Dr. Zella Palmer

Educator, Food Historian, Author, and Filmmaker
Headshot of a young woman.

Photo courtesy of Dillard University.


Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the CD  Soul Sand; used courtesy of the Free Music Archive


Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, it seemed like a good time to look at some of work being done around food culture-- a growing field in the academy and in folk and traditional arts. So I turned to Dr. Zella Palmer—she’s the director and chair of Dillard University’s Ray Charles program in African American Material Culture where she also created its food studies program.  She’s also the author of two cookbooks “Recipes and Remembrance of Fair Dillard, 1869-2019,” a cookbook that’s like a food memoir….. presenting recipes that also offers a culinary history of New Orleans and Dillard’s place in that history. She took that same wholistic approach when she co-authored “Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque” which celebrates the history, tradition, and recipes of barbeque from the famous North Carolina pitmaster. Zella Palmer is the director of the documentary “The Story of New Orleans Creole Cooking: The Black Hand in the Pot” and host of the podcast “Culture and Flavor.”   Her work has been recognized by the Louisiana Creole Research Association who in 2020 presented Palmer with the Founders Award for her research and preservation of Black material culture, and Dine Diaspora honored her as a 2022 Black Woman in Food Trailblazer.  I spoke with Dr. Zella Palmer earlier this month and began by asking her to give me some background about Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture. 

Zella Palmer: Right before Katrina, Ray Charles was given an honorary degree by Dillard University. There's a funny story behind how the Ray Charles Program came about. One of my former colleagues, Mark Barnes, was givi ng Ray Charles a ride around town, being the host for the celebration of him receiving this honorary degree and he said, “Mr. Charles, you know, could we stop and just get a quick bite to eat? There's McDonald's…” and he was just mentioning all these fast food restaurants to stop at and Mr. Charles said, "Boy, I'm in New Orleans. Why would I want fast food?" And so the conversation started, and he started really thinking about how he wanted to leave this endowment to Dillard University to put together a program that would talk about food and thinking about his mother and his grandmother, who were sharecroppers, and just also his foresight that so many of our young people are living in a fast food generation, as well as a microwave generation and he wanted them to learn more about Black food culture and so Dr. Lomax, who was then the president of Dillard University, who is now the president of the United Negro College Fund, had a broader conversation with Mr. Charles about making the program an African American material culture program. So the program began. Dr. Jessica Harris was the first chair of some of your listeners might be familiar with her landmark book, High on the Hog and then I came along about almost 10 years ago and we have done incredible work that I'm very proud of and we, you know, look towards our model of what Dr. Rochelle Ford, our current president, our new president, calls a communiversity and that is what Dillard University stands for since 1869. So, to have this program

here in New Orleans, a food capital,  is profound. 

Jo Reed: Well, exactly. When we say material culture, it is a broad term and for people who are unfamiliar, can you talk a little bit about what that encompasses?

Zella Palmer: Sure. A material culture is the evidence of a culture. That, I mean, when we talk about music, when we talk about African American music, art, food, language, and even just considering a city like New Orleans, our street culture, our second line culture, jazz, that is material culture, the materialization of a culture. 

Jo Reed: Well, as you mentioned, food was extremely important to Ray Charles, and he understood it as a cultural experience, its taste and history and when we talk about Dillard, I think we also have to talk about Dillard's own history with food culture and in fact, you wrote a cookbook called “Recipes and Remembrance of Fair Dillard.” So tell me about the history of food at Dillard University.

Zella Palmer: Absolutely. Thank you for mentioning the book, “Recipes and Remembrance of Fair Dillard”. It was an interesting moment. You know, I love our librarians. Any, you know, any librarians out there, I just love you all to death, because you carry so many treasures. At the time, John Kennedy, who was our archivist, and Malik Bartholomew, who was our current archivist, said, ”Zella, you know, we have these cookbooks that have been sitting in our library for decades. And I think you might want to do something with them.” I looked at the cookbooks, and they're from the 1950s. This is when President Dent who was then the president of Dillard University and Jesse Covington Dent, his lovely wife, and she was a classic pianist who went to Juilliard.  This was before there was financial aid. This is before there were scholarships. So they had to figure out innovative ways to raise money for students and one of the ways that they did that was publishing a cookbook with the Dillard Women's Club. And this cookbook is a treasure trove. I mean, Jesse Covington Dent collected so many recipes from around the world and it just talks about the power of HBCUs and how it is truly diverse. One of the recipes was from Eleanor Roosevelt, a huckleberry dessert. Another recipe was from Lena Horne. Her chicken recipe, our East Indian chicken recipe, Ralph Bunch. I mean, whoever were the greats of the time were included in this cookbook and to be able to tell that story, again, was pretty profound for me as a historian, as well as just wanting to lift up the legacy, the culinary legacy of Dillard University in this pivotal and landmark of the city of New Orleans, which has a very unique sense of hospitality.

