As the creators behind local staples like crab cakes and terrapin stew, African American cooks have shaped Baltimore’s long history as a dining destination while almost never getting credit.

Now, journalists like Toni Tipton-Martin as well as chefs such as David and Tonya Thomas are working to correct that, bringing to light the contributions of Black cooks who changed culinary history. They spoke at a panel last week at the Johns Hopkins University to discuss Black foodways in Baltimore.

“A lot of the culinary history of this city has been lost and has never been told,” said Tonya Thomas, who recalled re-creating family recipes through smell and taste. “A lot of the information was not passed down to us.”

But a careful reading of historic cookbooks can provide insight. “Cookbooks are a way of knowing the Black world and a way of knowing our history,” said panelist W. Paul Coates, an activist and avid cookbook collector. Items are from his personal collection as well as from Tipton-Martin are on display at Hopkins’ Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

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Minkah Makalani, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Africana Studies, organized the panel, which kicked off a two-day symposium on Black food, after being struck by the “wealth and diversity” of Black restaurants in Baltimore.

From left, David and Tonya Thomas, W. Paul Coates and Toni Tipton-Martin speak at a panel on Black foodways organized by Minkah Makalani. (Christina Tkacik)

As a co-owners of boutique catering company, H3irloom Food Group, the Thomases, who previously ran downtown restaurant Ida B’s Table, said they are paying tribute to the generations of Black cooks who came before them.

The couple said they are inspired by the research of Tipton-Martin, who spent 20 years scouring American libraries and online auctions to research her book, “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.” It won a 2016 award from the James Beard Foundation.

The discussion at Hopkins brought back memories for Stanley Berkley of Harford County, who said listening to the panelists reminded him of the aunts who passed down family recipes to him. When his now-adult daughter was a child, he made it a point to teach her how to cook those recipes, too.

Asked by an attendee about the future of Black food, David Thomas said that the possibilities are endless: “Black food is going to go wherever we take it. We are not a monolith.”

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Ja Rule says ‘Holla Holla’ to Baltimore

An eagle-eyed reader alerted The Baltimore Banner to a recent celeb sighting: Ja Rule at Baltimore Spirits Co.

The “Holla Holla” musician posted photos on Instagram of himself standing inside the Hampden-area distillery with the caption: “They said it couldn’t be done… We did it anyway!!! Amber&Opal the best tasting organic Honey Whiskey coming soon!!!”

Baltimore Spirits Co. CEO Max Lents confirmed that the company has been working with the New York City native on the recipe for a new honey whiskey project that will be rye-based. But before you get too thirsty: “The launch is not imminent,” Lents said.

In the meantime, Lents said the company is preparing for the release of its four-year rye, which comes out this spring.

Black-Owned Restaurant Tour 2023

This weekend marks the start of the Black-Owned Restaurant Tour, hosted by the Downtown Partnership Of Baltimore and the host committee of the CIAA basketball tournament, which begins Tuesday.

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The weeklong event, which highlights some of the city’s best-known Black-owned restaurants during the tournament, kicks off Sunday morning at Teavolve Cafe in Harbor East before moving on to nearby Blk Swan, a favorite of Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and his wife, Dawn.

Other stops along the way include Bar ONE in Harbor East, Midtown-Belvedere’s Magdalena, Little Italy’s RYMKS Bar & Grille, Papi Cuisine in South Baltimore, HoodFellas Bistro & Catering downtown and Unity Bar & Restaurant, near the Walters Art Museum. Reservations are required.

Artist Shan Wallace, has been creating collages from her photography for many years.  Wallace's collage for the newly constructed Lexington Market are based upon her own experiences growing up in the old Lexington Market as a youth.
Shan Wallace’s collage of photography at the new Lexington Market. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Black History Month events at the markets

Baltimore Public Markets Corp. is celebrating Black history with events at the Lexington, Avenue, Broadway, Hollins and Northeast markets.

Among the options: Check out free medical screenings at the health and wellness fair at Lexington Market this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Broadway Market will host a jazz performance Thursday from 6:30 to 8 p.m., while Northeast Market has drumming, African dance and more Saturday from noon to 3 p.m.

Six of the best food stalls to try at the new Lexington Market

On Feb. 25, listen to Oletha DeVane and former Baltimore Banner photographer Shan Wallace discuss their artwork on display at the market. The same day, Hollins Market has a pop-up featuring African American-owned businesses.

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Jami Washington of Baltimore City Public Schools stands next to a portrait of her that is part of the “Food for Thought” exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. (Christina Tkacik)

‘Food for Thought’ at BMI

Baltimore leaders including city schools CEO Sonja Santelises turned out last Thursday at the Baltimore Museum of Industry for the opening of “Food for Thought,” a photo exhibition honoring the hardworking and long-serving staff of school cafeterias.

Catering was provided by the school system staff, while students from Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School prepared the cookies and pastries.

Subjects including Gail Pendelton and Jami Washington posed next to their black-and-white portraits shot by J. M. Giordano (who is also a freelance photographer for The Banner), while snippets of audio interviews played in the room.

“We live in a food desert in Baltimore City,” cafeteria manager Samone Flowers said in one of the clips. “I really worry a lot about my kids having just one meal over the weekend, if any. And believe it or not, they come to school on Monday morning, and when I get here at 6:15 or 6:30, they’re out there and they’re hungry.”

To read more about Baltimore City school lunch program, read my story from September.