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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Food that feeds your soul: Gainesville African and soul food cuisine honors local Black community

Family business owner and local Black residents reminisce about their relationship with their culture’s cuisine

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Merriam Fischer was 5 years old when she took to the kitchen boiling traditional African soups with her mother. To her, there was nothing more exhilarating than finally preparing the flavorful foods she knew all her life. 

She manages Ivoire Delice and Market, a West African and soul-food fusion takeout service. Starting her business in 2021, Fischer, alongside her parents and three siblings, noticed the lack of authentic African cuisine in Gainesville. 

Opening up a food service business meant more to the 32-year-old Ivorian than just making food Gainesville locals had never seen before.

“I want every Black person in Gainesville to feel home so that [they] know that they have some soul food, some comfort food,” Fischer said.

Soul food and its African roots originate back to the era of slavery in the United States. Allocated small food rations by their owners, African slaves made do with ingredients like rice, pork and okra, preparing a variety of recipes native to their home countries. 

Since the end of the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendents could elevate these dishes to cornbread, fried chicken and collard greens with affordable ingredients found in local markets of the Deep South. These dishes eventually got their name from newspapers of the 1960s that synonymized Black culture with soul

Although much of the historic legacy of the Black community in America is commemorated through the work of civil rights trailblazers, local African and soul food pop-ups in Gainesville celebrate their culture through their culinary traditions. 

From Senegambian, Senegalese and Gambian, jollof rice and chicken to Southern fried catfish and collard greens, Fischer’s family recipes are meant for Black residents who walk through her doors to taste something familiar. 

Her desire for Gainesville residents to taste the cuisine she knew since childhood was confronted by a daunting obstacle — Fischer didn’t have a restaurant to cook in.

Instead, Fischer and her family began Ivoire Delice and Market as a plate service, preparing dishes and selling them one by one from her home. Egusi, sweet plantains, oxtail and mac’ n’ cheese are among the signature dishes that were boiled, baked and sold from the family’s kitchen. 

It wasn’t until the 2021 social media trend #FufuChallenge reached Gainesville that Fischer and her family knew they wanted to expand their soul food plate venture. Millions of Black Americans across the country took to local restaurants to try fufu dishes — West African dough balls often made of cassava, yams or plantains. 

“People came to buy the food [from] us — the fufu and everything,” she said. “So, we found a restaurant.”

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With the growing popularity of African cuisine, Ivoire Delice and Market finally found a building, opening its doors Feb. 17 on North Main Street. 

For 33-year-old Yoneka Powell, finally finding a source of African cuisine in Gainesville has been uplifting for the nurse practitioner who grew up around African food since she was a teenager. 

“My friends are from East Africa, and [I’m from] Jamaica,” she wrote in a Facebook message.  “We love eating authentic food and this is as authentic as it gets.” 

For nearly a year, beef and chicken kabobs, jollof rice, palm butter stew and pounded yams have all made their way to Powell’s plate. Ivoire Delice and Market has also become a food favorite to celebrate Black culture at the parties she hosts for friends and family. 

“There’s no other restaurant in town that has good, authentic African food you can count on to feed your soul,” she wrote. 

For others, both finding and feeling a sense of belonging at soul food spots in Gainesville has been a struggle. Briyuna Mack, 24, grew up surrounded by smothered chicken, turkey, pork chops, cornbread and mac’ n’ cheese often prepared by her father and grandparents. 

Moving to Gainesville from the Jacksonville area, the certified nursing assistant was eager to continue indulging in the cuisine she knew her whole life. After asking for recommended spots on Facebook, she was soon let down by not only the few number of soul food restaurants, but their lack of hominess as well. 

“The atmosphere is boring because it’s more of a takeout and not welcoming to really order and sit there,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “I’m fairly new to Gainesville, so I don’t really see all the African-American culture I hear people talk about.” 

Nonetheless, Mack is still hopeful for the future of Gainesville’s soul food culture as it plays such an important role within the Black community. 

“It’s important because it shows the roots of African-American families and their style of cooking,” she wrote. “It goes down from generation to generation, and it can bring people of all ethnicities together.” 

For the director of UF’s African American Studies Department David Canton, soul food was not something familiar until later in life. 

Where some Black Americans ate collard greens in the Deep South, Canton was eating homemade West Indian callaloo at his home in Bronx, New York, prepared by his parents.  Once attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, soul food became a new part of life. 

While attending the historically Black college, Canton was introduced to classic soul food dishes in 1986 at Paschal’s Restaurant, a once notable leisure spot for civil rights workers in the city. 

“For the first time, I had grits, and I had salmon croquettes,” he said. “Also went to Atlanta having sweet potato pie. I had pumpkin pie, but I never had sweet potato pie in my life.”

Since moving to Gainesville last August, Canton has not stopped his tradition of feasting on deliciously prepared soul food dishes. Lucille’s Southern Kitchen has been a go-to spot for Canton, who has enjoyed the restaurant’s regularly updated menu options, which currently include oxtails, pigs’ feet and a mixture of white and yellow rice. 

Coming from an Afro-Carribean background, Canton took notice of the commonalities between the foods he knew growing up and the Southern-style cuisine he found later. 

“Look at diaspora: there are some continuities particularly with rice, particularly with chicken — plantains are another item you’ll see,” he said. 

Canton takes immense pride in his identity as a member of the African-American and Afro-Caribbean community. He continues to indulge in both cuisine styles as long as he is supporting Black-owned businesses. 

“For me, it’s all about, how do we create communities — rather than one is better?” he said. “The food is good but also supporting these businesses who oftentimes provide scholarships or help folks in the community. You can only do that by being supported by loyal customers.” 

Contact Jared @jteitel@alligator.org. Follow him @jaredteitel on Twitter.

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