Vibrations Cooking Forever: Vertamae Smart Grosvenor, we love you….

Vertamae Smart Grosvenor, one of the most magical human beings to ever grace the planet, transcended September 3, 2016. I got to know her in the beloved community of artist, activists, classical people of New York’s Harlem. I’d been a fan, an acolyte since I read Vibrations Cooking back in the Tennessee of my youth. Verta’s work ignited my passion for editing books that reflected the cosmic and comic  funky cool genius of Black culture. Plus, I was raised by cooks = chemist. I was partial to her from the start. Here are Stefanie’s reflections on the Supreme Vertamae.

Monday, October 3, 2016

best friends. torch passing. what Vertamae said…

‘In Paris I could make the best quiche on Rue des Ursulines but when Charles came into my kitchen that day & I was making Lorraine, I made another kind of quiche. Delicious.’- preamble to the recipe for Quiche Lloyd from Vibration Cooking, Vertamae Smart Grosvenor

the evening was filled w/felicity:

“you’re my best friend! you’re likin angel!” read the card. it was pale blue paper, w/a watermelon drawn in dark blue marker on the front. “Did you help her w/the card?” i asked the lovely young woman who was kindly watching Nashira’s creation unfold, & handing her supplies. “no”, she replied, a twinkle in her eye. “she just asked me for a marker & some paper.” supplies were few, hence the blue marker.

from what i am told, Nashira had no idea that Vertamae loved watermelons the way she did.

watermelon:

Yoruba legend has it that the preternaturally refreshing, seedy fruit is sacred to Orisha Yeye-Omo-Eja, beloved Ocean Goddess, Mother-of-all-fishes. Yemaya rules, (among an ocean’s expanse of other things) matrilineal tribes, relationships between mothers & daughters, sisters, friends.

Vertamae & my daughter had become fast friends @ her 78th birthday party, which her glowing daughter Chandra had asked me to cater @ the last minute, & which i did, happily from the bottom of my whole soul. i had followed Ms. Vertamae’s witty recipe to the letter:

Quiche Lloyd:

1 cup grated Swiss cheese
4 eggs
pinch salt
pinch nutmeg
3/4 cup thin cream
pinch cayenne

pour cheese into a cream cheese pie crust & add the rest of the stuff (all mixed together). Bake for 40 minutes. Attention: Do not overbake. Stick a silver knife in the center & if it comes out clean, Voila! you got it.

hanging around the fringes of the party, only approaching Ms. Grosvenor when there was food to be served, i knew in my heart that i was an embarrassment to my daughter, who sensed how bitch-assed i was, & walked on over to Ms. Vertamae her-damn-self, somehow knowing she would be noticed ( i should have known when she was adamantly selecting her outfit – the loudest – 3 musketeer collared shirt, layered w/a psychedelic blue theme dress & metallic shoes of some type). once eye contact was made, she fearlessly sauntered on over to give her a hug.

“Who is THIS???” the Queen of Anthropological Food Knowledge crowed, providing the perfect opportunity for me to untie my tongue & worm my way through her admirers to, @ long last, introduce myself:

“this is my daughter, Nashira. I am Stefanie Kelly, & i just love your work, Ms. Vertamae. I really really do…” i quavered @ a loss for words, as i delivered my riff on Quiche Lloyd, from her seminal cookbook, Vibration Cooking. Quiche Smiche though – she & Nashira were already on to other things… comparing similarities in their outfits, sussing out favorite colors, hobbies & places in the world… my tears be damned.
the immediate connection was downright eerie. it wasn’t like their first time meeting. it was as if they had not seen each other for a very long time. &… my daughter, while a natural charmer, doesn’t necessarily just claim best friends like that, whether within or outside of her peer group. so it was only a continuation of a theme, when she presented her w/the card. no one knew the bizarre details until Mother’s Day.

photo by imani uzuri

how did i end up in the temple of The Queen, you ask?

a few years ago, while catering a book festival thrown by my grrrrrrl, the epic Malaika, i met a gorgeous, lanky sis, Chandra. we were shooting the breeze on things culinary & such, & she was kind enough to hear out some of my food philosophy. just as i got to the part about how ancestral food moves souls from place to place, she sneered lovingly, “oh christ. another food freak. you’re a real weirdo. you’re just like my mom.” “well, what does your mom do?” i queried, praying the woman wasn’t like, an accountant who cooks for fun on the weekends, then crows about the recipes for months afterward. her slow sideways smile revealed itself. she said, “Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. that’s my mom.”

