NPR culinary commentator Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor dies at 79

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a writer and National Public Radio commentator who taught the world about the Gullah food and culture of coastal South Carolina, died Saturday, NPR reported. She was 79.

Grosvenor first gained attention with her 1970 book, Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, The Island Packet reported.

Grosvenor used the “Lowcountry” food of her upbringing in rural Allendale County, S.C., to teach about the worldwide contributions made by people of African descent.

Reading cookbooks “written by white folks,” she said in the introduction to the book, “it occurred to me that people very casually say Spanish rice, French fries, Italian spaghetti, Chinese cabbage, Mexican beans, Swedish meatballs, Danish pastry, English muffins and Swiss cheese. And with the exception of black bottom pie ... there is no reference to black people's contribution to the culinary arts.”

She added, “White folks act like they invented food and like there is some weird mystique surrounding it … There is no mystique. Food is food. Everybody eats!"

Smart-Grosvenor contributed hundreds of commentaries to NPR between 1980 and 2013.

She worked as a stage and film actress, appearing in the 1991 Julie Dash film Daughters of the Dust and Beloved, Jonathan Demme's 1998 adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel.

Smart-Grosvenor also designed costumes for and sang backup in Sun Ra's groundbreaking Solar-Myth Arkestra, The (Charleston) Post and Courier reported in 2014. During her Sun Ra days, she may even have invented the modern iteration of the Moon Walk, made famous by Michael Jackson. She evidently called it the Space Walk, according to the book The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspective on Black Popular Culture.

When she was 19, Smart-Grosvenor saved money from a department store job to sail to Paris, a trip inspired by Josephine Baker, she wrote in a 1986 NPR commentary.

"There I was: in Europe; in Paris, France, the City of Light," she said. "As I walked down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I thought, 'I can't paint; I can't write; and I can't sing and dance like La Baker — but something great and wonderful is gonna happen to me.' The myth of Europe made me believe in the possibilities. I was one of the thousands of Afro-Americans in Europe seeking a future."

By the 1970s she became a legend in New York Bohemian circles.

Actor Bob Wisdom told NPR that he remembered going to an Upper West Side apartment where Smart-Grosvenor had been cooking: "The place is like laid out with dishes of every kind. And Verta had spent the day cooking. And I was like this little young cub — you know, I guess I'm a junior year in college — and I'm hanging out with Amiri Baraka and there's, you know, Sonia Sanchez and there's Nikki Giovanni ... every writer and painter and, you know, critic. They were all there — the black literati was there — and Verta was holding court."

Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo


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