Food editor Jamila Robinson is successful in a space that does not have a large Black presence but she’s working to change that. As Food editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Regional Chair of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Jamila is fighting to give Black restaurants the recognition and resources they deserve. Jamila joins The Blackest Questions to talk about her mission, the importance of food equality, and the role her family has played to close the gap.
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Dr. Christina Greer [00:00:06] Hi and welcome to the Blackest Questions. I’m your host, Dr. Christina Greer, politics editor for theGrio and associate professor of political science at Fordham University. In this podcast, we ask our guest five of the Blackest questions so we can learn a little bit more about them and have some fun while we’re doing it. We’re also going to learn a lot about Black history, past and present. So here’s how this works. We have five rounds of questions about us Black history, the entire diaspora, current events, you name it. And with each round, the questions get a little tougher and the guest has 10 seconds to get it right. If they answer the question correctly, they’ll receive one symbolic breakfast and they’ll hear this. And if they get it wrong, they’ll hear this. But we still have them anyway. And after the five questions, they’ll be a Black bonus round at the end just for fun. And I like to call it Black Lightning.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:00:54] So our guest for this episode is food editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and regional chair of the world’s 50 best restaurants, Jamila Robinson. Jamila leads a team of reporters and directs its multi-platform food content franchise. Previously, Jamila was an editorial director for Atlantic Media, where she led content strategy projects for media companies. And as a senior content strategist for the USA Today Network, she managed editorial strategy for special projects, including USA Today’s Wine and Food Experience. Jamila was also senior editor for features at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she led its features and entertainment team. Jamila is the chair of the James Beard Foundation Journalism Committee, super exciting, which organizes the highest honors in food media. She also serves as the coach and mentor for the JBF Fellowship Program. Jamila is an idea person, an avid traveler, and in her free time, coaches figure skating and her love language is pie. Jamila, thank you so much for joining the Black box questions. I am so excited to have you here.
Jamila Robinson [00:01:53] Dr. Greer, Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here. I love talking about a little bit of Black stuff. So great to be here.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:02:00] We’re going to talk about Black folks. We’re going to talk about food. First things first. Our listeners know that I am not really a sweets person. I like salads for dessert, but I do make a mean sweet potato pie. And I had Mike Twitty on the Blackest Questions, chef Michael Twitty, and we talked about pie and so many other things. And I got so many listeners, DMing and emailing saying, “Can I get your grandmother’s sweet potato pie recipe?” And I asked my cousins and they said, “Absolutely not.” That is in the family. What’s your stance on sharing recipes?
Jamila Robinson [00:02:34] Oh, I think you should share. The recipes of recipes are a part of our canon. It’s a kind of storytelling. And, you know, you’ll see people on Twitter and on Instagram saying, oh, we’re losing recipes. But what I think what happens if we don’t share recipes, we lose our family stories. I can’t get my grandmother’s sweet, sweet potato pie recipe without talking to her first. So you’re going to hear about her life, her story, and that’s why we share recipes. It’s not just adding a little bit of cinnamon and a little bit of nutmeg. It is about the relationships and how we talk to each other and how we share. So definitely share your family’s recipes. Write them down, share them.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:03:15] I translated my grandmother’s sweet potato pie recipe because she didn’t own a measuring cup. So it was like, “Baby, just add a little more sugar.” I’m like, “Well, how much is that?” “Well, till it feels right.” What is it suppose to feel like? I raised in the Northeast, not the Deep South. You know, she’s like add some more butter. When you said more butter, she meant a stick, not a pan.
Jamila Robinson [00:03:32] Well, my grandmother my grandmother actually wrote everything down. My grandmother was very, very precise. She wasn’t a little bit of this little bit of that kind of person. It is one cup. It must be leveled. It it measure the butter, use the use the measuring spoon because there she was, love, the science of baking. And so everything had to be a little bit precise. There was a reason that her sweet potato pie stood up real high and hottie her biscuit stood up high because of the ratios of baking powder to baking soda and where the buttermilk and those chemical reactions and how much salt. So she was very, very precise. But, you know, I like a little bit more salt in my biscuits. So I will say will add a little salt, add a little bit more.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:04:19] So if the love language is pie, then what’s your favorite pie?
Jamila Robinson [00:04:23] Lemon tart. Lemon tart. Lemon meringue is my absolute favorite pie. It’s the first thing I remember learning how to make it, how it was communicating with my grandmother, her trying to keep me quiet because I talk too much and she would give me an egg white and a quarter cup of sugar and she would give me a whisk and say, count to 150 and I had to go, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, 2 to 3. And then I when I got to 150, I had to switch arms. And that’s how we got meringue.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:04:55] That’s right. Now, where were where was your grandmother when you were doing all this? Where did she live? I’m so fascinated about these relationships. You know, my grandmother was in Yulee, Florida, which is in northern Florida, but the Deep South, you know, I was raised in the northeast. But having these little, her neighbors used to call us the Yankees, like the Yankees are coming because we were from up north. Where was your grandmother and where were you raised?
Jamila Robinson [00:05:17] I was raised I was raised in Detroit, Michigan. That’s where my grandmother from. My grandmother was born in Detroit and her mother lived in Detroit as well. So we are long term Michiganders and those are the things that. So my pies are lemon tart and cranberry and and spinach. I love a spinach pie. You’re talking about savory and pies are those are the things that I learned how to make first, because you learn how to make the crust. My grandmother, that’s where my grandmother was from. And she was always trying to make her grandmother’s sweet potato and lemon meringue pies. So it’s part of the reason I love them so much. I make a better apple pie than my grandmother ever made now. She won’t tell you that. I make a really, really good apple pie. I mean, I make good pies.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:06:09] So to our listeners out there, you can find Jamila on social media and we can all line up outside of her home during the holiday season with our plates in hand.
