Everybody eats

Adam Parker // The Post and Courier


Vertamae Grosvenor, on her porch at Palm Key in Jasper County, calls herself a culinary griot. In effect, she is a cultural anthropologist, journalist, cook, memoirist and artist whose life experience has affirmed her Gullah roots.

Standing at the window of her bungalow not far from where the Coosawhatchie drains into the Broad River, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor contemplates the marsh.

Across the way is Beaufort County. Today, Interstate 95 takes travelers north, but in slavery days, blacks only had the Underground Railroad.

Grosvenor, who lives on a former rice plantation on a spit of land called Palm Key in Jasper County, looks out across the marsh and talks about the workers who, she imagines, once threw down their rice threshers in exhaustion and disgust, escaping their fate with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs, wading through the creek beds, hiding in the tall grass and praying that some friendly soul would lead them north.

Grosvenor contemplates the spirits of those slaves lingering in the marsh and the path they forged to a better life. The past is the present. The present is ancient. Nothing is new, everything is new.

When she was born at home in Fairfax, S.C, she weighed three pounds and was called Verta Mae Smart. She was a twin, smaller than her brother, but strong. Her parents, Frank and Clara Smart, placed her in a shoe box and kept her by the oven. She survived. Her brother did not.

But there was no proof of her birth.

Years later, when she returned to South Carolina and wanted to renew her passport, she contacted the authorities to request a copy of her birth certificate.

“I’m sorry, we have no one with that name on record,” the clerk told her.

“You mean I don’t exist?” she said.

She does not know her age with certainty. “It depends on how old I feel when I get up,” she says. She knows only the month and day she entered the world: April 4. Ask her for her proper name, she will cite several. Virter. Verta Kali Smart. Mae. Verta Mae. Vertamae. Space Goddess. Obedella.

When she was around 8 years old, her family migrated north, taking their Geechee ways with them. Verta Smart came of age in Philadelphia.

Tall and skinny and interested in the theater, she was teased by the other children. She slouched. She mused about being weird and unwanted.

As a teenager, she would hang out at a coffee shop. Someone told her to check out a young woman playing music at a hotel across the street. Nina Simone, not yet famous, was performing at various venues in Philadelphia after the Curtis Institute of Music declined to admit her.

Smart said she and Simone became friends. Many years later, on July 26, 2003, three months after the famed troubadour died, Smart offered a tribute at the memorial service in New York City.

At 18, she read about the Beat Generation, about their nonconformist ways, love of literature and determination to explore the world. If she were a “bohemian,” she would be accepted, she thought.

So she took a boat to Europe, alone, uncertain what she would find.

In Paris, the Beats were finding a freedom of the mind they were missing in the U.S. Smart, too, wanted freedom.

“I thought it was a good way to escape,” she says.

She found the Beat Hotel on the Left Bank. She found a colony of expat artists and writers — the Scottish folk singer Alex Campbell, the American writer Jonathan Kozol, the French painter Lucien Fleury. She would marry one of them, the artist Robert Grosvenor.

Photographer Harold Chapman was staying at the rundown hotel at No. 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he took pictures of “Verta Kali Smart” and the others, including Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.

In Paris, she began to write. She made her own clothes. She prepared simple, delicious meals based on the heritage she kept safe within her.

She found herself.

“I grew taller there,” she has said. “My mama measured me. You know, I had grown two inches and I didn’t even feel like a misfit.”

After a couple of years, she returned to the U.S. and settled in New York City. Daughter Kali was born in 1960; two years later Chandra arrived. During this period, she and her husband split.

The 1960s was a heady time for Grosvenor. She had studied acting at the Hedgerow Theatre in Philadelphia under Jasper Deeter and now, in New York, was finding opportunities to apply her skills. She became active in the theater, and even made it to Broadway. She played Big Pearl in a production of “Mandingo,” a play that ran for just eight performances before closing.

In 1966, Louis Gossett secured a grant from the Office of Equal Opportunity, and a group of actors, including Grosvenor, mounted a series of improvisations in Tompkins Square. Her two daughters, Kali and Chandra ran around the neighborhood rounding up the spectators.

She frequented the jazz clubs. She brushed up on the Black Power movement. She organized dinner parties. She threw a fundraiser fish-fry for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in its waning years.

She was a Space Goddess in Sun Ra’s Solar Myth Science Arkestra for about three years. She designed the clothes, danced and sang. She read his poetry as the cosmic philosopher played free improvisation. When the band went to the south of France for a jazz festival, it drew attention.

“Where did you find these people?” someone asked Sun Ra.

“I just thought them up,” he replied.

She met and married the artist Elsworth Ausby, but the marriage only lasted a few years. She met the Bahamian-American actor Calvin Lockhart. He was handsome, sociable, tempermental.

He took Grosvenor to meet Muhammad Ali at the boxer’s Deer Lake training camp in Pennsylvania. He took her to England, she said, to impress the Royal Shakespeare Company, which wanted him to become the first black actor-in-residence.

When Kali was 5, she started writing poems. Three years later, photographer Joan Halifax decided the poems should be paired with pictures and published.

In 1970, Doubleday agreed. Kali’s book led the publisher to her mother’s work, and that same year, “Vibration Cooking” was released. It made Grosvenor famous.

By the early 1980s, she was living in Washington, D.C., and contributing stories and commentary to National Public Radio. She reported on the threatened Gullah-Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands as only someone can when they are reporting about their home.

She reported on the cultural significance of food. She reported on the expatriate experiences of African-Americans in Paris.

Her stories were gorgeously told, rich in characters and dimension and unlike most of radio’s offerings, colleagues said.

