African-American artisanal foods: Black fine food producers mix quality, community and commerce

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We come from a history of ‘artisanal’ food producers; we lived off the fruit of the land, canned our own vegetables, cured our meats, and made our own jams and breads — but then there was a shift. With the Great Migration, we left our farms for the big cities and our rapport with food changed; with progress, we lost some of our great traditions. Thankfully, current concerns for well-being and a desire to bring healthier, more wholesome products into our communities have fueled a growth in the artisanal food market.

TheGrio spoke with several African-American culinary entrepreneurs and discovered that the “back to basics” philosophy is alive and well. Artisinal foods — which by definition are handmade using traditional techniques — are helping blacks reconnect with some of the best aspects of our past. As you plan your remaining holiday feasts, you may want to keep one of these African-American artisanal food producers in mind.

Take for instance, Slow Jams. The socially-conscious artisanal jam company in Oakland, California, is the brain-child of Shakirah Simley. The young food activist was born in the South Bronx and raised in Harlem, neighborhoods with little access to fresh produce, not to mention access to organic or locally-grown options. This deficit helped spark her commitment to making sure healthy foods are available to everyone. Her jams help her realize this vision.

“Canning and preserving are a sometimes forgotten thread in the fabric that makes up African-American food culture. However, farming, gardening and ‘putting food by’ is very much a part of our history, [coming from the] need for self-reliance and [a means of] staving off hunger,” Simley told theGrio. “When I’m selecting heirloom varieties of apricots or patiently boiling down grapes for jelly, I’m following the tradition of our not-so-far-away ancestors who did the same to feed their families with very little resources and preserve the harvest. Making jam isn’t some trend; [it's] a real way to connect folks to our heritage, the land and to each other.”

Shakirah taught herself  to can and preserve “through many hours of practice, voracious reading and research,” and was awarded a prestigious one-year Fulbright fellowship to attend the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Her Slow Jams flavors consist of unique delicacies such Urban Meyer Lemon Curd, Brown Sugar Pear Butter, Summer Berry Jam, and Vanilla Blenheim Apricot Preserve.

And Shakirah really walks the walk and talks the talk. “My work as an artisanal food producer is directly influenced by my work as a food justice advocate,” she said. “My strong belief that good food is for everyone guides my activities around healthy food access and recreational equity. I’m grateful that I get to continue this work as Bi-Rite Market’s Community Coordinator, as a volunteer instructor for cooking classes for pregnant teens and teen moms in San Francisco, as well as by supporting youth of color in their campaigns to change their school food systems through Funders Collaborative for Youth Organizing.

“My goal for my food career is to work toward a just food system and to extend culturally-appropriate, delicious and value-added products to all communities,” Simley shared.

Slow Jams can be purchased through Bi-Rite Market, the San Francisco gourmet grocer, located at 3639 18th Street. The phone number is (415) 241-9760.

For more on Shakirah, check out her blog post on the Bi-Rite site or follow her on Twitter — then read on for more black artisanal food producers breaking boundaries by clicking below.