Jamila Robinson [00:06:19] That’s right. I throw a huge pie party. And I would say, come through. My holiday party is a pie party. I make dozens of different kinds of pies. Hand pies. Come through.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:06:29] You gave the wrong person the wrong invite. Okay, because I’m not a huge, bad person. But I can. I can be persuaded.
Jamila Robinson [00:06:36] Chicken pot pie.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:06:37] Ooh. Now that’s for my niece. My niece loves the chicken pot pie. And so there will be my guest win when I show up at your house with my plate and my fork. Are you ready to play Blackest Questions? I can tell you’re about to kill it. I feel it. I feel it. Question number one, known as one of the greatest composers of our time, this American composer, pianist and organist was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. Who is he?
Jamila Robinson [00:07:09] Pianist. Organist. Oh, I only have 10 seconds to do this, don’t I? Don’t I? I was going to say Quincy Jones, but I don’t think that’s right.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:07:18] Oh, that’s a really great guest. The answer that’s a really solid guess. The answer is George Theophilus Walker. So.
Jamila Robinson [00:07:26] Walker.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:07:27] Walker. So for a number of years, he toured extensively in the United States and abroad, is an accomplished pianist. He then went on to lead teaching posts at various institutions, including Smith College, which is where I held a fellowship. University of Colorado, Boulder and Rutgers in Jersey. Shout out to Jersey. The number of influences can be heard of in his music, including the surrealism of Schoenberg, the rhythmic complexities of Stravinsky, the colorful orchestrations of Debussy and Ravel, and the Black folk idioms of his own heritage. And in 1996, after a decades long decorated career, Walker became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in music for his work lilacs. So I was told by my producers that you studied classical music, and you also mentioned Ravel as one of your favorite composers. So how did you come to love classical music? We’ve got pie baking, we’ve got classical music. We’re all over the place and I love it.
Jamila Robinson [00:08:16] Well, I started playing violin when I was five or six years old. I come from a family of musicians. Everybody played music, either played the piano or played violin. My father’s played trumpet and violin. And I it’s one of the first things that I fell in love with was playing the violin. I loved the way that it made me feel to play music and to have that develop an ear. And any music is is universal. And I always found an extraordinary amount of joy in in playing music and playing the violin. I tell people all the time, I didn’t play sports as a kid. I played in symphonies. And it sort of guides how I work with people, sort of taking the competition out of a lot of the work that we do and putting in the collaboration. Because you have to work, you have to have a conductor who’s going to be able to bring out the best in the strings and the best in the bassoon and the best in the horns. In high school, I played in a quartet and played in a lot of museums and and did a lot of events, a lot of weddings. And it still brings me an extraordinary amount of joy. I love Ravel, Bolero, Ravel’s, one of my favorite composers. So, yes, it’s too bad that I missed that question because of course it’s George Walker.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:09:37] Right. What, did I call him Ravel? What? This is my, you know, my brain freeze. Ravel. So here’s a question because I love Mozart, Mozart is my favorite. You know, I just I write a lot to Mozart. It sounds like, though, you’re saying that being part of an orchestra in many ways is about being part of a team the way some people thought about sports. I always think about folks from Detriot. Everyone I meet from Detroit plays some sort of instrument, has some sort of musical foundation. It’s almost like, you know, the area in Virginia where like Missy and Timberland and Ginuwine are from, my Detroit friends, I’m like, “Does everyone have a musical bone in their body?”
Jamila Robinson [00:10:16] We all went to Cast Tech. CT Fired up. You know, we had a symphony that was extraordinary, you know, great musicians, musicians who were alumni, who played in the Detroit Symphony who would come back and give masterclasses. I played in the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra with some really important musicians and, you know, it’s Motown, yeah. When you think about Motown, that background, I was listening to The Wiz the other day, and there’s part of the Emerald City sequence that is all strings and ta da da da da da da. And the strings are like di di di di di . And it is so glorious to hear that. And I think that we should think about classical music in contemporary terms.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:11:06] Oh, absolutely.
Jamila Robinson [00:11:07] And hip hop is the most important and most most important musical genre. And so a lot of orchestras are looking at how to arrange hip hop because it has so many notes and it’s so complex and it’s so interesting. And so I find classical music, that foundation to be so important in terms of helping, to ground understanding. You know, Ravel played jazz and and that was what he was inspired by. He was inspired by all the Black musicians who were playing in France and and learned a lot about how to. And so that is a guiding point of a lot of his music. And I find that to be really compelling, to see how our history is infused, especially in 20th century music, and you see our influence from being in other parts of the world.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:12:06] Absolutely. You know, we we’ve had Terence Blanchard on, who’s a friend of theGrio, and he talked a lot about just what you’re saying, this link between classical music and orchestral music to jazz, to hip hop and so many other forms. Now, tell us, though, how you made this transition from the orchestra to the kitchen. Or is it a seamless transition?
Jamila Robinson [00:12:31] Well, I think what happened was.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:12:34] What it was, was.
