Welcome to the official website for the new musical, GRACE.
#ByGrace Live Chat #4 - Chef Carla Hall and GRACE Creator/Composer Nolan Williams, Jr. explore the legacy of Black Broadway and the potential impact of GRACE in this live chat with James Beard Lifetime Award recipient, author and culinary historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris and Broadway casting director Stephanie Klapper. Plus, share in Chef Carla's birthday surprise!
By Sheila Johnson
29 April, 2020
A week or so ago, I participated in Livestream chat about a new play I’m helping bring to life. Grace, an original musical by a marvelous instrumentalist and composer named Nolan Williams, Jr., is a story about the passing of small restaurant owner and matriarch of a large black family in Philadelphia. But, even more fundamental, Grace is the story of three things that have long connected (and been essential to) African Americans from coast to coast: family, faith and food.
And while last week’s online discussion was ostensibly about the musical, it really came down to something even more basic; the simple joy that food provides and how the preparation and consumption of a great family meal is as close as many of us will ever get to heaven, here on earth.
Part of the reason for that was, of course, inevitable. Because, you see, one of my partners and fellow ambassadors behind Grace is the amazing Carla Hall, who served as our chat’s host. Carla, as you may know, is one of the most colorful, passionate, and fiercely talented chefs in America. And, believe me, it is next-to impossible to be in the same room (or, frankly, on the same call) with her and not have the discussion, ultimately, turn to the sublime joy of having a tableful of entrees and side dishes in front of you, all prepared with some magical combination of knowhow, love and tradition.
But I also think – and the reason I’m writing this essay today – is that, especially in these dark and uncertain days of COVID 19, for all we continue to love the idea of food, there is something about the isolation we’re going through that has made many of us seek out comfort foods in ways we’ve not done so in ages.
Because these days, it seems, to smell a loaf of bread, or perhaps some corn muffins, baking in the oven, to taste the delicate sweetness of some fresh-whipped butter cream, or to sample the salty goodness of your great-great-grandmother’s favorite soup recipe, is to be transported, if only for a moment, back in time. It is to be whisked away to a day and age long before we found ourselves prisoners without chains, satellites in wildly different orbits, and lonely ships sailing in isolated and remote parts of the same sea.
This coronavirus will one day pass, you can be assured. And we will, likely, one day look back on these times with a mix of regret for having gone through them, and relief for their having passed. But, before they’re gone forever, and before we get back to life as usual, let us consider at least the possibility that these days are actually a blessing from God above.
Just maybe, they’re an opportunity for us to catch our collective breath and take stock of all that is important to us. Maybe they’re a chance for us to reach out to those we love, but no longer see or speak to nearly enough. And who knows? Maybe they represent our one last chance to get back to (and become) the people we once were, or at least the people we’d always hoped to one day be.
And while I’m not saying food is the answer to everything, or that it can make miracles happen. On the same token, it’s not a bad place to start. Because, of all the things we possess in this life that can transport us, body and soul, few have the power of our twin senses of taste and smell.
Food, you see, is a currency. In a world of isolation and loneliness it can be a currency that spends like few others. What’s more, a lovingly prepared meal has the almost spiritual power to build bridges, mend fences, and open hearts.
You may think I’m crazy. And maybe I am. But on the off-chance I’m not, and before too much more time passes and we, once again, hop back onto the carousel, please consider doing what God and this virus have given us chance to do. Pull out that old cookbook your mother left you. Air out those musty old oven mitts. And give those pans of yours a good scrubbing before unleashing them, once again, onto your loved ones.
Cook. Bake. Stir. Fry. Baste. Sautee. Whip. Blend. Puree. Boil. Chop. Toast. Grill. Mix. Mash. Whatever. And who cares if you’re any good. Just do it. And make whatever dish the inner child in you longs for. But do it now, before it’s too late.
Because, at least when it comes to such priceless treasures as food, family and (most of all) time, no one knows this any better than I. These are the good old days.
Eat and live well, my friends. And, God bless.
This selection is from Sheila Johnson's blog, "Welcome To My Home."
Chef Carla Hall announces her culinary ambassadorship.
“As I was growing up, my mother would always use late Saturday afternoons well into close to midnight to cook for Sunday dinners. She would make sausage from scratch. She would make rolls and she would make pies. The house had an aroma that you wouldn’t believe. And, I just remember going to bed on Saturday and waking up on Sunday morning [to] go to church. And then I could not wait to eat, after coming out of church, all of the wonderful foods that my mother made. She was quite the culinary expert.”
