As I enter the kitchen of the Western Addition Senior Center, Reverend Hall greets me, but before he shakes my hand, he was to wash off the grease from the chicken thighs he's been skinning. At other stations, volunteers are skinning more chicken thighs and peeling tremendous, plump shrimp. Before me are foil trays filled with cut sausages and chopped peppers. All this will come together the next day to make a huge batch of jambalaya. Reverend Hall brings me into the walk in, where the shelves are full of trays of potato salad and more jambalaya fixings, as well as garbage bags stuffed with collard and mustard greens.
They've been at this for 36 hours already, with another 36 to go, and this is just one of three locations where the food is being prepared for Saturday's Black Cuisine fundraiser. At the Adult Day Health Center on LaSalle Avenue in Hunters Point, the ribs are being prepared, and at the Dr. George W. Davis Center on Yosemite at Third in Bayview, they're making pies. All of this will culminate tomorrow for the big event at the Bayview location.
In its 33rd year, Black Cuisine started out as a local get-together where the elder members of the community wanted to share and preserve the tradition of traditional soul food. The young people in the community no longer knew what hoe cakes or cracklin bread were, so Dr. George Davis brought the seniors together to teach them a thing or two about their culinary heritage. Over time, it grew, becoming a significant source of funding for the Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services (BHPMSS) organization. But it still remains very much a community event.
Reverend Hall tells me that, as residents of Bayview-Hunters Point have relocated, moving to Oakland, Fairfield and beyond, Black Cuisine is a beacon that brings people back together. Folks come from all over to reconnect with old friends and family.
The BHPMSS runs the three senior centers, which afford community members an opportunity to convene, socialize, and more. At the Western Addition location, a lab is available with tutors to help seniors learn to use computers, set up Facebook, email and Skype accounts to stay in touch with their families. A daily meal program serves forth lunches to some 160 seniors seven days a week. In the common room, they congregate, playing dominoes or bingo, chatting, sometimes bickering. It feels like one big family.
The BHPMSS is also involved in helping to sustain the community, working with the city to develop 120 units of affordable senior housing in Bayview Hunters Point. In a city where gentrification threatens every corner, projects like this are crucial to maintain balance and diversity.
Tomorrow the event will take over the block of Yosemite at Third with live music, dancing, kids' events and, of course, food. Reverend Hall comes with a substantial culinary pedigree, having cooked professionally for over 20 years at various catering companies and three- and four-star restaurants. But he decided he would rather use his skill to do something that gives back to the community, puts food in the mouths of the people who truly need it.
Soul food will be the order of the day, but Reverend Hall strives to make food that will be suitable for everyone. The big bags of greens will be prepared three ways: A vegan version, a light version made with smoked turkey thighs, and of course with ham hocks. Potato salad will come three ways as well: A creamy version, a chunky version, and one using the recipe of one Miss Pickens, 92 years old. The reverend keeps an eye on making the food as healthful as possible, hence the greasy hands as they peeled the skins off the chicken thighs for the jambalaya.
Standard admission is $25, but for $50 you can join the VIP lounge, where you can taste everything without the lines, plus a few special things exclusively. At the Kinte Cafe, a $20 prix-fixe gets you a well rounded sampler of tastes.
Reverend Hall wants me to get a taste of things to come. He sears off a batch of the jambalaya fixings, sprinkles them with a spice mix of granulated garlic, black pepper, seasoning salt and paprika. The air fills with spicy aroma. He peels back the foil on a bowl of potato salad (creamy version). We tuck in.
The potato salad is tangy, bright, acidic and cool, the perfect complement to the spicy sausage and plump shrimp. My appetite is whet. I can't wait to go in for another bite. See you there?