(I had to read this groundbreaking book once I learned that filmmaker Julie Dash is working on a documentary about Vertamae Grosvenor titled “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.”)
Vibration Cooking or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl was first published in 1970 but the edition I read was published in 1992. In the Introduction (from 1991) Dr. Grosvenor (she received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Hampshire) wrote about how publication of the book impacted her career as a “culinary griot” over the next 20 years—which included things like being featured on the cover of JET magazine; talking about cooking on television with “The Galloping Gourmet” (—you have to be a certain level of grown to remember him!); catering a party for James Baldwin; being featured in The New York Times Home section; participating in Philadelphia’s “The Book and the Cook” series; playing a hair-braider in Julie Dash’s film “Daughters of the Dust,” becoming a grandmother, and, more and more, deepening her vocation as a “culinary investigator.”
There is nothing conventional about this book in terms of writing style, content, or how its “recipes” are organized. But through food the author issues commentary on cultural differences, racial attitudes, the gourmet food movement, overly-processed foods, and the inferior groceries often found in urban food stores (and this was in 1970!) The book is filled with references and sayings from her early years growing up in South Carolina as a member of the Geechee, or Gullah culture; as well as terms from the 1960s, like when she acknowledges that someone’s attitude was “uptight, ” saying that folks “dug” her cooking; or using expressions such as “everything is everything,” and “different strokes for different folks.”
Do not attempt to reproduce any of the recipes in this book unless you are confident with your own abilities to do some “switchin’ in the kitchen” because none of the recipes include any measurement indicators. As Dr. Grosvenor writes, “I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration. I can tell by the look and smell of it.” She advocates cooking with the freshest foodstuffs in very black, well-seasoned skillets, and using peanut oil for all manner of browning, sauteing, and frying.
Vibration Cooking talks about cooking and eating with family and friends in places like South Carolina, Mississippi, Paris, Brazil, and New Mexico; with black folks and white folks, with musicians, and in hospitals. An abbreviated list of folk with whom she “broke bread” includes Barbara Walters, Nina Simone, Jonathan Kozol, Sun Ra, Quincy Troupe, Ed Bradley, Margaret Walker, and Mari Evans.
The stories, letters, and poems that accompany her culinary adventures had me laughing, rolling my eyes with disbelief and covering my mouth with my hand (as in “ooooooooo!”) Some recipes are named after historical figures as well as contemporary friends. Some examples: “Harriet Tubman Ragout,” “Collard Greens A La Shepp,” (after Archie Shepp), and “Eddie’s Mama’s Pig Feet.” A few recipes seemed more poetic tongue-in-cheek than something one might actually eat to nourish the body.
Everything feels so randomly put together, I had to “un-bunch my panties” a few times while reading—if you know what I mean—because the book wasn’t intended to be a scholarly document composed in a linear fashion and I kept forgetting that. For instance, a recipe for COOKING collard greens is followed by the procedure for CLEANING collard greens. A recipe for lye soap precedes recipes for brains rolled in flour and browned in oil, and something called “liver and lights.”
Vertamae Grosvenor had no intention of having the book published. Like she says in her Introduction: “I wrote it because I wanted to do something creative. My daughters were young and I couldn’t afford to take a class in anything or pay a sitter. My creative activity would have to be done in the house. Writing seemed like the perfect thing. I wasn’t a writer but people said they enjoyed my letters and besides, I was not writing to be published. I was writing to express myself. I loved to cook, had great food memories and experiences with friends and family in various places, so why not write about that. Put everything down and on special occasions give a copy of “writings” to the people I talked about.”
It seems that some new chapters were added for the 1992 edition but there is no clear indication, dates-wise. You just turn to a page and realize that one of her daughters is in college or Jimmy Carter is the President!
Well, I was going to rate it 3 stars but now that I’ve written so much to recommend it I guess I have to give it four stars!
(This review is re-printed and updated for my blog from a version published at goodreads.com.)