“I was actually raised overseas. Most of the time, my father worked for the Navy as a civilian, so I was raised in Guam and the Phillipines. And I remember eating pancit, sticky rice with mango, lumpia and adobo. …Then we had guava and papaya trees in the back – all of these fresh amazing things.
[I also recall] my first food memory. …I was maybe three years old because this was before we moved overseas… I think one of the reasons it is so vivid to me is because it hit all my senses. Our great grandmother lived with us… and [on Saturdays and Sundays] she would cook [breakfast] with my mom… I say it [was] multi-sensory because… you could hear the sizzling of the bacon and the sausage on the grill, the taste of it [was] amazing [and] the anticipation of the taste, the smell of it… was just wafting through the house, and then the visual of it—seeing both of these women cook and… [seeing] the sunbeams in the kitchen. And as I think about it especially, that was something I would… only see on the weekends.”
“It’s funny cause I always joke I’m from South Korealina just because my dad’s from South Carolina and [my Mom] is from South Korea… It’s like really the blending of two cultures. And I grew up making sweet tea but also washing the rice ‘cause we had rice with every meal. …All of my favorite memories… center around food in South Korea. [Here’s] one I’ve been able to bring into my own life.
It’s New Year’s… when we make rice cake soup… It’s basically just thinly sliced rice cakes put into a broth. You can put beef into it if you want. And it really signifies purity, good cleansing, and also good fortune. It’s kind of like black-eyed peas. …Even now, [my parents and I] still have that soup together… And [for my] kids, while they’re getting used to eating Korean food… [this rice cake soup] is one of the few things they really love… [This] is one of my favorite [memories] because it has so much meaning, and I’ve been able to pass it on.”
"My grandmother was born in 1914. She had my mother when she was 18 years old. Back then, you were considered an old maid if you weren’t married by 18. My mother was a small child during the Great Depression. I asked her once, how did her family of 10 brothers and sisters survive? She told me that my grandmother would make her go to a White butcher and ask for the scraps that he was going to throw away. My mother was really too embarrassed to do it, but my grandmother made her do it anyway.
That White butcher took pity on my mother for asking for his garbage. “What in the world do you want with these chicken gizzards and hearts and feet and neck bones?” He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want pigs feet and guts, but he politely gave them to her.
He didn’t know that Black people had created a cuisine on what he considered to be garbage. So, in the middle of the great depression, all 10 of my aunts and uncles ate like kings and queens for almost free."
"When I was little, my mother and I would go out to Kansas to pick greens. She’d pay the farmer, he’d give us those bushel baskets, and we’d drive out to the field. We would pick mustard and turnip greens. (I never understood why mustard greens weren’t yellow!) I felt like the plants were as big as me and, of course, [I’d] pull and pull on the turnip green and then go flying backwards when the earth finally let it loose! Then, we’d make the drive back home with a trunk full of greens.
My mom had one of those old galvanized steel washing machines that she would take the crank part off and we’d dump all the greens in and wash them off. Why did it seem to take days to cook ‘em? And why did it seem that a full trunk of greens cooked down to one stock pot?!
It’s been fun cooking fresh greens these days. The whole one pot meal is a dream especially when it comes to doing the dishes. I gotta remember to get more smoked sea salt." #ByGrace.
"From family dinner on Sunday afternoons at the Old Ebbitt Grill for their famous trout parmesan, haricot verts, and new potatoes to my dad’s grilled chicken sandwich to afterschool meet-ups with friends at the local carryout for fried chicken wings and French fries salt, pepper, ketchup and extra mambo sauce, many food memories flood my mind when I think of my Washingtonian childhood. I remember specifically how food became a way to forge strong bonds with my friends. For example, whenever my friends gathered at our house, my mother reserved for them her famous hand-pattied cheeseburgers on toasted potato rolls with lettuce, tomato, a little mayo, relish, ketchup, and a side of steak fries, all straight from the oven.
Actually, my mother’s gift for cooking came in handy in an unexpected way, when I started attending a new elementary school. I remember vividly that I was bullied by one of my classmates and fell into a deep depression. Although my mother was very vigilant about dealing with the situation through the school administrators, she was a working mom who co-pastored a church with my dad. She was very busy serving the community. She was also very perceptive and prayerful. One day, I awoke to the aroma of my mom preparing food I associated with dinner. She didn’t comment on it and I went to school as usual. During recess, I saw my mom drive up the narrow driveway with pans of food. She walked to the building, dropped the food off, and waved as she left. Puzzled, I ran inside, followed the familiar aroma, and went upstairs to my teacher’s classroom, as I observed a few teachers carefully walk away with full plates and plastic utensils. My mom brought BBQ beef and pork ribs, potato salad, green beans, apples, cake, and soft drinks. With a wiggle in her swiveling chair, my teacher was eating and beside her was the kid who terrorized me. To my amazement, the kid was eating, so thankful for the food. From then on, that kid was nice to me and wanted to know when Mama Jones would be visiting again with some food. Somehow my mom was led to meet a need. It just so happened that at the root of my classmate's overall behavioral issues was hunger.
