Food for the Fourth of July makes me think of barbecue. And when I think of barbecue, I think of my grandfather, James Howard, a pitmaster who for 30 years owned and ran Dem Bones Bar B-Que Shack on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles.
He grew up picking cotton in Texas, learned to cook in the Marines and later opened sober-living homes here in L.A. I have newspaper clippings of him sitting in Dem Bones in front of a big plate of beef ribs, grinning from ear to ear, with blues playing in the background, I’m sure. I spent a lot of time with him as the son of a working single mother, Fredda Draluck, and the influence both my grandparents had 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 how she had been “arrested” while still in her mother’s womb, when my great-grandmother, who was the one actually arrested, was out protesting in the 1930s in New York, a few months pregnant with Marcia. I watched my grandmother actively work and fight for civil, women’s and farmworkers’ rights almost until the day she passed.
Her Jewish Bronx upbringing was the opposite of my grandfather’s upbringing in rural Texas, but somehow they made magic together and never failed to include me in the show. I spent a lot of time at my grandfather’s restaurant after school but really didn’t know I wanted to cook until after he had been retired for a few years.
When I decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps into the culinary world, I started as a pastry cook around 2008, working at Joe’s Restaurant under chef Joe Miller. That’s where I met my good friend and culinary mentor, Brian Dunsmoor. Brian saw something in me from the start and told me back then that I‘d be the pastry chef at one of his restaurants one day.
Brian, of course, would go on to make a mark on the L.A. 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 began my move away from pastry and into pizza and savory cooking. I was fortunate enough to reconnect with Dunsmoor in 2014 at his newly opening Ladies Gunboat Society, on Sawtelle Boulevard, as a line cook, before following him to Hatchet Hall as his sous chef and, eventually, his chef de cuisine.
My time at Hatchet Hall was life-changing. I’d been eating in its building on Washington Boulevard with my mom since I was probably 8 years old, when it was known as Crest House and was certainly our No. 1 neighborhood spot. To come back and help run this new space, I knew it was going to be special, but I couldn't have known how much so.
It’s 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 earliest Southern settlers’ eating habits and their wood-fire cooking techniques. I tried to read 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're also the men responsible for us eating things like French fries, ice cream and macaroni and cheese.
I approached Brian with the idea of a spinoff project based around the two that I could put together using a similar format. I expected to do the dinner only a handful of times before moving to something different. I couldn’t have imagined where it would lead me.
The last couple of years have been very fortunate for me, despite all that’s gone on in the world. I was a small part of the amazing Netflix documentary series "High on the Hog" and last year was featured for my work in the L.A. Times 101 Restaurants issue.
Those things and more have evolved into the Black Pot Supper Club experience, where I continue to tell the little-known stories of America’s Black culinary influences and put my spin on recipes inspired by those men and women, all while cooking in an open hearth over wood fire and coals, as they would have traditionally done.
The dinners are primarily hosted now at Post & Beam in the Crenshaw District and feature items such as hog’s head cheese, braised rabbit and a James Hemings-inspired snow egg, one of only two recipes known to exist from Hemings. The macaroni and cheese recipe also is featured on our menu and adds a nice twist to a classic dish with the addition of sherry to the base of Parmesan, black pepper and cream. The beans are made how I think my grandfather made his at Dem Bones, and the dessert is inspired by my early Joe’s pastry days. For the main dish, I offer a recipe for grilled rabbit, which would have been a common game protein in those times.
Neither of my grandparents really got to see me cook.
My grandfather passed while I was in culinary school, and my grandmother moved to Florida soon after before passing. I didn’t and couldn’t imagine that when I started following in his footsteps, it would lead to so much magic of my own, that I’d give my mom something so great to brag about or that I would end up with my food and face in the local paper. I hope you enjoy these recipes this Fourth of July for dishes inspired by James Hemings, Hercules Posey and my grandfather, the late James Howard.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.