St. Louis and Black Cottage Food Producers

Thanksgiving 2016. I couldn’t wait to cut the sweet potato pie. There was a spoon nearby on the counter, so I just scooped out a heap and ate it. I never once used a knife or fork to eat it. I scooped and scooped until it was gone. Took a couple of days, maybe 36 hours to be exact, but I tore that pie up. 

That sweet potato pie was so darn good. I’d asked a friend for a slice of pie, and she brought me a whole pie that her mother had baked. It was her mother’s tradition and side-hustle during the holiday season. I sent over a folded bill for that pie, and to this day, I don’t think I sent enough. My memory still tastes it. My memory still desires it. Interestingly, she said her mother was not pleased with the way her pies turned out. I rolled my eyes and thought ‘She’s got to be kidding.’ She was serious, and not in that fishing for compliments way. Geez, if that pie wasn’t her best, then…

I shared that there are laws in the state of Missouri to run a full-fledge business based on her pies. She poo-pooed the notion, and that was the last we spoke of it. However, it’s not the last that I’ve thought of it.

African American women (and men) have been incredible food producers who have made decent livings from the ware they’ve created in their kitchens – before and after slavery – for centuries. In fact, cottage food production was a life-saver for many, and black women in Missouri were no exception. And they continue in 2017.

Since moving back here, I’ve purchased “plates” from storefront church mothers and fathers, mothers and aunties of friends, and from people on the street in front of their homes. These “plates” filled with everything from rib tips to fried fish to turkey and dressing to desserts were to support someone’s building fund, rent, family reunions, and college tuition. Same thing our ancestors did, different day. It seems all of those “plates” come with at least one slice of white bread like it’s a bonus.

I’ve purchased pies, cornbread dressing in shiny aluminum containers, and fried chicken. I tend to buy what I cannot cook well or at all.

The food is really good too. Some of the best home-cooked food around. Such an enterprise, and in its own way, economic development. Food supporting a community straight from someone’s kitchen or backyard.

If you’re so inclined, I’ve supplied a few links to my favorite books about black women, cottage food production, black enterprise, and our history as people who’ve always made a way out of no way – sometimes using food as that way.

~R

Books/References

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson

Building Houses out of Chicken Legs, Psyche Williams-Forson

South Side Girls, Marcia Chatelain

High on the Hog, Jessica B. Harris

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