New York, and she hung out with all of these writers and poets and musicians — in the book she’ll talk about how everyone came over after a show and this is what we cooked.
G: And this is all in there?
S: It’s all in there. She had some cousins, one who ended up in the West Indies, another who ended up in India, and she’ll write their recipes in their stories. It is always a conversational, great story that gives you all the context you need for the food. It makes it so much more enjoyable and friendly. And luckily, there’s an index at the back, because there is no organization to this at all except as a story.
G: Is it even broken up into chapters?
S: Yes, it is. There’s a section called “Away from Home,” another called “’59” when she left New York for Paris, then again in “’68.” And little side stories about raising her daughters, about how she had a hard time catching a cab in New York, stories about how people reacted to her wearing African clothes. It’s a very personal story that brings in personal recipes because that was a part of her life. At the end, there’s an everything left over section, how to cook different vegetables, about spices, there’s a section on Aphrodisiacal Foods.
G: (flipping through the book) Poems in the back.
S: And some letters between her and her cousin.
G: You can imagine a publisher getting this and just saying, “What?”
S: But it’s perfect, a perfect little story.
G: Who published it?
S: Doubleday.
G: So a major publisher. Where did you get this brown-with-age paperback?
S: At a used bookstore. It’s a first edition paperback. I think I’m going to cook some recipes from it, but I got a lot out of it even if I don’t. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
G: But you’d recommend it to me for the narrative flow.
S: Yes, for the flow over the recipes. It’s about the central role of food in family and friends and community and identity. And then there’s a homophobic slur. Just skip that part.

*There is a fairly lukewarm apology in the 1986 reprint. She says, “I should have said ‘homosexual.’ I apologize for that […] but the rest stands.” According to a review, the1992 reprint omitted both the original slur and the apology. The 2011 reprint has the slur back again and includes the 1986 apology.

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