i. died

About her: simple genius. anyone who knows me as a chef/writer knows what an impact Vertamae has had on my career/philosophy around cooking. there are many stars of my culinary constellation; many of whom i have mentioned before: Alice Waters/Nancy Silverton/Craig Claiborne/Edna Lewis/Patrick Walker/Marcella Hazan – i could go on. Vertamae, though, her madcap incandescent brilliance stands out & always has. she cooked for elite intelligentsia/charismatic celebrities before the term “Private Chef” was ever known to the masses. I first read her in the obsessive cookbook phase of my life. i schlepped the fuckers around like a kangaroo hoists her cubs into her pouch, as if i was waiting until they were of age to take their own leaps. i was 22 when i cut the umbilical cord & began writing my own recipes in cuisine as far flung as Japan/Italy/Senegal/Morocco/India/Spain…

photo by imani uzuri

Vertamae had said it was a matter of collecting the pantry. once assembled (mis-en-place), i began to feel that i could afford to make some educated guesses as to where i could tweak the ingredients & make them become the stuff of any good chef or better homemaker in that region. she has a way of talking in the vernacular about food and what does “season to taste” mean…
Vertamae gave me culinary wings.

a taste of freedom.

Mother’s Day was something else altogether. i had accepted that there was something of a parallel or @ least extremely compatible nature taking place between us. Vertamae had laid it down as a Black Beat era artist. i was a child of the SNCC/CORE/Panther/Free Jazz era, w/my parents acting as ambassadors of each movement respectively. she was an altogether free renaissance woman who’d made her mark on the town she’d left in South Carolina, Paris (the emblematic Beat Hotel) & the LES. i had left New York to follow my heart/ex-husband, & had found my real love: pro cooking in the female led continental american driven kitchens of the west coast. we had both married in our extreme youths, white men who were established members of the counter culture. She, a young wife of a card carrying Beat Hipster. Me? my ex ran w/Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, loose affiliates of the Weathermen. heady days for both of us, in starkly different eras w/equally stark similarities. She’d danced w/Sun Ra, etc. cooked for the luminaries of the Black Arts movement, as well as for household name type Behemoth living myths like Muhammad Ali. i had cooked, both in restaurants & in the homes of Heads of state, various films, subjects of various trials of the century, Black Rock Coalition, specifically been the green room caterer to Burnt Sugar Arkestra, headed up by our own Sun Ra, the illustrious GT. & obviously signed more than one non disclosure, having recently completed the US/European tour as personal chef to one D’Angelo, for his Black Messiah run. She had hosted a number of cooking shows, authored more than one well thought of tome on the subject of the cuisine specific to Black Diaspora worldwide. i had recently found one of my dreams realized: a group of excellent kooks had decided that my lead question: what does soul food mean to you? was worthy of an intimate web based show. i had like 3 fans, & was still ecstatic to shoot every episode, highlighting the lives, creativity & favorite foods of some of my dearest friends. She had been the recipient of the Craig Claiborne award. Craig Claiborne’s work was a sort of guardian angel to me in my early career, his succinct accurate recipes opening the world of cuisine to me as a young chef.

i wanted to ask her about these crossed roads of ours. but of course we ended up in a conversation that meandered wherever, & i found out through some pics that she shared that while she was tight w/everyone’s favorite author/poet laureate, Maya Angelou, she was especially close w/the queen of soul, Miss Nina Simone. “Me & Nina were like this,” she indicated her intertwined pointer & middle fingers. “Sometimes, we would just fight to remind one another that we were best friends.” laughingly regarding the wealth of images spread out before me, I mentioned offhand, “people really do reincarnate in groups! no mistake that Nashira & Miss Simone have the same birthday.”

@ this point the room froze.

Chandra, Kali & Vertamae all regarded each other, Nashira, then me strangely. Chandra’s face got tight. Kali’s got puffy. Kali, or Chandra whispered, “the Baby & Nina got the same birthday???” & Chandra, or Kali echoed the first. Vertamae was the only one to take this in stride. “see? I told you she was my best friend!” she chortled as we all pulled ourselves together. weird. really really weird

i wanted her to feel honored on this day. we were, for the 3rd or 4th time, visiting w/her. i had decided that every time i saw her, i would include in my offerings to her either one of her favorites, or something from one of her books. i literally could not stand the epicness.

