Food for the 4th of July makes me think of BBQ’s. And when I think of barbecue, I think of my grandfather, James Howard, a pitmaster who owned and ran Dem Bones Bar B-Que Shack on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles for 30 years.
He grew up picking cotton in Texas, learned to cook in the Marines, and later opened a sober home here in LA. with blues in the background, I’m sure. As the son of a working single mother, Fredda Draluck, I spent a lot of time with him and the influence of both my grandparents on my life is immeasurable.
My grandmother, Marcia Howard, made sure I knew both my Jewish and black history and the work she herself was so proud of in the civil rights movements. She often reminded me of how she had been “arrested” while still in the womb when my great-grandmother, who was actually arrested, protested in New York in the 1930’s, a month pregnant with Marcia. I watched my grandmother worked and fought actively for civil, women’s and agricultural workers’ rights almost until her death.
Her Jewish upbringing in the Bronx was the opposite of my grandfather’s upbringing in rural Texas, but somehow they worked magic together and never failed to include me in the show. After school I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s restaurant, but I didn’t really know I wanted to cook until after he retired for a few years.
When I decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps in the culinary world, I started as a pastry chef around 2008, working at Joe’s Restaurant under Chef Joe Miller. It was there that I met my good friend and culinary mentor, Brian Dunsmoor. Brian saw something in me from the start and told me at the time that one day I would be the pastry chef at one of his restaurants.
Brian naturally shaped the LA 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 to move away from pastry into pizza and savory cooking. I was fortunate to meet Dunsmoor again in 2014 at his newly opened Ladies Gunboat Society on Sawtelle Boulevard as line chef before following him to Hatchet Hall as sous chef and eventually head chef.
My time at Hatchet Hall was life changing. I’ve been eating at his building on Washington Boulevard with my mom since I was probably 8 years old when it was still known as the Crest House and was certainly our #1 spot in the neighborhood. When I came back and helped lead this new space, I knew it was going to be special, but I couldn’t have known how much.
This is where the Hemings & Hercules project was conceived.
My Hemings & Hercules dinners actually came from a project called Fuss & Feathers that Brian started at Hatchet Hall, which researched the eating habits of the earliest settlers in the South and their wood-fire cooking techniques. I tried reading the same or similar cookbooks and historical references about what Brian was and came across the stories of James Hemings and Hercules Posey, cooks and enslaved property of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. They’re also the men responsible for making us eat things like french fries, ice cream, and macaroni and cheese.
I approached Brian with the idea of a spinoff project based on the two that I could put together in a similar format. I was expecting to only make dinner a couple of times before moving on to something else. I couldn’t have imagined where it would take me.
The last few years have been very happy for me despite everything that has happened in the world. I was a small part of the amazing Netflix documentary series High on the Hog and was featured for my work in the LA Times’ 101 Restaurants last year.
These things and more have evolved into the Black Pot Supper Club experience, where I continue to share the little-known stories about Black America’s culinary influences and condense recipes inspired by these men and women throughout I cook in an open fire pit with wood fires and coals as they traditionally would have done.
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Dinners are now hosted primarily at the Post & Beam in the Crenshaw District and include items such as pork head cheese, roast rabbit and a James Hemings-inspired snow egg, one of only two recipes known to have been made by Hemings. The macaroni and cheese recipe is also on our menu and gives a nice twist to a classic dish with the addition of sherry, parmesan, black pepper and cream. The beans are prepared the way I think my grandfather made his at Dem Bones and the dessert is inspired by my early Joe’s pastry days. For a main course, I offer a recipe for grilled rabbit, which would have been a common wild protein at the time.
None of my grandparents were actually allowed to see me cook.
My grandfather died while I was in culinary school and my grandmother moved to Florida shortly after before she died. I couldn’t and couldn’t imagine that if I started following in his footsteps it would result in so much magic of my own that I would give my mom something so awesome to brag about or that I would end up mine would end up eating and face in the local paper. I hope you enjoy these recipes this July 4th for dishes inspired by James Hemings, Hercules Posey and my grandfather, the late James Howard.