It’s been nearly 40 years since the late George Davis rounded up cooks in San Francisco’s African American community to preserve their culinary traditions with an annual community potluck.
At the 37th annual Black Cuisine Festival in the Bayview, the community continued the tradition Saturday, gathering in a neighborhood that’s become one of the few remaining bastions of black culture in a city with a dwindling African American population.
Organizers expected a couple of thousand to stop for the day long food fest and cooking competition at the new senior center on Carroll Avenue named after Davis, a longtime force behind expanded services for elders in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods.
Davis’ wife and three daughters led the charge in organizing this year’s effort as they checked in meals and set up the area for the judges before the hungry crowd arrived.
Lola Davis-Pratt, the oldest daughter, scurried around the center in an African print apron Saturday, alongside her sisters.
“Dad was concerned and made sure that it was a forefront that the food be a part of our history,” said Davis-Pratt, 52. “Black cuisine has to continue. The next generation has to know that’s why they call it soul food.”
The yearly event raises money for senior services in the neighborhood, luring donors with the promise of fried chicken, oxtails, ribs, macaroni and cheese, corn bread and more.
Outside the center, in a couple of dozen tents, food was offered to anyone who purchased a meal ticket ranging from $5 to a $50. The smell of barbecue ribs wafted through the air as one booth played the Jackson 5 song “I’ll Be There.”
The younger generation reflected on the community cooks who started the event.
Charlene Armstrong-Brown and her daughter, Wanda Materre, wore matching T-shirts with a photo of Armstrong-Brown’s mother.
“She won every year,” Armstrong-Brown said. “She was famous for her potato salad.”
Latoya Pitcher, raised in the Bayview, walked through the tents carrying her 10-month-old son in a wrap, pushing a stroller with her 2-year-old son and keeping a close eye on her 6-year-old daughter, who walked beside her. Pitcher said her grandmother used to compete in the dessert category and was known for her peach cobbler and pear pie.
“I’m here to show my kids how to participate in community events, how to engage with community members,” said Pitcher, an IT analyst for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Pitcher, like many festival visitors, was a descendant of southerners who brought their style of cooking with them during the Great Migration from the South, seeking opportunity and acceptance as they fled 20th century Jim Crow laws.
Her grandfather, civil rights attorney Alex L. Pitcher Jr., moved to the Bay Area from Louisiana, she said. He worked on the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education case that desegregated American schools. In San Francisco, he tried to combat gentrification of the Fillmore and the Western Addition, she said.
San Francisco had a black population of about 13.4 percent in 1970, according to the census. The most recent 2010 census places that population at about 6 percent.
Cuisine is a good way to support the community, but Pitcher said there’s more work to keeping the culture alive.
“For us to preserve the culture and to combat gentrification is for us to become financially literate and politically engaged,” she said. “We need to learn how to love each other first and support each other.”
#FACTS It’s believed that even Ancient Greeks even ate collard greens. In soul cooking, collard greens are typically boiled down in a pot of salted water with a piece of smoked meat like a hamhock or turkey leg, and it’s a soul food classic.