For Khaliah D. Pitts and Shivon Pearl Love, cooking is activism. It’s art. It’s prayer.

The pair, self-described “sister-friends" and native Philadelphians, have created a family of projects that aim to celebrate black womanhood and culture through cooking and literature. Called Our Mother’s Kitchens, a reference to Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, it’s a pop-up dinner series built around four black female writers (“In Search of Nora’s Kitchen,” one such dinner inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, was hosted in January at a North Philly hair salon) and a three-day summer workshop for black girls that teaches them about writing, reading literature, and cooking.

As the pair writes on their website’s “About” page, “Who We Be”:

In many ways, ours is an age of cultural disconnect, yet there is an increasing yearning to draw closer to the people and things that help us remember who we are and where we came from. ... We are brought back every time we sit at the kitchen table, preparing meals, sipping tea, pulling recipes and anecdotes from books and poems, calling forth the past; bringing it lovingly into the present. We reclaim a little more of ourselves every time we come together.

Pitts, 30, and Love, 38, have won several art-for-social-change grants, including from the Philly-based Leeway Foundation and New York-based A Blade of Grass, and are gearing up for their second summer workshop where girls will read Walker and Hurston, write personal pieces that Pitts and Love call “kitchen narratives,” and learn to cook and harvest greens at Sankofa Community Farm in Bartram’s Garden. (They have wrapped up their pop-up dinners. Follow their Instagram for updates.)

At an Our Mothers' Kitchens community dinner.
Courtesy Our Mothers' Kitchens
At an Our Mothers' Kitchens community dinner.

At its core, the project is also an homage to those writers: Walker, Hurston, Shange, and Vertamae Grosvernor. Discovering their work, they say, was like coming face to face with their ancestors — somehow unfamiliar and familiar at the same time.

“It’s like if you literally turned around and saw one of your ancestors, and you’re like, 'You’re wearing my face and you’re laughing my laugh," Pitts said. “That’s exactly what it feels like to read one of these stories.”

We talked to Pitts and Love about the importance of telling stories in your own language, and the radicalism of taking control of what you eat.

You describe Our Mothers’ Kitchens as a project to fight against our “age of cultural disconnect.” What do you mean by that?

Pitts: "As black folks living here in America, we have very much lost touch with our African-ness in exchange for more American-ness. That’s really detrimental to us having a cohesive community and moving forward and really getting free.

“We have to be honest: As much as we live in the “free world,” we do not live as free people. Our world is created to keep us thinking certain ways and doing certain things — so, having that culture to fall back on is crucial. Without culture, you’re lost.”

What’s been the process to learn that culture?

Love: "Some of it is talking to elders or family members, some of it is ‘I’m going to a book because I’m going to look this up.’ Some of it has been in the experience of learning to cook a particular dish or trying to find out about a particular region or tracing our own lineage to find out more about our family and what they have eaten.

"But so much of this research came out of reading the work of these black women authors.

Khaliah D. Pitts (left) and Shivon Pearl Love, the team behind Our Mothers' Kitchens.
Khaliah D. Pitts (left) and Shivon Pearl Love, the team behind Our Mothers' Kitchens.
I was intrigued by how you described Vertamae’s 1970 book Vibration Cooking as a cookbook but also a “colloquial oral history ... in line with how black people shared experiences through stories, histories, and recipes.”

Pitts: "Ntozake Shange’s [1998] If I can cook/you know God can is like that, too. Both are very good examples of how to turn oral storytelling into the written word. Like, you can hear these women talking.

“Another thing that is really important to Shivon and I is, we wanted to write in our language. [These women] write in our language, our vernacular. It doesn’t have to be standard, grammatically correct English; it’s just how black folks talk, wherever they’re from. Vertamae talks like a Geechee girl, Ntozake sounds like a little, hard Jersey girl.

There’s so much creativity that has gone into the way black women, especially, have prepared meals over time. We wanna make sure that that never gets lost.
Shivon Love

“That’s why these books are so powerful. That’s what we’re trying to encourage folks to do, tell their stories in the best way you know how.”

Shivon, in an Artblog interview, you talked about how Vertamae initially wondered how to take part in activism. Someone told her, “Food, that’s how.” What do you think that means?