Jamila Robinson [00:12:36] I’ve always loved being in the kitchen. My mother is not somebody who’s everybody talks about, oh, my mother made the best. And yeah, that’s not my mom. My mom was not that person. She was more like, you know, biscuits. I’m not I’m not making biscuits. You know, you pop them open with the back of the spoon and they explode. You know, that’s how we got biscuits in our house. But I was always really fascinated with cooking. And the most interesting thing for me, being a journalist, I should say, was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I wanted to write about classical music, and that was sort of my plan. I wanted to be a classical music critic. And in a in my first apprenticeship at the Detroit Free Press, they put me in pop music. And in my first internship, I had to I had to I was a graphic designer, and I had to design the food pages. And I as I read all of the stories, I was so fascinated by how much the food writers got out of people. All of the interesting details would find you would find these fascinating ideas coming out in food because food like music is universal. And I found that, oh, I can wait a minute. I really, really love to cook. I really loved making my own cakes and trying to figure out how my grandmother made X, Y or Z. And I can also write these recipes. You have to write them out. So I started writing recipes of things that I really enjoyed. I check out books from the library and I make these little twists on them. One of the things you have to do when you work on food sections is you have to style all of the recipes, and so you have to have a really good understanding of how each recipe works. And then you have to photograph it and make sure it looks beautiful. You have to test it to see if it comes out. Does it look like the picture? And because I have this kind of artsy ish background, I started doing a lot of that, a lot more styling, and then I started asking questions about the food. That became such an interesting way to talk to people. I love going into a room with people I don’t know and then asking them how their family cooked rice.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:14:49] Mm.
Jamila Robinson [00:14:50] As you’ll find out if it was jollof or if it was. Like a lot of people that I grew up around in Michigan, like a lot of Middle Easterners like that crispy rice at the bottom.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:15:01] That’s right.
Jamila Robinson [00:15:02] Or if it was like Rice-A-Roni, like we had in my house, because that tells you a story about women working, about feminism, about making different choices, about how you spend your time. My mother was not somebody who wanted to spend her time in the kitchen. And you find out a lot of things about people. Food is the last thing we lose when we move to a different place. We are calling our parents and asking, how did you make those chicken noodle? How did you make that chicken noodle dish? How did you make that jollof rice? What kind of spices did you use? And you find out these stories about them. So that was a lot of the transition. And then discovering that because food is universal, it touches every sector of what we do in journalism, whether that is politics or the economy, immigration, entertainment. You can’t talk about sports without talking about food. You can’t talk about immigration without talking about food. And you can’t talk about restaurants without talking about the economy.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:16:05] That’s right.
Jamila Robinson [00:16:07] And so I found that to be the greatest pathway for deeper engagement. And it just helps me do my job better as newspapers and other media organizations are going through this transition, this digital transformation. Well, food is such an easy it’s like the most direct pathway to transformation, because everybody has to do it. Everybody has to experience it. And you can frame food in so.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:16:40] Many different directions. Okay. I’m fascinated by this and fascinated by you. We’re going to take a quick commercial break. We’re playing the Blackest Questions with Jamila Robinson. We’ll be right back. Okay, Jamila, we are back playing the Blackest Questions. Are you ready for question number two? I’m going to circle back at some point because I’m a rice connoisseur. So we’re going to get to the bottom of more of this rice conversation. But in the meantime, in between time, are you ready for question number two?
Jamila Robinson [00:17:03] Let’s go.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:17:04] Okay. Considered one of the most influential contemporary American artists. She rewrote the rules of image making by creating work that insists on the worth of Black women, both in art and in life, working in text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation videos and is best known for her photography. Who is she?
Jamila Robinson [00:17:26] Oh, I thought that was going in a different direction.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:17:30] That’s what we do on the Blackest Questions.
Jamila Robinson [00:17:35] Oh, gosh. I can see her artwork. Oh, I get all her name. Honey, cut. Honey.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:17:51] It’s Carrie Mae Weems.
Jamila Robinson [00:17:53] Carrie Mae Weems. Oh, I don’t know.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:17:55] So, Carrie May Weems has investigated family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class political systems and the consequences of power. Determined as ever to enter the picture, both literally and metaphorically, Weems has sustained an ongoing dialog within contemporary discourse for over 30 years, and in 2013 she received the MacArthur Genius Grant, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She also received the BET Honors Visual Artist Award, the Lucy Award for Fine Art, Photography and so many other awards, and was one of four artists honored at the Guggenheim’s 2014 International Gala. So Carrie May Weems is just one of my inspirations for contemporary art and obviously photography. So we’ve got food, we’ve got music. So naturally, I got to ask you about art. Who is your favorite contemporary artists and how much do you see food, art and music blending in is one in the work you do and also in just your your free time?
Jamila Robinson [00:18:58] Oh, my gosh. I am in love with Amy Sherald.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:19:02] Mm. Yeah,.
Jamila Robinson [00:19:05] I really like her imagery. And that’s where I thought you were going.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:19:12] Mm hmm.
Jamila Robinson [00:19:14] Her imagery. Her portraiture I find so breathtaking and compelling. There are a couple of pieces, one that I love called Miss Everything, and there is a woman in a Black pillbox hat. And I’m doing a little shimmy right now because that’s how I think of her. She’s got this red pillbox hat and she’s got her coffee cup. And I love the way that Amy Sherald plays with these ideas and images of contemporary, especially of young Black women. She has a new painting called As She Sees It. And the first time I saw it, I thought it was just a portrait. I wear a lot of bright colors. I, I love prints. And there’s this, she’s took this picture of this woman who. Where she’s wearing her hair like mine. She has on a leopard coat, which is a reference to another painting. And she’s got on these bright orange pants. And I thought, well, when did I sit for a portrait?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:20:24] Right. Is this me?