Her cooking show “Seasonings” won a James Beard award. Her renown led to many things, including a television show, part of the America’s Family Kitchen series produced in Chicago, called “Vertamae Cooks.”

“I exploit Afro-American dishes every chance I get,” Grosvenor once wrote. “For instance, collard greens. A bowl of collard greens does for me what a bowl of chicken soup does for others.”

In 1998, the University of New Hampshire granted Grosvenor an honorary doctorate and promised to send her a chair. She assumed they meant some kind of desk ornament. But it was a real chair, displaying an inscription: “Doctor of Humane Letters.”

Soon after the chair arrived, her 10-year-old grandson Oscar asked, “Grandma, is there such a thing as inhumane letters?”

On the occasion of writer James Baldwin’s 60th birthday in 1984, Grosvenor arranged an interview. Baldwin told her to meet him at his house on West 71st St. in New York at 2 p.m.

When she arrived, Baldwin was not there. Then she remembered his reputation for being late. She waited and waited.

That evening, Baldwin’s mother Emma prepared the guest room and cooked up something for dinner. Eventually, the writer returned home, wearing white pants and a navy blazer, looking dapper.

“We talked about what we’d talk about the next morning,” Grosvenor says.

Three years later, she was an honorary pallbearer at Baldwin’s funeral, joining the immense gathering at St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in New York City.

In the street one day, when the family was living in Washington, D.C., granddaughter Charlotte put Grosvenor on notice.

“See you later in the week,” she said. “See you Wednesday.”

This took Grosvenor by surprise. “Oh? Why?”

“I signed you up.”

Charlotte’s fourth-grade class was inviting people of interest to visit with students and talk about their lives.

“And Grandma, can you bring a pan of rice?”

So Grosvenor woke up early and prepared a pan of rice, struggling to get the hot dish into a cab and to the school.

The children gobbled it up, listening to Grosvenor explain its African origins and its cultivation along the tidal rivers of South Carolina.

One asked, “Do you know how to make peas and rice?”

Another described the rice dish he ate in Jamaica. Another mentioned the rice she ate in the Dominican Republic. They all knew about rice, and Grosvenor was struck by the way different cultures share certain essential elements.

In late 2009, Grosvenor was socializing with friends when she began to slur her words and lose consciousness.

She was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered she had had a brain aneurysm. She spent two weeks in the hospital after her operation, then about six weeks in rehab.

Grandson Oscar jokingly explained the situation this way: “They had to operate on Grandma’s brain; they took it out, rinsed it off and put it back.”

Well, it was something like that, more or less, Grosvenor says.

Poet and jazz afficionado A.B. Spellman met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor in the early 1960s, not long after Grosvenor returned from Paris and settled in New York City's East Village.

It was "a fairly big scene" in Alphabet City (N.Y.'s Lower East Side) in those days, a tight community of musicians, artists, poets and others, Spellman said. "So it was easy to meet people. We had lots of mutual friends."

Spellman, Grosvenor and their friends frequented jazz clubs and gathered for parties and events. "Most of this was before (black) nationalism took hold, so it was fairly integrated," said Spellman, who is a former administrator for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Grosvenor was by far the best cook among this group of artists, he said, and people often partook of her down-home dishes. She was often called, simply, "Mae."

"I have memories of her coming home in her moonbeam outfit, telling stories about Sun Ra," Spellman said, referring to Grosvenor's three-year stint in the jazz musician's band. "And she was the first person I knew to have a real interest in the lives of servants."

That interest would be channeled into a book she wrote titled "Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap," published by Doubleday in 1972. "She was a real original in a whole scene of originals," Spellman said.

Karen Spellman, an event organizer, met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor in the late 1960s, when her future husband, A.B. Spellman, moved to Atlanta to help the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was its research director, and soon became A.B.'s love interest.

Grosvenor was good friends with A.B. and came to Atlanta with her daughter, Chandra, "to put a viewing on me," Karen Spellman said. "She was the spy from the Lower East Side," checking out the new woman in A.B.'s life.

Spellman knew of her new friend's reputation for cooking. When the hostess began preparing collard greens, Grosvenor interrupted.

"Verta came into the kitchen and said, 'Girl, give me those greens.' " Then she started wrapping them a certain way and cutting them a certain way and preparing them a certain way. Her way.

"It was like a religious ceremony for her," Spellman said, a chance to pay respect to her elders. "She always quotes her references, and her references were people in her life, people in her family. So she showed me how to prepare the greens, and I've been doing it that way ever since."

When "Vibration Cooking" was published in 1970, it made Grosvenor famous. Spellman remembered basketball star Walt Frazier of the New York Knicks walking out onto the court before a game carrying the book.

Sue Goodwin met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor 17 years ago when Goodwin was working on the Hothouse Project, part of National Public Radio's cultural programming.

"The goal was to develop new shows that highlighted diversity," she said.

A friendship blossomed. Grosvenor became an NPR correspondent, contributing reports and commentary beginning in the early 1980s. "I looked to her as someone who just had a genius for understanding the nuance and all the complexities of culture in this country," Goodwin said. "This is always something I've wanted to understand better. I just felt every time I talked with Verta I learned something new. I just attached myself to her."

Every conversation was enlightening.

"She was always thinking, and everything she said came with a lot of thought and insight. She was really unique, and she didn't back off. So a lot of how I understand American culture ... comes from her."

Goodwin, who is executive producer of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," noted that her friend's embrace of cuisine was her way of exploring a large cultural inheritance, one that has profoundly influenced life in the U.S.

"Not many preceded her in using food as a lens," Goodwin said. "You know the saying, there's a universe in a grain of sand? That's what she did with food. You saw the (entirety) of America's history with race through food."