He grew up picking cotton in Texas, learned to cook in the Marines, and later opened sober homes here in Los Angeles. I have newspaper clippings of him sitting at Dem Bones over a big plate of prime rib, grinning from ear to ear, with the blues playing in the background, I’m sure. I spent a lot of time with him as the son of a single working mother, Fredda Draluck, and the influence of both my grandparents on my life is immeasurable.
My grandmother, Marcia Howard, made sure I knew both my Jewish and Black histories, and the work she herself had so proudly done in the civil rights movements. She often reminded me of how she was “arrested” while still in her mother’s womb, when my great-grandmother, who was the one who was arrested, was protesting in 1930s New York , a few months pregnant with Marcia. I looked at my grandmother actively working and fighting for civil, women’s and agricultural workers’ rights almost until the day of his death.
His Jewish upbringing in the Bronx was the opposite of my grandfather’s upbringing in rural Texas, but somehow they made magic together and never failed include me in the series. I spent a lot of time at my grandfather’s restaurant after school, but I really didn’t know I wanted to cook until he had been retired for a few years.
When I decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps in the culinary world, I started as a pastry chef around 2008, working at Joe’s Restaurant under chef Joe Miller. This is where I met my good friend and culinary mentor, Brian Dunsmoor. Brian saw something in me early on and told me back then that one day I would be a pastry chef at one of his restaurants.
Brian, of course, would go on to make his mark on the LA restaurant scene with pop-up projects Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and the Hart and the Hunter, while I worked at Milo & Olive, where I started m move away from pastry and into pizza and savory cooking. I was lucky enough to reconnect with Dunsmoor in 2014 when he re-opened Ladies Gunboat Society on Sawtelle Boulevard as a line cook, before following him to Hatchet Hall as a sous chef and, eventually, chef.
My time at Hatchet Hall changed my life. I had been eating at his apartment building on Washington Boulevard with my mom since I was probably 8, when it was called Crest House and was definitely our #1 neighborhood spot. Coming back and helping run this new space, I knew it was going to be special, but I couldn’t know how special.
This is where the Hemings & Hercules project was conceived.
My Hemings & Hercules dinners actually stem from a project Brian started at Hatchet Hall called Fuss & Feathers, exploring the eating habits of early Southern settlers and their wood-fire cooking techniques. I tried reading the same or similar cookbooks and historical references to what Brian was and came across the stories of James Hemings and Hercules Posey, chefs and enslaved property of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. They are also the men who make us eat things like fries, ice cream and macaroni and cheese.
I approached Brian with the idea of a spin-off project based on the two that I could put together using a similar format. I expected to only make dinner a handful of times before moving on to something different. I couldn’t have imagined where this would take me.
The last two years have been very lucky for me, despite everything that has happened in the world. I was a small part of the amazing Netflix documentary series “High on the Hog” and last year I was featured for my work in the LA Times 101 Restaurant issue.
These things and more have evolved into the Black Pot Supper Club experience, where I continue to tell the little-known stories of black American culinary influences and put my spin on recipes inspired by these men and women, while cooking in an open hearth over a wood fire and coals, as they would have done traditionally.
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Dinners are mainly held now at Post & Beam in the Crenshaw district and feature items such as pig’s head cheese, braised rabbit and a James Hemings inspired snow egg, one of only two known recipes from Hemings. The mac and cheese recipe is also on our menu and adds a nice twist to a classic dish with the addition of sherry to the parmesan base, black pepper and cream. The beans are made the way I think my grandfather made his at Dem Bones, and the dessert is inspired by Joe’s early baking days. For the main course, I suggest a recipe for grilled rabbit, which would have been a common game protein in those days.
None of my grandparents could really see me cooking.
My grandfather passed away while I was in cooking school and my grandmother moved to Florida shortly afterward before she died. I did not imagine and could not imagine that when I started following in his footsteps it would lead to so much magic, that I would give my mother something so awesome to brag about or that I would end up with my food and face in the local newspaper. I hope you enjoy these recipes this 4th of July for dishes inspired by James Hemings, Hercules Posey and my grandfather, the late James Howard.