Jo Reed: And I also learned, and of course it makes perfect sense, that during Jim Crow, for example, Dillard and other HBCUs actually became a gathering place for Black folks outside of the university community, outside of students and teachers, where they would gather and dine together.

Zella Palmer: Absolutely. We have to remember: the period of the cookbook that I wrote about under the Dent administration was during segregation. So in the cookbook that we reprinted, it tells a lot about what was happening during the Jim Crow era and how HBCUs were safe spaces where you can dress up and dine on some of the finest Creole cuisine that the city had to offer because we weren't allowed to eat in white establishments or white restaurants. We weren't allowed to even sometimes go past Canal Street without a pass or having proof that you work uptown New Orleans. So to have functions at Dillard University or to have functions in African-Americans' family homes, they created these kind of restaurant spaces.

Jo Reed: Well, in your program, in the Ray Charles program at Dillard, you're giving students a holistic understanding of foodways. Tell me how you go about doing that.

Zella Palmer: Sure. So before the pandemic, we decided that we wanted to launch a food studies minor. And within that food studies minor, we offered six courses based on what we're seeing in the industry right now and the need for professionals in those environments. So food media: we need more Black journalists. We need more diverse journalists, right? We also, not only journalists, but food stylists. Having regional or indigenous folks as food stylists can really help tell the story of what gumbo looks like.  And we need more food stylists. We need more food policymakers. When we look at just who decides on what grocery stores are put into our neighborhoods, who decides what food is available to us.  We need policymakers, not only on the national level, but on the international level. We also need more food historians. So we open our program to our students who are filmmakers, who are interested in becoming journalists, who are interested also in becoming chefs. You know, we do our best to put our students in places and internships that will help them grow and understand that food is a tool and resource that can open up an entire new world to them and through that, we're able to teach about material culture. We're able to teach about history.  We can make a batch of pralines with them and we can talk about the history of sugar, the history of pecans, the history of Black women who also made those pralines and were selling during slavery. So we are super excited for this food studies minor and we are definitely one of the only HBCUs that has a food studies minor and we're hoping to grow that to become an eventual food studies major.

Jo Reed:  You're going and you're exploring this rich tapestry of African American food history, you know, with the focus on New Orleans, but not exclusively. But how do you even begin to your research into this?

Zella Palmer: Well, like I said, we have some great professors. When I think about some of our professors-- John Pult, he's a jazz historian, and he teaches food and media and food and literature. So we look at our lesson plan, our curriculum and start from the beginning as much as we possibly can. We're not just looking only at African American culinary history, but we're looking at Native American culinary history. We're looking at global policy. We're looking at inviting different chefs, like Ana Castro, who is a James Beard nominated chef, or Serena Bay, who is a Senegalese chef here in New Orleans, to bring them into our classroom. So we can not only break bread with them, but also learn about their culture and learn about their stories, learn how food was migrated from different parts of the world to our table.

Jo Reed: Food is not just about taste, but it really encompasses all our senses and I wonder how you think the sensory experience of food, its presentation, its smell, its texture, plays a role in cultural memory and history?

Zella Palmer: Absolutely. And it definitely does. One of our final projects is for our students that go and ask one of the eldest members of your family, sit down with them and have a conversation about what their food memories are and we have on our YouTube channel, I love this interview of one of our former students, and she's sitting down with her grandmother, who remembers her parents migrating west and they moved to Oklahoma. And she was living in Indian territory. Her parents didn't have running water or electricity, but they grew all the food on their farms and just all of the memories that she has of that… and I know what that means for students when they get to sit down and talk to their elders, whether that's in their family or in the community, where they can actually compare their own food memories with those of their elders. So it's a huge aha-moment for our students to really start thinking outside of the box and realizing how food is integral to every part of our life.

