Food, Family and Farming: A Q&A with Chef-Farmers Matthew and Tia Raiford
There has been an extraordinary loss of Black agrarians and land as a result of institutional racism and other forces, according to Gail Meyers, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist, founder of Farm to Grow, Inc., and creator of the documentary “Rhythms of the Land” (released in October 2021). Meyers has been researching, teaching and writing about Black farmers for nearly two decades. In 1920, there were more than 926,000 Black farmers in America, according to her research. But by 2017, there were just over 33,000 black farmers. This has subsequently led to a “loss of wisdom, stories and narratives” over the course of nearly 100 years, she has said. On a more positive note, a group of remaining farmers has been working hard to preserve ingredients and farming traditions that the greater American public (knowingly or not) can take for granted.
ACF Chef Matthew Raiford, author of “Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer,” released last year, is one such farmer. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Raiford returned to his roots in Georgia to farm his sixth-generation farm with his sister, Althea Raiford, and his wife, Tia Raiford (also a chef and CIA graduate). The Raiford’s organic family farm was first established in 1874 by his great-great-great-grandfather Jupiter Gilliard, a freed slave. The Raiford family owns 30 of the original 474 acres. Most recently, the Raifords have begun building a nonprofit educational program, Jupiter’s Harvest, as part of Strong Roots 9, the farm’s holding company, with the hopes of teaching young people about sustainable farming. We caught up with Chef Matthew Raiford and Chef Tia Raiford, who comes from a farming community in Montgomery, Alabama, to learn more.
NCR: What has your focus been when it comes to teaching about farming and the culinary arts?
MR: One of the things we’ve been focused on is the intersection of farming, family and food. We have distanced ourselves somewhat from the past and our heritage, and now we’re trying to get back to it. We had a schoolhouse on our farm that was built in 1907, so until about 1955, African Americans within a 20-mile radius came to the school to learn about sustainable farming.
TR: The school has been part of farm education for decades; what we’re doing now is completing the circle. We try to teach about the culinary arts through a ‘stem-to-table’ approach. We focus on educating children about healthy food and trying to make that connection through culinary. Matthew and I first met while we were focused on the culinary side of things, but as our lives have grown, we both have come back to the farm in some form or fashion. You have to understand where food comes from on a personal and professional level in order to know how to grow it, preserve it, sell it and ultimately cook it.
MR: That’s true. One of the hallmarks of our heritage is you’re only going to grow what you can sell, cook or preserve. A newly freed Jupiter Gilliard bought 476 acres of land in 1874 for $9 in taxes, but it was worth so much more because he finally had access to his own food. We were taught how to think about the many things we can make out of a carrot, for example. We can use the leaves for salad or to make carrot pesto; we can use the stems and trim for stock and cook the main part of the carrot every which way. There was no such thing as waste. My grandma would have a jar of mayonnaise with barely any left in it and she would say, ‘We’re going to use what’s left and then use that jar.’ You didn’t just throw glass away.
NCR: How would you describe the mission or vision behind Jupiter’s Harvest?
TR: Our vision is a two-pronged approach. We look at using Gilliard Farms as a central location for developing programs and inviting interns and schools or groups to learn how to farm, and we also work with curriculum developers to integrate technology, arts and math into that learning at the school level.
NCR: Have you worked with any schools formally yet?
MR: We just finished helping the Ferguson-Florissant School District in the St. Louis area start their agro-culinary program, which we hope to duplicate for other schools. There were regular calls with the curriculum folks for almost six months to figure out what the schools were looking for and what they could produce. Part of the curriculum is on seed saving and how using open pollinated seeds can help create a diverse food population. We also teach about aquaponics and hydroponics and rooftop gardens. Water management is also important — the understanding of how to get water from here to there — and also about how to pay attention to disease and naturally boost the calcium content of your soil and how to use compost. We also talk about wildcrafting. On our farm, we can access lion’s mane mushrooms growing on trees and beautyberry, motherwort and lemongrass; these indigenous ingredients can be used for teas and tinctures for their anti-inflammatory properties. We save the seeds — the average flower has between 20 and 30 seeds in each pod — to grow more the next year, and we also dry and grind down the leaves for powders. None of these are new concepts; we’re just bringing back what we’ve been taught by our family.
TR: I was raised in the North, but I come from a family of farmers outside of Montgomery, Alabama, and I learned many of these practices. When I returned to my family’s land, I found out through my family that I am also a descendant from slaves from 1820 near the same county where Matthew’s family is from. This connection to food and history has always been deep-rooted for me.
MR: But there’s been a washing away of some of our history to some degree. If you talk to Black folks in California or the East Coast and ask them about their roots, many will say Alabama or Mississippi. Industrialization changed things; buildings and railroads needed to be built. That caused food to move. That meant there needed to be more helping hands to move the food. Blacks have always been part of that because cooking is not unskilled labor; butchery is not unskilled labor. Food migration and Black migration in this country are the same thing if you think about it. Back in the days, people wanted a skilled Black cook who could cook French cuisine. These were amazing cooks who were not allowed to read or write. We were also the ones growing the food. But this was all knowledge that we had that was passed down only orally.
NCR: What was your experience going to culinary school already knowing so many cooking techniques and traditions?
TR: When Matthew and I met at culinary school, we didn’t see many others who looked like us. Our role model was Jacques Pepin.
MR: Yeah, there was no conversation my mama’s cooking even though we grew up eating some of the same food. When I went to culinary school, I learned about mornay sauce. I thought to myself at the time, ‘You mean macaroni and cheese?’ My dad was a baker by trade, and we’d sit around watching bake-off competitions on TV, and my dad would say, ‘They’re making yule logs? I was doing that when I was 16.’ There are also a lot of misnomers of what we eat. I once had someone ask, ‘Why do you put pork in everything?’ We do, but that was because there was no other source of protein. Slaves got the ham hock, not the ham. You put that in a pot of black eyed peas with rice, and that’s the only source of meat that would last for days. I have had people think all I grew up eating was fried chicken. Why would I kill a chicken that can only feed 3 to 4 people just for one meal? A hen lays an egg every day; that’s 21 ounces, roughly, of protein from that animal every week. We ate fried chicken only for festive times, like when somebody got married. And it was an old bird, an old biddy, and you either had to cook it down for dumpling stew or marinate it for a couple days and then fry it. I don’t remember my grandmother ever grabbing a chicken that was 8 to 12 weeks old just to fry it. There are so many stereotypes of what our culture eats.
TR: That’s why in order for us to move forward these stories of our past need to be a part of the conversation around American culture. When we get too far away from history, it causes stereotypes, wastefulness, ignorance, misunderstanding and confusion. When we take care of what we’re connected to, we can reconcile and rejuvenate communities.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the full issue.