Jamila Robinson [00:20:27] And that, I think, is something that art should do for you. You should be able to see yourself and be inspired by it and. And I every time I see an Amy Sherald painting, whether it is for Breonna Taylor or if it’s the the bathers, I feel so connected to that imagery because those are all women, Black women I know in some way. There’s a new painting of a man on a he’s like on a motorcycle and he’s popping a wheeling. And it reminds me of my dad’s motorcycle club, the Hell Raisers. It’s like all of these images and these reference points in our experience. And she has given us this in these very contemporary terms. And and that I find to be so beautiful and so inspiring and so colorful. And I love the way she brings people to life, and it just excites me.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:21:39] Yeah. You know, I really struggle with kind of emoting. You know, it’s like I’m one of those people that cries, like, once a year and I’m like, Oh, I wish I could be crying, you know, like, this is really serious. I like this is really beautiful. But what the reason why I love art so much is because whatever it is, that is my blockage just, you know, everyone else is hysterical. And if you know, and I’m like looking around like this is speculating, but the minute I see art or the minute I hear certain types of music, it it opens up something inside of me. And that’s the way I feel about not just contemporary art, but, you know, when I’m looking at the Black masters, whether it’s Bearden or William Johnson or Jacob Lawrence or, you know, I remember when being eight years old at the Philadelphia Art Museum and there was a Henry OssawaTanner exhibit, and I got in trouble because I couldn’t stop touching these paintings. And I knew better. But I was so moved, it was like the spirit was just like, “Touch it Chrissy, feel it, feel the banjo, man.” It’s like just let yourself be one with these paintings.
Jamila Robinson [00:22:41] It will make you weep. Angela Davis said art allows you to feel free.
Jamila Robinson [00:22:49] Hmm.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:22:50] When you are in a situation where you are not free. Art allows that for you.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:00] And I think that’s probably why so many people who are incarcerated make such beautiful drawings, even when, you know, you talk to them and they say, Well, I wasn’t necessarily artistic before I came here. It’s just something has been unlocked in my incarceration.
Jamila Robinson [00:23:14] It well, it breathed life into you. My mother took us to museums every Sunday.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:20] Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Jamila Robinson [00:23:22] Sunday was Culture Day, and we went to a museum of film, an exhibit, a festival, something on Sunday. You were going to go do something on Sunday that was cultural and that still guides how a lot of how I spend my time. I may travel all over the world, but a restaurant, maybe my first stop but an art gallery or a museum is going to be my second, third or fourth stop, and I might spend more time there. I find it extraordinarily freeing. I find art to be inspiring because I was artistic in terms of I’m extraordinarily creative, but I don’t have that skill set, and I love being around people who do something different.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:24:19] Yes.
Jamila Robinson [00:24:19] Around artists and seeing how they think and how what is going through there, what is inspiring for them. And then I can look at the world a little bit differently and I find that to be very important, to be engaged with the world through art, especially Bearden Yeah, and I love the contemporary artists. I was reading something the other day about although I was reading about Angela Davis and all of the artists who. Who were creating images of her and how they used her face, her body, her afro, and in terms of being able to push the movement forward. And I thought that that was so. It’s so beautiful to see how other people are inspired by other people’s images. And I find that compelling.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:25:15] I find you compelling. How about that? We’re going to take a quick commercial break. I am talking to Jamila Robinson. We’re finding out so much. We’ve got art, we’ve got food, we’ve got music. And we have a few more things coming down the pike. Stay tuned. We’re back and we’re playing the Blackest Question with Jamila Robinson. Jamila, are you ready for question number three?
Jamila Robinson [00:25:36] I’m going to try number three.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:25:38] Okay. See, in the beauty of the Blackness questions, Jamila is, listen, we do our best, but it’s not all about getting them, you know, 100%. It’s about learning about Black history as American history. That’s my argument on this podcast that everyone should know these things, right? Not just Black folks, but everyone should know about all of the great folks, Black people who have contributed to art, music, culture, society, politics, you name it. So question number three. Many biographical accounts credit this chef’s time with former President Lyndon Johnson’s family as inspiring him to sign the famous Civil Rights Act due to traveling together on a trip back to Washington, the chef and the Johnsons found they couldn’t eat together, use the restroom or find shelter at the same facilities because the chef was Black. What was the chef’s name?
Jamila Robinson [00:26:28] Oh, my gosh. I should know the chef’s name. And I can see his face and I cannot recall his name right now. But he was a chef. Adrian Miller has written about this chef. He was in the White House for many, many years. And I cannot call his name. Help me out with his name, Dr. Greer.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:26:47] So you’re thinking of a different chef, because the chef we are thinking about is Zephyr Wright, who was born in Texas in 1914, standing home economics in college. She did more than simply obtain the education. She was one of Wiley University’s best students being so highly recognized that she was recommended by the university president to work for then Representative Lyndon Johnson’s family as a chef in 1942. And as our listeners know, LBJ is my favorite president. We know he’s from the great state of Texas. And so, according to the first lady, Wright was an expert at Spoon Bread, homemade ice cream and monumental Sunday breakfasts of deer sausage, home cured bacon, popovers, grits, scrambled eggs, homemade peach preserves and coffee. And so the Pedernales River and I’m sure our our listeners will correct me on the pronunciation Pedernales River Chili Recipe. So the Pedernales River Chili recipe was so popular, it was printed on cards and passed out to White House visitors. And Zephyr Wright also held the pen that endorsed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. And so, Jamila, I was just telling my students, you know, when a president signs a bill into law, you know, when when Congress brings a president a bill, and I ask my students, why does the president have 10 to 20 pens right in front of him? And they rightly guessed, oh, so he can give them out to the different people who helped pass that legislation. Right. So he signs a little bit with each pen. And so the fact that Zephyr Wright had one of those pens with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, when we know that so many people, especially so many African-Americans, contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that just warmed my heart. And I’m so excited to learn more about who she was. So, have you heard of her before?