Jo Reed: What drew you to African American material culture in the first place?

Zella Palmer: My parents, definitely my parents. I lost my parents in the past three years. And they exposed a whole beautiful world to me. And my dad used to say, “I collect people and make them part of my game.”  My mother was incredible. She was a former professor, former senator in Chicago, and our house was hub of activism, of thoughts, of people from all over the world. So my dinner table growing up, I was exposed to all kinds of cuisine and you grow up in a place like Chicago that is super diverse, you also get to experience all types of people. And sometimes they marry in your family, sometimes they're telling you their stories or sharing food and recipes with you. But within that was also that I'm the child of the Great Migration and so I do believe that I was also meant to come back to the South. My mother's side of the family is from North Carolina and my father's side is from New Orleans and so when I understood and they sat down and told me their stories of their parents and grandparents, then and the reasoning behind why we eat certain things, why my mother loved oyster stew so much, why my dad loved gumbo so much, then I understand where I come from.

Jo Reed: You created the food studies program at Dillard. It’s still such a new field. How did you develop it? What was your thinking behind it?

Zella Palmer:  You know, it's interesting because my mother was a professor at Northwestern University,  way long time ago and I just remember  how she was the Dean of English and she ran the Black House at Northwestern University in Chicago. And it was this vibrant place where there was always thought and food and conversation.  I remember that as a child and I wanted to create something like that. And my love for museum studies, my love for history, I wanted to figure out how I could create a program that would encompass that, encompass Ray Charles' vision, encompass the rich history of Dillard University and New Orleans, because Black New Orleans culture is so beautiful, so rich and has such a long history. I wanted to make sure that we uplift that, but also inviting all of our students from all over the world and right here from the South, from Louisiana… I wanted them to feel like they were also home, whether they were from urban cities or rural communities, and they would be able to share their stories. So I began looking at other programs. Obviously, NYU has a food studies program, Boston University, and other universities have food studies programs, but my focus was centered on Black and Indigenous food ways and that's a really broad term not only is it African American, but it's also from Grenada, Cuba, Senegal, Nigeria, it's also from Oklahoma, it's from Brazil. So it encompasses this global plate that we all share and it's these global stories of people who love food and love family and love just sitting at the table and having a beautiful meal with each other that possibly was made by people who, you know, cultivated the land and so that's where my grounding came from and Dillard has been such an amazing support for making sure that we build this program brick by brick and we're just beginning.

Jo Reed: Well, as you said, New Orleans is a city with such a rich culinary and cultural history, but it's also a history that continues to be unearthed and more lights are shining on corners that were not lit before, because central contributions of Black people, of Indigenous people often could be ignored, especially when it came to food.

Zella Palmer: Absolutely. And we see this time and time again.  I remember when my students and I filmed “The Story of New Orleans Creole Cooking: The Black Hand in the Pot,” looking through archival footage, we found a 1960s footage of a second line and what was fascinating was the food trucks that were at the second line, which were in one of the projects. All of the food that they were selling to those who were participating in the second line were vegetables and so then fast forward, and you look today, it's completely changed.  And how did that happen? Street food vendors had access to farms in rural Louisiana, or grew their own vegetables, or had small plots in front of their homes. And the community had an abundance of vegetables on their plate, it was part of culture and society. But then you fast forward 20, 25 years later and vegetables are almost completely removed from the table. So that's how we kind of look at it, and just bringing, unearthing these histories and just bringing them back to the community and back to the people, so we can have these conversations, and figure out how we can also bring this back to our students. I think about one of our students, La'Carrie, who is a nursing student. I hope she won't mind that I mentioned her, but I just love her so much. She's from rural Louisiana, and her grandparents have a farm. And we have students who are sometimes first-generation students from rural environments. And she sometimes carried shame for growing up on a farm, but when she learns the history of Black land ownership, and the history of Black farmers in the U.S., it's a tremendous pride that comes from learning all of this. And then her wanting to grow vegetables? ”Let me change my diet. I'm a nursing student. What can I do when I become a nurse to make sure that my patients are getting access to healthy food?”  It's a seed that we're planting to be better citizens, and to be better consumers. 

Jo Reed: The other thing you really tackle in your film, as the title suggests, “The History of Creole New Orleans Cooking”, and you state the obvious in that film, which is Black people were the ones doing the cooking. Ergo, they created Creole cooking.