As usual, i stood by while Nashira presented & politicked…
“where did you come from?!? Ms. Vertamae crooned @ Nashira, continuing their earth shattering romance. “when i get outta here/get back on my feet, i’mma get someone to get me some money. then you & me gonna go around the world so i can figure out where you came from. read that again, what it say now? thank you -”

” – for being you!” lots of squeals/hugs here. we presented our gifts: curry chicken, no basmati. i was feeling straight up converted american here: Uncle Tom’s Ben’s rice – Indo-American comfort food. here again, in her presence Vertamae’s magic was working overtime. i’d felt a strong intuitive pull, standing in the middle of TJ’s bereft of what to feed her. the situation was radically different than when i would panic without a book. i didn’t even have a plan. & i work on suggestion – it had to be soft, yet exciting – i followed my intuition to eggplant parmesan. upon delivery, Vertamae had scowled playfully @ her daughter Chandra & said, “you talked to her?” Chandra shook her head all saucer eyes. “Nope! she came up w/that on her own!!!” she gasped. Vertamae looking @ me sideways, & me, petrified that she was allergic or some shit. “Well?!?!” i finally barked, “is this bad news or good???” i am type A…. really don’t like suspense all that much… Vertamae busying herself w/the unwrapping, Chandra bustling around & returning w/plates & forks from home & grinning – “It’s her favorite! how did you know?”

not wanting to sound all Stevie Nicks about it, yet having no other choice i told them the truth: “i went to the market w/no ideas. & then it just came to me. & became the thing i wanted to make for Vertamae.” Stares between Mother & daughter… & when Miss Vertamae took that 1st bite & rolled her eyes… you couldn’t tell me shit. she liked it. she was happy w/something i had made.

aiiiight.

EGGPLANT PARMESAN RECIPE

sautee together
olive oil
onion
garlic &
whole peeled tomatoes
basil
fresh oregano

simmer til onions fall apart.
slice thick circles of eggplant, like ½–¾ inch thick. Spread the slices out in a single layer and sprinkle them with salt. This helps draw the water out of the eggplant and helps maintain a meaty consistency during and after frying.
fry in olive oil in a cast iron pan egg-wash-and-breadcrumb combo After frying, drain the eggplant on paper towels.

in a rectangular baking dish, like a 9 x 13, ladle some sauce on the bottom, a layer of eggplant, some freshly grated mozzarella cheese & grated parmesan. Season with salt and pepper then add another layer of sauce. Repeat until you’re out of space or eggplant. fresh mozzarella grated in between the layers & fresh mozzarella on top for melting and browning.
bake at 375˚ for about 45 minutes – & broil the top till brown & bubbling.

Curry Chicken

3 3# fryers, cut into pieces or 9# wings
marinate in:
6 TBSP crushed garlic
1 jar patak’s curry paste
6 TBSP curry powder
3 TBSP garam masala
1 qut buttermilk
6 curry leaves
2 TBSP ginger, pulverized

sautee in a large pot:
6 cloves sliced garlic
2 curry leaves
1 bay leaf
2 sliced onions
3 sliced green peppers
(optional – black cardamom, extra ground cumin, or coriander, or turmeric – go by taste
even mushroom paste, if you have any shrooms on hand that you want to use up are perfect other add ons can be scallions, shallots, or chives – & these are to color the curry to your palate – but the straight recipe is a satisfying experience on its own)

add the chicken & its marinade, + 1 quart chicken stock. simmer for 45 min – 1 hr on a medium flame.

even our contrasts were directives: since Vertamae refused to give up the info on such things as aphrodisiacs in Vibration Cooking - she said something like, ‘& i won’t even get into those secret ingredients; either they won’t work & y’all will be mad, or i’ll end up on the list of house un-american activities…’ i made it my business to investigate them resulting in kundalini cooking, appealing to each chakra vibrationally, & resulting in sex chakra stimulating food, AKA, aphrodisiac foods.

She had left her hometown, South Carolina for New York/Paris/the world. had resided @/come into her own as a weirdo @ Beat Hotel in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Had palled around w/her peers, all the greats including Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, had become a master/writer/movie muse/hostess of her own show.
I had left my NY hometown for LA. had cooked all over the country in some fine restaurants/for film/for fabulous brilliant people of note. we had both cooked for/loved/been loved by our respective generation’s Niggeratti, the best & Blackest to ever do it. She was/is my culinary Fairy Godmother. Cooking had been a past life/shapeshifting adventure for both of us.

on torch passing: many of you know all about Vertamae’s travels. she has been around the world @ least thrice. Beloved Vertamae died this past September. Who knew that Nashira & i would end up invited to then flown to Paris for my dear runway walking sis’s rockstar wedding to French royalty? can’t make this stuff up. Going to the Beat Hotel was a foregone conclusion. as was getting all caught up in the Latin Quarter, lingering @ Shakespeare & Co. & missing our flight. but apparently sentimental tears were not. as Nashira so compassionately put it, “I don’t care if you’re happy or not. no crying Mommy.” I tried to keep it together. but we had made it. to the heyday of Ms. Smart-Grosvenor’s Genius youth; to The Beat Hotel. I feel in my bones that this was Miss Grosvenor’s special good bye to me. well Actually to Nashira. her real best friend.

please enjoy the recipes.
thank you for reading.

Ibaye, Miss Vertamae.

A memorial for Vertmae Smart-Grosvenoris planned for December 3, 2016 in New York City . Check back with us for details.

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