Jamila Robinson [00:28:32] Gives me chills. I haven’t heard of her. And that gives me that gives me chills because we know so much about so many of the Black chefs that worked in the White House kitchens and worked for so much of the congressional staff and actually contributed to the to the cannon and whether that was James Hemings or all the others. But Zephyr Wright is a name that I don’t know. And I that story just gives me it. It it’s I can feel it in my soul.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:29:00] Yes. And as a political scientist, I feel like I want to learn more. This is you know, she’s basically the confluence of Jamila and Christie talking in this food world and political world because imagine what she had seen and the conversations I’m sure she had with the president. As you said, in the kitchen, as we learn about these recipes, it’s all about conversations and learning. Time for a quick break. We’ll be right back. Welcome back to the Blackest Questions. I’m so sure that there were some conversations had between the president and Zephyr, right. In the in the the 20 some odd years between that incident of them traveling and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Jamila Robinson [00:29:43] And imagine imagine the conversation around I feed you, I feed you, which is feeding somebody is the greatest act of love. Right? I feed you, but I can’t sit next to you as I feed you and the food that I prepared. So I can imagine. This is why it’s giving me chills about the conversations that must have happened had and the progress that is required and the humanity that is that is necessary to make that kind of change. I have chills.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:30:18] So I want to I want to talk to you about that, because I love the way you approach food writing. I think a lot of our listeners, you know, many of us have never met a food writer. Right. It’s not especially a Black food writer. Let me be specific, because I know that, you know, this is not a field that a lot of Black people are in. And so I want to talk a little bit more, though, about your journey and maybe you can give some advice. You know, we probably have listeners out here who are now fascinated or maybe they’ve been thinking about, you know, taking this passion and this knowledge they have about food and transitioning into a world that you’re in. So what advice would you give our listeners into how they can help you can help them shape a career in food journalism? Like what’s a path? Your path was slightly different. You came from the music world, but can you give our listeners any tips or advice into sort of breaking into a world that seems a little closed off, to be quite honest?
Jamila Robinson [00:31:10] Well, it’s so strange because as much as we like to eat, there are only a handful of Black food writers and.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:31:20] And Black folks and food in this country, in particular, has such a long, rich history and foundation.
Jamila Robinson [00:31:25] I’m one of the few Black food editors. I can name the other, Dawn Davis at Bon Appetit, Nikita Richardson at the New York Times, Toni Tipton Martin, who was essentially she is the person on which I stand. She was the first Black food editor, I was the second. There aren’t that many of us. Our stories about food. People don’t ask us about our food. They eat it, but they don’t ask us about it. So I think for people who are going into journalism or thinking or want to be writers, food is such an important pathway because you can start to ask all of these questions about whatever topic you’re in, whatever topic you’re interested in, and if you’re interested in politics. Well, food, politics and policy, the most important story over the last couple of years was food stories, restaurants, PPP loans, how the economy stayed stable was essentially how COVID was passed along. Those are all food stories. Everything is a food story. There is always a.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:32:29] Who is picking your food? You love a $20 avocado toast who pick those avocados and where?
Jamila Robinson [00:32:36] Who picked that Avocado? Who baked that bread? Who built that restaurant? Why aren’t Black restaurants getting the same amount of investment? So one of the things that I like to do when I work with students is to give them a food story, assignment. Whatever it is that they’re interested in I give them a food story, and I also like for people to go and write an essay about something that they love to eat. What is that thing that bring? What food brings you the most joy? What is your food memory? And you will inevitably end up with a story about a mother, a grandmother, a parent, a dad. But you will start to see all of the connections and you will see the humanity in people. Food is so is essential to every life form, but it is essential to our humanity. And when I think about the Civil Rights Movement of you don’t want me to sit down and eat. The most elemental part of humanity. I find it most important to tell those stories of what we ate, why we ate it, why we cooked that food, how it changed when people came to the US, how the food changed. When we think about food history, things like gumbo, jollof, rice, jambalaya, all of these things are just things that we brought from the diaspora. And the way we cook them now is a reflection of our history here, and all of that is compelling. So I encourage young people to find, to tell their food story, whatever it is. This is why I ask people, how did your family cook rice? What kind of ice cream do you do you like? What is the smell that makes you cringe? Canned salmon. My mother loved to make salmon croquettes.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:34:35] Mhm.
Jamila Robinson [00:34:37] I still cannot.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:34:37] Yeah. That, that is a strong smell strong.