Zella Palmer: Do you think? And it wasn't unknown in the 19th century, 18th, 19th century, when you look at some of the early American cookbooks, when you look at the “Times-Picayune Creole Cookbook” or “Creole Cookery”, you know, other cookbooks that in other parts of the South and Virginia, they plainly state we gathered these recipes from the lips of our Tantes or our Mammies.  So back then they weren't suppressing that information, but for some reason we still struggle with that history, that yes it was majority Black women as well as Black men. So, of course, we were integral to every part of Creole cuisine.

Jo Reed: How do you think food helps define and preserve cultural narratives?

Zella Palmer: I think it helps to define cultural narratives… it's kind of like being a detective we can kind of-- when you start traveling or when you start-- if you go to Senegal, you go to Nigeria, different parts of Latin America or the Caribbean and you eat food in New Orleans or you eat Gullah Geechee cuisine, you start seeing the threads, you start seeing like, "whoa, jambalaya is just like Jollof rice," or “soupou kanja” is just like gumbo, oh my god" and you start remembering even recipes that your grandmother would make or different cultural habits and that might not have been specifically identified, but then you start realizing how intertwined our culture is. Even though so many tried to erase cultural memory, it's still very, it was still very difficult to erase and you start seeing patterns and making the connections and then you realize that in marginalized communities or particularly in Black and Indigenous communities, our food is sacred, it's so sacred, and for them to be able to remember the flavors and to recreate that in places where they were either enslaved or colonized is profound.

Jo Reed: I wonder with globalization and the rise of fusion cuisines, how you think traditional food practices and recipes are affected. There's always this balance between innovation and preservation. 

Zella Palmer:  Yeah, I think one of our biggest challenges is processed food, creolization has always been a part of our history as human beings.  However, I think what is challenging is the processed food market that now is creating a new food memory that can sometimes obliterate the memory of growing your own food or knowing what a real tomato tastes like, right? So then you all have a generation that have no idea what a real tomato tastes like, or "no, your chicken in that plastic package did not actually come like that." So when you see a real live chicken being killed, you're like, "oh!" freaking out, because you don't understand that process and also that respect to the land and the people who actually did the cultivating and making sure that they fed those animals that go into our belly. So farm-to-table is definitely a modern terminology, but it goes way back. Indigenous folks had been doing farm-to-table way before that was even a term.

Jo Reed: Okay, I have to ask, what do you like to cook? And how does food factor into your daily life?

Zella Palmer: I love to cook everything. I love food.

Jo Reed: I do too. I wake up and I think, "okay, what am I making for dinner tonight?" And I think about it all day. 

Zella Palmer: It's hard because when you live in New Orleans, it's so many good chefs and the people just always bringing around plates of food and you're just like, "oh, you know, what do I need to cook for?" But I do love redfish courtbouillon. That is one of my favorite dishes and I love to cook it with my students because our student newspaper that was founded in 1939, is named after courtbouillon. It's a classic Creole dish that has been lost for some time and at that in the 1930s, it was as popular as gumbo. So I love to make redfish courtbouillon with my students and get redfish straight from the Gulf and make this incredible sauce, the courtbouillon sauce that simmers with the redfish and then serve it with some heritage rice and just really start to get them to understand our history and just the whole legacy of redfish court-bouillon and how you can taste it in different parts of the world. And it's very similar to many other redfish stew sauces and fish stew sauces in different parts of West Africa, Central Africa and the Caribbean and even Latin America. So that is one of my favorite dishes and my children love my redfish court-bouillon. 

Jo Reed: Well, I have to give a shout out to your podcast, Culture and Flavor, which touches on many topics within African American culture and African culture too and I wonder how you decide on the topics and the guests?

Zella Palmer: I'm an introvert-extrovert. So if that makes sense to your listeners…

Jo Reed: I am too. 

Zella Palmer: Yes. I get tongue tied and I'm also have a very busy schedule, obviously, because any moment a student could walk into my office and “Miss Palmer, I need this" so I normally interview people that I know and so if I meet you along the way or I've been wanting to have a conversation with you, I'm just having an organic conversation because like I said, I am teaching most of the time and I have all these projects. Thank God for Heritage Radio Network that work with me, and it's just, to me, it's just a phone conversation. It works out, these are people that I have admired. They're friends of mine, colleagues and I am honored that they said yes and it's really just culture and flavor.