Love: "There’s a lot of ways folks can be activists as it pertains to food, but ... [Vertamae] was using food to push back against cultural disconnect or against cultural appropriation, keeping our legacy alive and making sure our young people — but also people — are aware of the ways that black people have used food across space and time to support ourselves and sustain ourselves and nourish families and communities.

"That is just as important as the people on the front lines doing direct action. It’s still contributing to our work, to our striving toward liberation."

Pitts: “Changing your food and the way you eat and taking ownership of that is one of the most radical things you can do for yourself. That’s gonna change your body. It’s gonna change your mind and spirit because being in the kitchen and cooking, if you’re present, that’s an act of meditation, of prayer. It’s a spiritual thing to us.”

Do you see your project as a form of art?

[Both laugh.]

Love: "I think we both laughed because it takes a little bit of work to get people to see this as an art form. The way we approach cooking is both art and ritual. It takes creativity to be able to produce a meal, right? It takes creativity to be able to produce something that is nourishing. To create a communal dining experience.

“It’s not like, “Oh, well, everybody needs to eat so let me just throw something on the plate.” There’s so much time and energy that is put into everything we create. Not just us — there’s so much creativity that has gone into the way black women, especially, have prepared meals over time. We wanna make sure that that never gets lost.”

Pitts: “Both Vertamae and Zora talk about what a privilege it is to cook for your folks. How loving that is. You really can’t take that for granted.”

Girls preparing greens during the Our Mothers' Kitchens summer workshop in 2018.
Girls preparing greens during the Our Mothers' Kitchens summer workshop in 2018.
Shivon, you were reading up on food history and black people’s relationship to food when you found Vertamae and all the food writing in Zora Neale Hurston’s novels. How did that experience give life to Our Mothers’ Kitchens?

Love: “When I started noticing how much food was woven into [their writing], it was like, ‘Oh, this sounds like black life. This sounds like my experiences, my mom’s experiences, my grandmom’s experiences, my aunties’ experiences.’

As black folks, as African descendants, we’ve always been writers, we’ve always been documenting. Because we know how important that is.
Khaliah D. Pitts

"I was like, ‘Wow, she’s talking to me.’ I’m not reading a recipe with all these exact amounts. [Vertamae] is having a conversation with me in the kitchen the same way my auntie used to have a conversation with me in the kitchen. I was like, ‘I know this story.’ And if I know this story, then I know somebody else knows this story.

“From there, it just became a habit, you know? To look for food in reading.”

Sorrel Ginger Beer

Our Mothers’ Kitchens served this drink at its Ntozake Shange dinner last fall.

“Keep in mind these measurements are approximate as we generally don’t measure out ingredients and we season to our taste preference,” the team behind Our Mothers’ Kitchens says. “Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor calls it ‘cooking by vibration.’”

2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (sorrel)

1 pineapple, juiced

2 cups simple syrup

4 limes, juiced

thumb-sized knob of ginger, juiced

seltzer water

8 cups water

spices of choice: nutmeg, clove, cardamom, black pepper etc

1. Boil hibiscus flowers in 8 cups of water. Add any spices that you like. Let cool and sit (up to 8 hours) depending on how strong you like ya drink. We like ours strong!

*Hibiscus produces a vibrant red, but very bitter, tea concentrate. Dilute with a bit of water, to your preference. But not too much because for this recipe, we’ll also be adding seltzer at the end.

Strain hibiscus and spices. Careful, those beautiful flowers stain hands, clothes and counters!

2. Make simple syrup. Add 1 cup cane sugar to 1/2 cup water in saucepan, simmer and stir until sugar is dissolved. Set aside and let cool.

3. Prepare your juices. Juice pineapple, lime and ginger. Strain any pulp. Combine the three.

4. Add pineapple-lime-ginger juice to sorrel. Taste. It should still be bitter, but starting to sweeten up. Now add simple syrup, a little at a time, tasting along the way until it’s slightly sweeter than you like it. Remember, you’re going to add seltzer before drinking. Refrigerate.

5. Now when you’re ready to enjoy your drink, give a good shake then pour the sorrel into a glass and top off with a bit of seltzer.

6. Serve. Give thanks + share with loved ones.