Jamila Robinson [00:34:40] But I will, I can tell you a lot of stories about my mother just by telling you about salmon croquettes. And I’ve been trying to reestablish my relationship with salmon croquettes, and it ain’t working. But my mother also cooked a lot of lamb. Lamb is something that I love, and I can cook the heck out of out of lamb chops. And so that is that is a connection to my history, my culture, my family, where I live. Our migration story. Our story in Michigan. And all of those things deserve to be told no matter who you are or where you live. And that’s why I think people should write their stories. Save your recipes. Write them down.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:35:29] Oh, I cannot wait. I think I might even work this into an assignment for some of my students in one of my urban politics classes, because It’s so important.
Jamila Robinson [00:35:38] Urban politics.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:35:39] So important.
Jamila Robinson [00:35:39] Absolutely. I mean, when I think about Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., that’s an urban politics story. It’s a gentrification story. The reason that Ben’s Chili Bowl has been able to remain is because it owned the building. That was the only place that stayed open during the riots. It served so many people in the Civil Rights Movement and continues to serve it now. And Virginia Ali is still alive and we should give her flowers for the work that she did feeding the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s also that story about politics and policy and how neighborhoods change and investment, disinvestment all plays into whether or not we can feed ourselves in our own neighborhoods.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:36:29] Okay. So we’re about to take a quick break, but I have so I have so many ideas running through my head about food apartheid, about the loss of all of our Black restaurants in Harlem with the expansion of Columbia and gentrification. I’m basically going to create a food and politics course just on this conversation alone. And you have to promise me two things. One, you’ll come to my food politics course because I have a feeling the two of us talk for like a semester and a half.
Jamila Robinson [00:36:52] Sign me up.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:36:52] To purely self-serving reasons. I think my dad smokes the best lamb on the grill, and I’m thinking I might need a little Jamila-Ted Cookoff and the only winner will be me.
Jamila Robinson [00:37:04] I’m here for it.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:05] I can’t wait. Okay. We’re going to take a brief break, but we are playing the Blackest Questions with Jamila Robinson. Okay, we are back. Jamila, are you ready for question number four?
Jamila Robinson [00:37:16] Question number four, come at me.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:18] Okay. Inspired by the Black power movement in the United States, this British organization existed from 1968 through 1973. What was it called?
Jamila Robinson [00:37:31] 1968. I’m going through all of my mental database of British trivia. It’s going to be something really easy because the Brits love simplicity.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:46] Mm hmm. You’re correct.
Jamila Robinson [00:37:49] Is it the free? Is it ready? Yeah, I’m ready.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:37:55] It’s the British Black Panther Party. That’s what it is. Nigerian playwright Obi Egbuna founded the British Black Panther’s, BBP, in 1968 in London’s Notting Hill. In Britain, people of Caribbean, Africa or South Asian descent were mainly immigrants from former British colonies were considered to be Black. So the tripling of Britain’s Black population from 300000 to 1 million people occurred from 1961 to 1964, which led to increased racial and class tensions, especially in London’s Afro-Caribbean communities. And these tensions led to more police repression and the creation of the BBP. Now, while the BBP was not an official chapter of the Black Panthers, it was the First Panther organization outside of the United States. Adopting the Panther symbols and military jackets, berets and raised fists. And so they moved their headquarters to Brixton, which was the poor Black community in London at the time. Talk about gentrification, Brixton is pretty fancy right now. And so like the Black Panther Party in the U.S., they stressed working class solidarity in addition to fighting racial discrimination and oppression. And so the long neglected BBP has been highlighted in 2017 in a photography exhibit at the Tate Museum. Again, Fantastic Museum, a proposed film on the Mangrove nine and airing of Guerrilla, a new drama series loosely based on BBP. So my producer told me that your family has roots in the Black Panther Party. And were you even aware of this British Black Panther Party?
Jamila Robinson [00:39:20] I wasn’t aware of the British Black Panther Party. And it so fascinated because my mother was a leader in the Detroit Black Panther Party and it started the free breakfast program, which is why she wasn’t cooking at home, because she was running the program. And, you know, and it’s not only a precursor for all of these other organizations, but also for our current free lunch program in the U.S. That idea of of feeding communities, we have words for it now, food insecurity. Even throughout all of the gentrification but those tenants from the Black Panther Party of being sure that children have enough nutrition to sustain their education is still so vital as we face all of these other things, from disinvestment to climate. All of those factors. So I think about that quite a bit in terms of how I, not only how I work, but it is a guiding point of being sure that we are not only talking about food as entertainment, but food as a human right.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:40:41] Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Absolutely. I mean, I think about, you know, I learned about this phrase food apartheid, you know, because someone was saying, we use this term food deserts. And it’s like, no, a desert is is naturally occurring. Apartheid is deliberate. And I think about the powerful work. I mean, it’s revolutionary when you think about the program that your mother and so many other Black, Black women specifically, were running in the Black Panther Party to feed the future of your nation. And the idea that this country is not fully invested in providing a nourishing foundation from the beginning of a day. Like we see, you know, I’m going to be specific Republican legislators fighting to defund the ability to nourish a child who obviously, you know, as an educator, you know, you can’t concentrate if you’re hungry, period. Like and that goes from itty bitty to college students and the number of college students who are food insecure, the number of colleges who are starting food pantries to recognize that we can’t have a future political or otherwise if we don’t have this literally the fuel to keep us going. And so I’m I’m so curious as to what you think we could do better to transition this even the educational piece of of helping people understand the necessity of food programs in our cities and our rural and suburban communities.
Jamila Robinson [00:42:04] It’s really it’s there’s part of yes, it’s revolutionary, but it’s you know, when the most radical thing you can do is to feed people tells you so much about where we are in society, something I find very, you know, makes me sad.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:42:22] Mm hmm.