Today, as an educator, I try to pay attention to the extent to which daily needs can be at the root of tensions that arise in class and on the broader campus. That one simple act has influenced my approach to caring for my students in impactful ways."
"Growing up, I used to spend every summer in Los Angeles with my maternal grandmother. She was from a very small town in Texas called Point Blank, about sixty miles north of Houston. The two things I loved most about my summers with my grandmother were: 1) sitting and talking to her for hours, both of us barefoot, on her front porch in L.A. and 2) her cooking my absolute favorite meal in the world, just for me, before I headed back home to Denver at the end of each summer. My absolute favorite meal was her fried chicken and peach cobbler." #ByGrace.
"There are three things that stand out in my memories of family food stories:
- my mother making pocketbook rolls to go along with homemade vegetable soup. I can still smell those rolls;
- my grandmother making turkey soup using the bones from our Thanksgiving turkey—I still make turkey soup the same way today;
- my grandmother making homemade applesauce.
In our family, as is the case in so many families, it was and still is about meals. Everyone knows they are expected to make their specialty. We laugh and love each other’s dish. Family is love." #ByGrace.
"[When Gran’Me Cooked] was magnificent! I [shared it] with my daughter Grace and we talked up my grandmother's roll recipe. I still have the card she wrote [her recipe] out on in 1983 when I was old enough to have my own copy for my very own recipe box (a real rite of passage). Someday that card will belong to Gracie who can teach her children to make the rolls just as I am teaching her now. Exactly the way my Granny taught my cousin and I back in the 70's. We look forward to watching @Grace.theMusical [when it] comes to St. Louis."
“Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I can remember my dad always cooking fresh vegetables. He never liked using canned goods. Being raised in South Alabama my father was taught by his mother—my grandmother—how to farm, raise, harvest, and cook from his own garden. What he did not grow in his own garden he would purchase from local farmers at the farmers market. When I would come home from school, I can recall him sitting at the kitchen table—with open brown-paper grocery bags full of vegetables spread out in front of him— handling his produce one at a time. He’d cut them up using his favorite knife, the one my grandmother gave him, while watching the news and conversing with me about how my day had gone. This was bonding time for my father and me. I have vivid memories of me asking him for a slice of potato, rutabaga, or a fresh turnip leaf; I would eat them raw to curve my appetite until dinner was ready. And, it's because of those experiences that I now have a garden of my own, teaching my three daughters some of the same traditions my father taught me.” #ByGrace
“Amazing, congratulations, my heart is smiling! Brings to remembrance my mother's steel pressure cooker—she used to cook EVERYTHING from chicken and dumplings to collard greens. Can't wait to experience the whole show!”
-M. Maxwell (Baltimore, MD)
“I had the pleasure of workshopping this new musical in Cleveland for two years and it's some of my favorite music I've ever played. ...Nolan and the cast got together (virtually) and recorded the closing number to the show. Check it out! The music is fantastic."
-J. Poparad (Cleveland, OH)
"Remembering Sunday dinners always with homemade rolls, cakes and pies, the table set with the good china at my Grandmother’s and Aunt and Uncle Smith’s homes.”
-T. R. Patton (St. Louis, MO)
"I can't wait to see it!”
-K. Stevens-Boone (Nashville, TN)
"...This is truly wonderful!”
-N. Rao (Bangalore, India)
- L. Johnson (Houston, TX)
“Absolutely gorgeous...!!! The buildup reminds me a little of Sunday in the Park with George. (Sondheim is one of my favorite composers.)
So beautiful... Can't wait to see the show!!”
-B. Siegel (Silver Spring, MD)
"What a marvelous finale! Looking forward to the full production. Enjoy the music and the memories❣️”
-S. Avent (New York, NY)
"OMG, that was simply beautiful!! I can't say enough about how talented [they] are!!"
-T. Jackson (Philadelphia, PA)
-A.Dudley (Huntsville, AL)
"This is wonderful... Congrats!"
- K.Mosley (Los Angeles, CA)
-C. Ash (Denver, CO)
Post your food stories on Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag, #ByGrace. We will selectively share them.