Challah Becomes Soul Food in Cincinnati’s West End

Kenyon-Barr-618.jpgBefore Cincinnati razed the entire Kenyon-Barr West End neighborhood in 1956 in the name of Urban Renewal, they took pics of the wonderful buildings and businesses.   These young boys proudly stand behind the photo marker in front of their neighborhood grocery and confectioner,  not knowing that they will be deported from their homes a few months later.

As a nation, we’re just really starting to acknowledge that most Southern food is descended from slave cooking.      Most of the dishes we characterize as southern, were formulated and perfected by bonded cooks in the plantation kitchen.   The integration of okra, an African native plant, into southern dishes like gumbo, is an example.     First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln didn’t know how to make the Lexington Kentucky favorite beaten biscuits, so she consulted her father’s bonded cook,  Aunt Chaney, for instruction.  Jefferson Davis pie, was invented by a Missouri slave woman named Aunt Jule-Ann.  For decades, no credit in southern cookbooks has been given to these bonded cooks.   But to  this food historian’s delight, their day has come.

A new book came out this week by Michael Twitty, the chief food historian or ‘Revolutionary in Residence,’ at Colonial Williamsburg.   Michael has been doing historic slave cooking demonstrations for the last decade at various Southern historic sites like Chippokes, Middletown, and Great Hopes Plantations.   His new book is  called the Cooking Gene, and he traces his own family’s history from enslavement in the South, through Reconstruction and the Great Migration, with their food stories.  I’m only a few chapters in, and its one of the best food history books I’ve read.

One of Twitty’s earliest stories is his first taste of Jewish food:  ” The kitchen was where I ate my first Jewish food, thanks to my mom, (Patricia Anita Townsend).   Challah, golden, sweet challah, cut into pieces for toast with blackberry jam.”     Ok, maybe it’s not so weird for an African American family to eat Jewish challah bread in a large metropolitan city like Washington, D.C., in the 1970s.     But then he continues with his story: ” In Cincinnati, the Jewish baker was your only option on a Sunday, and that’s where she picked it up.   As soon as my aunt Sheila (“Cookie”) got in from Cincinnati, the first thing to do was make fresh coffee, and open the boxes of pastries and bread from their favorite bakeries back home.”   I realized this story was a rare oral history of  Afro-Jewish fusion food in Cincinnati’s West End.         Twitty’s mom would become an expert in challah braiding and made her own, which I’m sure was fabulous.    At the time local challah was probably made in West End Jewish bakeries with local P & G’s Crisco, an acceptable vegetable based product, that would not put a bakery product that used eggs or milk out of kosher, by mixing with a meat based product like good old fashioned lard.

Twitty’s maternal grandparents, Walter Lee Townsend and Clintonia Hazel Todd, had been part of the post World War II Great Migration of blacks from the South to northern cities.   They migrated from Birmingham, Alabama, first to Cleveland, Ohio, and then to Cincinnati’s West End, where his grandfather was a Pullman porter on the railroads and his other family members took jobs at the local factories.

In 1940, around the time the Townsend family arrived in the West End, 64% of Cincinnati’s black population lived in the West End, in sub neighborhoods like Kenyon-Barr, and Little Buck,  comprising 74% of the West End Population.   The other 25% were Jewish and European immigrants.      The oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Alleghenies still exists in Cincinnati’s West End, the first Jewish enclave of Cincinnati.   The Jewish and black population lived side by side  in the West End, creating wonderful collaboration and cross cultural sharing.    Many of the Jewish entrepreneurs in the area gave employment to their black neighbors, who couldn’t find work in Cincinnati’s still segregated Dixie borderland.

In Cincinnati, we’re just really starting to acknowledge the decimation of Cincinnati’s West End, and it’s affect on the Black Community, as we face the issues of gentrification in another historic neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine, which has recently been a predominantly African-American neighborhood.   By the end of it all, tens of thousands of black and Jewish residents and 700 beautiful historic buildings were eviscerated from the West End.     But this one food story of ‘Soul Food Challah’ speaks to a once beautiful symbiosis that existed in the neighborhood, and that could exist again in our inner city.

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