Jamila Robinson [00:42:23] We have to have people who understand, you know, it has to be a legislative imperative that people have enough to eat, that an educational imperative that there is nutrition. I mean, we see in Britain and in other parts of the world, Britain, France. You know, their school lunches are full of vegetables. They are everything is fresh. It’s made from scratch. There has to be a way that we disconnect the profit making portion of food so that people understand that we should have free food in every school. If so much of our tax burden is going into education and that is something that I think people need to demand, but we need the support of policymakers and agriculture. Again, all of this is this all gets back to policy.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:43:23] Mm hmm.
Jamila Robinson [00:43:25] And this all gets back to policy and the expectation that our food systems are going to be working for us. I was talking to some people from Ghana, and they were talking about how so much of their some of the most important crops are set aside for export so they cannot consume or sell products that are essential to their diet.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:44:02] Mm hmm.
Jamila Robinson [00:44:02] And and so that profit making structure. Well, we aren’t thinking about just the basic elemental idea of feeding a community.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:44:11] Right.
Jamila Robinson [00:44:11] And so that. So then we need all of you know, we need NGOs and all of these other organizations to step in. Think about all the restaurants in the beginning of the pandemic that couldn’t have customers come in and eat, but they still became commissary kitchens to feed people in different neighborhoods. And a lot of that work is still going on, but they may not have as much support. So we have to look to be sure. So we have to look at our communities to find out who’s who is feeding into food insecure people, that we are pressuring organizations or investors to invest in grocery stores in every single neighborhood. They shouldn’t just be in gentrified playgrounds. There are five grocery stores within five blocks of my house. But if I go a half a mile east, but if I go a mile east, all of those people have to come to my neighborhood to shop. And that is that should be. It should be unconscionable. There’s a neighborhood in New York, Queensbridge, that is the largest of the public housing spaces. They have one store. And with that hardly has any fresh vegetables. It’s all potato chips.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:45:35] Prices are.
Jamila Robinson [00:45:36] And the price are outrageous. Every time I hear people talk about inflation and I’m and I’m thinking, yes, that might be for your neighborhood. But if you go to a neighborhood that has seen a lot of disinvestment, that same container of milk is going to be three times the price. And it costs poor people more to experience the fundamental element of eating.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:46:00] Oh, and I am enjoying this conversation so much because I think a lot of people, a lot of our listeners know about the politics of food indirectly. And now I think, you know, having heard you really break things down, I don’t know how many people will be able to look at a restaurant or a grocery store or an item of food on their family table without thinking a little more, without having more complex thoughts about.
Jamila Robinson [00:46:28] Every time somebody talks about what’s all such and such a restaurant raises prices or this cost so much. My reaction to that is your food probably should cost more. We pay very little for our food in this country. Poor people pay more, but we actually pay very little. And I think if we had a better policy around what we invest in so that our corn products shouldn’t be the things that cost the least, we should you know, carrots shouldn’t cost more. But we that.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:47:03] Okay. So we’re going to take a quick commercial break. But Jamila, we have to have you back just to have a much longer conversation about the subsidies that we give white farmers that we do not give Black farmers and historical reasons why that is, and which makes it so much more complex as to why it is that Black restaurants also aren’t surviving at the rates that they could or should because of these subsidies and thing with Black farmers. Okay, I’m like, I’m all fired up. I’m like, I literally have like 16 articles that I’m writing with the two of us and the byline in my head. We’ll talk about that off like. Okay, we’re going to take a quick break. We’re playing the Blackest Questions with my new favorite person in the whole wide world, Jamila Robinson, we’ll be right back. Okay, Jamila, we’re back. Are you ready for the last question in Blackest Questions?
Jamila Robinson [00:47:45] I’ve learned so much. Last question.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:47:47] Okay. So question number five, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, this American sculptor work with other leaders, writers, musicians and artists to showcase the contributions of African-American culture. Who was she?
Jamila Robinson [00:48:01] Who was she? I’m going through my mental database of all the artists, and I can’t think of her and I can’t think of her name, but she was because she had so many contemporaries. So I’m ready for the answer.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:48:18] Augusta Savage So the career of Augusta Savage was fostered by the climate of the Harlem Renaissance, and during the 1930s she was a well-known Harlem sculptor, art teacher and community art director. She arrived in New York with $4.60 and found a job as an apartment caretaker and enrolled at the Cooper Union School of Art, where she completed her four year course in three years. And so when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak in the mid 1920s, she lived and worked in a small studio apartment where she earned a reputation as a portrait sculptor, completing busts of prominent personalities such as W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey and her best known work of the 1920s was Gamine, an informal bust portrait of her nephew, for which she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship to study in Paris in 1929. She won it again in 1931, which permitted her to remain in Paris for an additional year. And she also received a Carnegie Foundation grant for eight months to travel France, Belgium and Germany. And so your career has been pretty fascinating to me, and I know you’re a very well traveled food journalist. Can you tell us some of the best places you like to eat?
