Title: The Culinary World of a Literary Icon: Zora Neale Hurston
Speaker: Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie
Date: October 28, 2015
Location: Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, Fort Greene

Who doesn’t like a good ‘pone’ once they’ve had it?

…Or, hasn’t fallen in love with Zora Neale Hurston’s unique voicing of African-American and African Diaspora culture? Hurston, a noteworthy author of the Harlem Renaissance, had been a manicurist, waitress, political dissident, folklorist, ethnographer, historian and writer. History and Foodways professor from Babson College, Frederick Douglass Opie, vividly brought Zora into view at dusk on October 28th at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene. A precious few of us were privileged to sample some delicious stewed greens, pralines, sweet potato or corn pone, and a sampling of Opie’s newest book, Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies and Simple Pleasures.

Opie’s writings swing between issues of African Diaspora, labor relations, and foodways. Here he has mined several of Hurston’s literary works, notebooks, and archive of folktales to uncover references to foodways. Opie shared stories of Hurston’s life along with recipes for things from the book such as Mulatto Rice to Medicine to Purge, or Poisoning Antidotes made from Jack of War Tea. We were left with a unique portrait of Hurston’s complex life, her politics, and her prescient research on African-American culture and food. One of the evening’s highlights was the unexpected presence of Hurston’s godson, the octogenarian son of her Barnard college friend, pharmacist and seamstress to Lena Horne. Noteworthy for having played with MJQ, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, we received additional remembrances of Hurston, her travels and folktales. It made the evening unforgettable.

To give a sense of the depth and intricacies of Hurston’s work, here is an excerpt about food and healing from her 1938 work, Tell My Horse (p. 147):

The “baptism” or initiation into the cult of Erzulie is perhaps the most simple of all the voodoo rites. All gods and goddesses must be fed, of course, and so the first thing that the supplicant must do is to “give food” to Erzulie. There must be prepared a special bread and Madeira wine, rice flour, eggs, a liqueur, a pair of white pigeons, a pair of chickens. There must be a white pot with a cover to it. This food is needed at the ceremony during which the applicant’s head is “washed”.

 

This washing of the head is necessary in most of their ceremonies. In this case the candidate must have made a natte, (A basket weave plait mat made of banana leaf-stems) or a couch made of fragrant branches of trees. He must dress himself in a long white night shirt. The houngan places him upon the leafy couch and recites three Ave Maria’s, three Credos and the Confiteor three times. Then he sprinkles the couch with flour and a little syrup. The houngan then takes some leafy branches and dips them in the water in the white pot, which has been provided for washing the head of the candidate while the priest is sprinkling the head with this, the hounci and the Canzos are singing:

“Erzulie Tocan Freida Dahomey, Ce ou qui faut ce’ ou qui bon

Erzulie Freida Tocan Maitresse m’ap mouter

Ce’ ou min qui Maitresse.”

 

The hounci and the adepts continue to sing all during the consecration of the candidate unassisted by the drums. The drums play after a ceremony to Erzulie, never during the service. While the attendants are chanting, the houngan very carefully parts the hair of the candidate who is stretched upon the couch. After the parted hair is perfumed, an egg is broken on the head, some Madeira wine, cooked rice placed thereon, and then the head is wrapped in a white handkerchief large enough to hold everything that has been heaped upon the head. The singing keeps up all the while. A chicken is then killed on the candidate’s head and some of the blood is allowed to mingle with the other symbols already there. The candidate is now commanded to rise. This is the last act of the initiation. Sometimes a spirit enters the head of the new-made adept immediately. He is “mounted” by the spirit of Erzulie who sometimes talks at great length, giving advice and making recommendations. While this is going on a quantity of plain white rice is cooked—a portion sufficient for one person only, and he eats some of it. What he does not eat is buried before the door of his house.

 

More information about Hurston, including her 1925 letter of “Freshman Interest” to Barnard College, and the subsequent dilemma of having to consider housing black women on campus, can be found at http://sfonline.barnard.edu/hurston/bcarchives/ZNH_freshman.pdf, http://sfonline.barnard.edu/hurston/bcarchives/ZNH_residence.pdf