The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1991) is a glorious cookbook compiled by the National Council of Negro Women. The recipes honor NCNW’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, and commemorate the organization’s annual Black Family Reunion Celebration, which honors “the historic strengths and values of the Black Family.” The recipes are peppered with stories of Ms. Bethune’s life and accomplishments as well as personal accounts from the recipes’ contributors. Many of these personal stories recount pivotal moments in the civil rights movement, while others provide sentimental context for treasured recipes. Some are light, some are poignant. The stories alone make for fascinating reading, and the recipe collection is the gift that keeps on giving. Many of the recipes have roots in the American South and might be broadly classified as “soul food”, but there are also African stews, mid-century casseroles, and elegant rib roasts and steaks. These recipes, and the stories that accompany them, represent the diversity of the African-American experience. I haven’t had nearly enough time to cook everything I want to cook from this.
This recipe for Cheese Grits with Tomato Gravy is adapted from a recipe submitted by Los Angeles businesswoman Stephanie Honeywood. Stephanie and her sister, Varnette, were co-owners and operators of Black Lifestyles, which created and sold greeting cards with African-American art and themes. Varnette was the artist and achieved some modest celebrity in her lifetime; Stephanie was the poet and business mind behind the company. The recipe original belongs to the sisters’ grandmother. Stephanie and Varnette were born and raised in Los Angeles, but would visit their grandparents in the American South most summers. In the cookbook, Stephanie describes visits to her grandparents as more of a work party than a vacation: mending fences, building rooms, picking vegetables. Each day started with her grandmother’s “tender, golden, flaky, fluffy biscuits” and a big bowl of grits with tomato gravy. According to her uncles, “nothing was better at ‘loosening the glue in their joints’ than piping hot Tomato Gravy and grits.” And I can see why – this is hearty stuff with strong, spicy flavors to clear the head for a long day’s work. Tomato Gravy bears little resemblance to traditional gravy beyond a little bit of flour as a thickening agent. It pours like pasta sauce and tastes a little bit like salsa but somehow manages to be none of the above. It’s delicious, and I only wish I had Stephanie’s grandma’s biscuit recipe to go along with in.
Stephanie recommends serving Tomato Gravy with grits for breakfast and over rice for dinner, both of which I heartily recommend. Her grandmother would also add sliced bologna to Tomato Gravy to make it an all-in-one breakfast: this is probably delicious but I’m the only one in my family who likes bologna. I’ll serve this instead with bacon and eggs, as part of a well-balanced breakfast (even though I will typically serve this for dinner). I also prefer to serve this with Cheese Grits: cooked with rich half-and-half and a giant handful of sharp cheddar stirred in. Probably not the best idea if you’re planning on mending fences all day, but great for a hearty weekend breakfast.
The Black Family Reunion Cookbook is available from Amazon and worth a read. Other recipes adapted from this cookbook can be found here.
For the Tomato Gravy:
- 2 tbsp neutral cooking oil
- 1 sweet onion (coarsely chopped)
- ½ tsp chopped garlic
- 1 large. mild pasilla or Anaheim pepper (coarsely chopped)
- 1 tbsp flour
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 28 oz can canned diced tomatoes (drained)
- 1-2 serrano peppers, chopped (optional)
For the Cheese Grits:
- Bring the water and half and half to a low boil. Stir in the grits. Cover and reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or more. Prepare the tomato gravy while the grits are simmering.
- Heat the oil in an enamel Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions, mild pepper, and garlic and saute for a few minutes until soft. Stir in flour and sugar until well combined, then mix in tomatoes and serrano peppers.
- Simmer for 20 minutes until mixture is thickened slightly.
- Stir shredded cheese into cooked grits. Serve topped with tomato gravy.