Jamila Robinson [00:49:30] Well. Well, Savage love Paris. I love Paris. And as as you were telling her story, I was just thinking about, gosh, we always hear about Josephine Baker, but we don’t hear about all the other women who went to Paris. So many Black women went to Paris and found the thing that I found in Paris, which is a path to freedom and really learning how to live in my Americanness by going to Paris. I love eating in Paris. I have my favorite restaurants in Paris, but I also love eating in Brazil. It’s where I kind of had a culinary epiphany was in Brazil, where I really learned about the other side of the transatlantic slave trade. We go Senegal and we go to these doors of no return. But there’s another side of that. That hasn’t been erased in Brazil and you see the castles where people arrived versus where they departed in that story of Brazil. So I love going to eat in Brazil and feeling that connection. But I’m always going to love eating eating in Paris.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:50:51] So and I listen, I love eating in Paris. We’ll put that on the list. Maybe someone will give us a grant so we can talk about politics and Paris and food. So really quickly, before I let you out here, before we play Black Lightning, what’s the best part of finding the world’s 50 best restaurants?
Jamila Robinson [00:51:09] When you discover that the best part of finding some of the world’s 50 best restaurants is is finding that sense of place and change that the restaurants don’t have to be French, Italian and sometimes Japanese. That the chefs that I’m most excited about and the restaurants I’m most excited about are ones that are telling the story of their lives. One of my favorite restaurants is a Nigerian Chinese restaurant in London called Ikoyi, and it was two chefs who both wanted to open restaurants. Friends. One wanted to open a Nigerian restaurant, the other one to open up a Chinese restaurant. And so they said, Well, what if we came together and told the story of imperialism through our dishes? So there is a smoked jollof rice on their menu that all you can say is, “Man, listen.” There’s a plant and steak, but they’re doing more than just giving you delicious food. They’re giving you a sense of place of where London is now and who is in London.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:52:15] Right. And the migration and immigration stories of so many millions of people over time and place.
Jamila Robinson [00:52:21] So many people? There’s a restaurant called Centrale in Lima, Peru, that is focused on, there are restaurants now that are doing that. I mentioned Ikoyi is sort of my favorite restaurant on the list right now. But there are so many others that are in the 51 to 100 that are changing the way that we are going to be experiencing restaurants for the next ten years. And I’m most excited about that those chefs are from all over the world. They are from Dubai, they’re from Peru, they’re from Nigeria. They are from a much bigger swath of the world. I used to say that, well, how can you be one of the 50 best restaurants if you exclude a huge portion of the planet?
Dr. Christina Greer [00:53:14] The vast majority of the planet.
Jamila Robinson [00:53:16] Vast majority of the planet. And so now we are in a place where the world is actually contributing to that list.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:53:25] Well, I think the world is contributing to the list because we have people like you who are making sure that the world contributes to the list.
Jamila Robinson [00:53:31] Representation matters.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:53:33] Always and every time. Okay. We’re going to take a quick break and then Jamila is going to play the Blackest Questions Lightning Round. Okay, Jamila, we’re back. So before I let you go, we’ve got time for just a quick bonus round. I like to add the Black Lightning. And this is just yes and no answer. This boom from the heart. Okay, nice. Quick, fast. You ready?
Jamila Robinson [00:53:52] All right.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:53:53] Best Michael Jackson album?
Jamila Robinson [00:53:55] Off the Wall.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:53:56] If you had to choose Detroit or D.C?
Jamila Robinson [00:53:58] Detroit.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:53:59] Where the best chefs?
Jamila Robinson [00:54:03] Philadelphia.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:54:05] How do you cook your rice?
Jamila Robinson [00:54:08] Like atatic. Bottom of the pot. Oil. Turmeric.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:54:15] Ooh, yes. Okay. You’ve mentioned The Wiz. We know that you love The Wiz. I’m going to ask you a few fun with questions. Your favorite character from The Wiz?
Jamila Robinson [00:54:24] Scarecrow.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:54:25] Okay. If you had to choose, who would you be in The Wiz?
Jamila Robinson [00:54:31] I’m going to be the lady who’s like, I want to be seen. I’m a dancer. I like orchestrating the whole thing.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:54:42] Favorite song from The Wiz?
Jamila Robinson [00:54:45] Emerald City sequence.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:54:47] Okay, now we’re going to shift back to some food. Do you prefer red or white wine?
Jamila Robinson [00:54:52] White.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:54:53] If you had to choose, your next trip would be to Rio or to Paris.
Jamila Robinson [00:54:57] Paris.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:54:58] And you told my producer that Philly has the best food. And where are the best bakeries, though?
Jamila Robinson [00:55:08] Ooh. I’m going to I’m going to go I’m going to pick Chicago on that. Okay.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:55:16] All right. So, Jamila one, you’re going to promise me you’re going to come back to the Blackest Questions.
Jamila Robinson [00:55:22] I’m going to come back.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:55:23] I want to thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and also just your love of not just food, but food culture and the politics and all of the things that surround it. I don’t think I will ever look at a restaurant the same way ever again. And I know that as we, you know, go into a series of transitions, we’re all living in cities where we’re seeing gentrification and sort of a new political environment in a lot of ways. And we know that there’s a disinvestment in cities which will change our culinary landscape. I just want to thank you so much for providing a foundation and some context for us to have a deeper knowledge and and also just for playing the Black questions.
Jamila Robinson [00:56:01] Oh, thank you so much for having me, Dr. Greer. So I can’t wait to come back and yes, keep eating and keep living.
Dr. Christina Greer [00:56:08] Yes. And I can’t wait to turn this lamb and the pride. So I want to thank you all for listening to the Black box questions. The show is produced by Sasha Armstrong, Akilah Shadrach, Geoffrey Trudeau and Regina Griffin is our managing editor of podcasts. If you like what you heard, subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode and please download theGrio app to listen and watch many more great shows.