Jo Reed: Well, you said, and I wrote it down because I loved it. You said,” where there's flavor, there's history.” 

Zella Palmer: Absolutely and that is actually also included in my latest book, “Ed Mitchell's Barbecue”, which I was humbled and honored to write that book. Ed Mitchell was inducted into the National Barbecue Hall of Fame from Wilson, North Carolina, in the same town where my mother's grandfather is from. And to be able to write his story and also writing my story and that was the last recipe that my mother was able to share with me before she passed and they allowed me to put it in the book and tell some of our family stories. I'm super grateful for that. And it's such an honor just to be able to tell stories. I'm definitely a storyteller. I'm always humbled and honored and just always lifting up the legacy of my parents and just the beauty of the time period that they lived in before phones.

Jo Reed: Well every field of study has its challenges. So I wonder what challenges you faced in this work of African-American material culture?

Zella Palmer: I won't say necessarily challenges just yet, because I do believe that as a small HBCU, mighty HBCU, the illustrious Dillard University, we are part of this communiversity. I mean, we're wearing 20 hats and I'm grateful that I'm the third generation of my family to have worked at an HBCU. My great grandfather, Dr. Joseph Henry Ward, who was Madame C.J. Walker's personal doctor, worked at Tuskegee University and then my grandfather, Dr. Erskine Roberts, was a professor at Lincoln, Howard, and Tuskegee University, where he met my grandmother. So I have this understanding that this is what my purpose is and I think just working at an HBCU is allowing for us to have conversations and this drive and passion and understanding how important more than ever it is for our students to be global citizens and prepared for this world that is ever-changing.

Jo Reed: Well my next question was going to be what has been most rewarding, but you might just answer that.

Zella Palmer: My most rewarding is the smile on my students' faces and just watching them just blossom and watching them make meals. Or "Miss Palmer, I did this, I made the recipe from the cookbook." Our model for the Ray Charles program is where culture meets education and we literally take our students out of the classroom. If they're learning something about pralines, then we're going to the Herman Grima house to one of the oldest kitchens and during urban enslavement and they're making recipes from Creole cookery from the 1800s with our students. And we can talk about gender roles, class, all of these things and that is where the learning begins.

Jo Reed: So where do you see the future of African-American cultural studies heading?

Zella Palmer: I think the future is our students. African-American culture is global. We see that in everything. I mean, it is one of America's biggest exports and I don't think we put enough value on it and have enough conversations about that. But when you look at hip hop, jazz, literature, James Baldwin in Paris, John Coltrane. Our cultural bearers are telling our stories and I think it's just going to be a continuation of that and we're telling our stories now sometimes through social media, even when the rest of the world isn't ready for our stories. We always find a way to put it out there and to share and be in community because it's a beautiful human story.

Jo Reed: And I think that is a great place to leave it and thank you. I mean, truly, thank you for giving me your time, but thank you for all the wonderful work you've done and continue to do.

Zella Palmer: Thank you so much. We greatly appreciate your support.

Jo Reed: That was author. Educator, and filmmaker Dr. Zella Palmer, she’s director and chair of Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture…..we’ll have a link to the program in our show notes as well as a link to her podcast “Culture and Flavor”  and for the recipe for Redfish Courtbouillon. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Dr. Zella Palmer is a professor, food historian, author, and filmmaker and serves as the chair and director of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture in New Orleans, Louisiana. In this podcast, she discusses the Ray Charles program, the importance of material culture, especially to African Americans and other historically marginalized groups,  her commitment to preserving the legacy of African American and Native American culinary history in New Orleans and the South, and her creation of a multidisciplinary food studies minor at Dillard. We also discuss the film she directed, The Story of New Orleans Creole Cooking: The Black Hand in the Pot, which underscores the centrality of African Americans to New Orleans’ famed Creole cuisine, and her 2019 cookbook, Recipes and Remembrances of Fair Dillard: 1869-2019, which details not only recipes but a culinary history of New Orleans and Dillard’s place in that history. We also discuss her podcast Culture and Flavor, and the significance of food studies for students across a wide range of disciplines from history to global politics.  Here's the recipe for Redfish Courtbouillon.

We’d love to know your thoughts--email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us on Apple Podcasts!