During the 1950s and 1960s, someone who would become to be known as a cultural icon in a variety of artistic circles was coming into her own. Born and raised to be proud of her Gullah Geechee roots, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor is a culinary griot, James Beard recipient, author, costume maker, journalist, radio host and one of TV’s first celebrity chefs among other accomplishments. Someone I would say dances to the beat of her own drum. “We’ve never seen anyone like her before,” says filmmaker Julie Dash who is currently filming the documentary about Grosvenor’s life.
A Black Expat Making Her Mark
“Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” will chronicle Grosvenor’s life from her humble beginnings in Fairfax, S.C. to her family’s move to Philadelphia where she is noted as being teased while growing up. A loner in the eyes of her peers, perhaps. But Grosvenor was a creative force who would curate a life full of unprecedented experiences that would reach back to the Gullah Geechee corridor and extend throughout the U.S. and Europe. “I usually do dramatic narratives but I wanted to do this documentary about Vertamae because I want to promote the whole idea of international travel to young black women of color. They need to know that we travel too,” says Dash who also shares Grosvenor’s Gullah roots. Grosvenor traveled to Paris at the age of 17 on a boat alone where she lived for two years before returning to the states. In Paris and throughout Europe, she would meet other black expats who would make their mark on the world through their art, music or words.
A creative artist in her own right, Dash was born and raised in Queens, N.Y. by her father who was from Seas Islands of Georgia. “I knew we were different but I wasn’t making those kinds of connections back then. But when I began making those connections, I was like this is something fascinating.”
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Telling Stories Through Food
She would be inspired by her father’s family, who migrated to New York, to write and direct the film, “Daughter’s of the Dust” in 1991. The film about three generations of Gullah women captured numerous awards and accolades, one giving Dash the distinction of being the first African-American woman to have a feature film distributed theatrically in the United States.
Her latest project will not only journal Grosvenor’s journey as an artist but also as a cook who changed the way so many thought about cooking through her first book, “Vibration Cooking: or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” in 1970. Just as prolific as she is an artistic creator, Grosvenor is a culinary griot who is also known for telling and sharing her culture and life experiences through food. She has cooked for Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali to name a few high profile celebrities. She hosted the radio show, “Seasonings,” which won a James Beard Award and lead to her next culinary opportunity produced out of Chicago called, “Vertamae Cooks.” She is what we like to call one of TV’s first celebrity chefs.
Dash launched a successful campaign on IndieGoGo this past March to raise over $50,000 to continue filming the documentary later this year which will take her to Europe to capture insights from those whose lives were touched by Grosvenor. Here in the U.S., culinary historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris, South African artist Hugh Masekela and actor Danny Glover all lend their voice to speak about Grosvenor’s strength, influence and greatness. Grosvenor is 76 and now lives in New York with her daughter.
Once completed, the documentary will make its way around the film festival circuits before reaching theaters and homes.
“We have identified five major cultural movements that Ms.Vertamae has moved through; Beat Literary Movement, Black Power Movement, Black Arts Movement, New Black Cinema Movement and food as a cultural memory. Vertamae was pretty much the thread and you could sew that thread through years and years and years of black activism, artistry, cooking and traveling.”
Watch the campaign video on Vimeo for a snippet of this powerful documentary.
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