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As a seventh-generation Mississippi native, Jarita Frazier-King grew up in the kitchen — and for her, communal dining was par for the course. That’s because her grandmother Beulah Fitzgerald was one of 14 children, so Frazier-King had dozens of cousins her own age, but they were more like brothers and sisters than cousins.
“For us, everyone was welcome at the table,” says Frazier-King.
Many members of Frazier-King’s family wound up working in the restaurant industry. Though the chef had no formal training, her grandmother was a longtime sous-chef at the New Orleans International Airport. As a child, Frazier-King would spend countless hours in the kitchen with Beulah, asking questions about why she was frying up this or stirring that.
“I’d say things like, ‘Who told you that when you smell red beans boiling, you have to turn them off, then leave the top off, and let ’em go?’ And my grandma would be like, ‘I don’t know why we do this or that in the kitchen; it’s just what the old folks say,’” Frazier-King says. “I just loved the old people sayin’ part.” She loved it so much, she turned it into a school.
Frazier-King founded the Natchez Heritage School of Cooking, a nontraditional culinary school in Natchez, Mississippi, in 2016. Through a series of sample dishes followed by a sit-down meal, as well as many of Frazier-King’s personal tales, the school tells the story of Southern and African-American food, along with her family’s own African-American and Native American culinary heritage. With a bachelor’s degree in health-care administration and a master’s degree in workforce educational leadership, Frazier-King parlays the professional experience she’s received as a nutritionist and food community specialist into her classroom, connecting the dots between her own food-science training and the kitchen of her youth.
Frazier-King is also the founder of the city’s Soul Food Fusion Festival, which celebrated its second annual event on the weekend of June 18 to 20. The festival was a three-day celebration of soul-food cooking, traditions, and music highlighting the contributions of both African-Americans and Native Americans to Southern cuisine as we know it today.
Shondaland caught up with Frazier-King to talk with her about the concept for the school, how the festival came about, and the importance of building community through food.
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LAURA KINIRY: Where did the idea for the Natchez Heritage School of Cooking stem from?
JARITA FRAZIER-KING: When I worked in community outreach in Mississippi, we visited more than one-third of the state’s 82 counties. Our role was to teach people about food nutrition, since Mississippi is actually the number-one state for obesity in the U.S. At the end of these classes, I would be sitting with the community elders or church women, and we’d be talking about recipe alternations and cooking ingredients. They’d say something like, “I put a bit of such and such in my dish. Do you put it in yours?”
I would sometimes go home and think that they were teaching me. It was a testament to so many memories. Still, the main thing I saw was that nobody wanted the free health-care information: They were more interested in discussing the dishes that are already part of our heritage.
This got me thinking that the health issue in Mississippi isn’t the way that we eat; it’s the way that we prepare our food. A lot of what’s been passed down to us originally came from necessity. We didn’t have any other options. I wanted to really start looking at the stories of these dishes and explain how exactly they came to be. That’s how the Natchez Heritage School of Cooking originated.
LK: How exactly does the school work?
JFK: It’s not a traditional cooking school like Le Cordon Bleu (though that’s the type of school I first pictured because it was the only kind of cooking school I knew). Instead, the Natchez Heritage School of Cooking grew out of a notion to tell the real story of Natchez and its inhabitants, as well as my own personal family history. In this way, I think it’s a more meaningful culinary experience than what some other places offer.
We don’t run a full-scale everyday restaurant. It’s a demonstration class, followed by a sit-down meal. When you’re here, you get to sample a range of foods that are connected to our stories: foods like black-eyed peas and collard greens, corn bread, and red beans. I tell the story behind these dishes and the reasons we celebrate them in the South, because why Black people celebrate them and why the South celebrates them are two different reasons. For most [of our ancestors] who came up in the South, what’s considered Southern cuisine today they considered “hard times food.” It was pretty much, you know, our ancestors just taking lemons and making lemonade.
LK: Is the school interactive?
JFK: Yes. Some people want a hands-on experience, so we allow them to, you know, roll and prepare fritters, which we’ll then fry up in the same way my ancestors used to do. Then afterward, we sit down at a large table for a communal dinner — sometimes it’s with people you know; sometimes not. This is where I share my own family history, and when they leave, I give each participant a wooden spoon and ask them to go home with their families and pass down their own traditions because people don’t really sit down and share their stories with one another anymore.
Often, if a person has already been here before or is a local resident, they may just skip the sample “story” dishes and come solely for the dinner. They’ll call up and say, “We just want to come and eat!”
LK: Are the dishes the same each day?
JFK: Our sample dishes, like red beans and corn bread, are almost always the same. Sometimes we’ll also include shrimp and grits and talk about why we see a lot of crustaceans in food here in the South — it’s due to the slave trade. At one time, Natchez had what was the second-largest slave-trade market in the United States.
Dinners, though, are different. We might have fried catfish one day and fried chicken the next because we talk about why frying foods is part of our history. Barbecue is similar. It’s actually something that came through the Caribbean as a Spanish technique known as barbacoa, which means to cook food over an open fire — something that’s still practiced a lot in places like South Carolina and Jamaica. Because of the language change and technology, we now have the word barbecue and the modern grill. But barbecue is the story of where that technique came from, and it’s our story too.
LK: What inspired you to create the Soul Food Fusion Festival?
JFK: The Soul Food Fusion Festival grew out of those people calling up the school and saying, “Anything cooking today? We’re hungry!” Just going out, helping people, and making sure they have something to eat, that’s always been my dream. In Natchez, we still have our issues and challenges as far as race and in being a more diverse and transparent community, but we’re working on it. The one thing that never seems to matter is when we all sit down to good food and music — these are things that don’t discriminate.
LK: Why do you believe creating community through food is so important?
JFK: For the most part, whenever you see big decisions being made, whether it’s within your own family or within your town, you’ll see people sitting down at the kitchen table to talk them through. It’s always been the case throughout history, even with the civil rights movement. This is because whenever you’re sitting at a table and you see food before you, your defenses are down, and there’s a sense of unity. So, I always say let’s do that over food, ’cause we can get a lot done.
In Natchez, we want to acknowledge our past but also celebrate our future and the notion of moving forward. I like to think that everything can be handled at the table.
Laura Kiniry is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist writing about travel, food, and culture, and the ways all three intertwine. In addition to Shondaland.com, she contributes regularly to Smithsonianmag.com and Atlas Obscura.
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