My husband, Stratton, loves his family, dearly. Mostly, his people are southern Scots-Irish who came to America in the 18th century, before the days of the Boston Tea Party. And when they came, they came to Charleston, South Carolina, before moving on to Sewanee, Tennessee, where his grandfather became the president of the University of the South. As they prospered after the American Revolution, first with a tavern that would one day become Chef Sean Brock’s, McCrady’s, where the 18th century French Quarter gastropub offered upscale American tavern fare; the men in his family soon became attorneys, statesmen, Episcopal clergy, and eventually biologists, and even artists, such as the southern regional painter, John McCrady, of the McCrady Art School on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and for whom my husband, Stratton, was named. Over the decades, and even the centuries, they also bought and owned black slaves. For many years the mythology and folklore that haunted my husband, about his ancestors owning enslaved human beings whose own descendants would one day become the housekeepers, cooks, and gardeners in family homes where he visited as a child, paved the way for his new project called, Kindred Issue. Always eager for a road trip together, we have shared the work of research for all our projects, including some for my own, Framed in Constructed New England Regional Literary Identity: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographic Portraits of Famous Men and Fair Women, and so we set off in earnest on our southern sojourn.
Which brings me to Martha Lou’s Kitchen. We packed our car in early March, long before the terrible virus that rocked the world became an issue at the end of our journey down through Greensboro, NC, and Savannah, GA, until we eventually arrived in Charleston, SC., and we decided to have a work and play break away from Boston, where it would be weeks before we saw any green grass after the long winter. Our goal was to visit Greensboro, where Stratton had lived throughout his childhood and teen years, so that he could interview family and friends; then go on to Savannah, where I longed to walk together in the parks, through the gardens, and along the river front that once called out to me years before, as a refuge during my own travels alone made for rest and recovery; and finally, we would make our way to Charleston, with its McCrady history and houses, which we hoped to discover. Several weeks later upon arrival, and with dear family joining us, we went straight away to find something Stratton was longing to experience again: authentic southern soul food. Martha Lou’s Kitchen was his sweet tea, fried chicken, collard greens, butter beans, macaroni with cheese, candied yam, and peach cobbler heaven. Vivian Howard, we’ve just seen your Somewhere South, “Porridge for the Soul,” episode on PBS, and now we want to speak to Chef B.J. Dennis, because we have learned that Stratton’s research has enormous elements of food history lurking beneath the surface, which may be the gateway to closure for his Kindred Issue project…
Me? I just wanted to find a place to rest a while, because the news reports from New York were suddenly making me nervous and I began to wonder if we would be able to make our way back across the Hudson River, and home to New England, again. We decided to leave as soon as we were able to complete our research at the Charleston Historical Society. That began with a search for correspondence pertaining to rifle club militia activity during the gubernatorial race of 1876, as well as, racial tensions between Episcopal churches in the South Carolina Diocese that began with a bishop and clergy intent on African American inclusion, written by his great, great grandfather, all of which were precursors to what know of today, as legislation that allowed for district gerrymandering. Not an easy thing to research, that, but something that Stratton’s conscience will not allow him to give rest. And so, we spent a day reading through documents that were not particularly pleasant, and became less and less encouraged about where we were searching, until something caught my eye in the folder I’d been assigned from among quite a lot of linear feet. It wasn’t connected to Stratton’s research, but once again, it was connected to mine. And so, from the South, in Charleston, to the North, in Boston, a McCrady boy had found his way to a Whitham girl, through their mutual interest in ancestors, who crossed paths at a meaningful location known as #148 Charles Street, Boston, Massachusetts by way of correspondence between Edward McCrady and Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr., whose parents were active among the New England regional literati that I research and write about.
The McCrady family lived in Charleston’s loveliest of old neighborhoods, in a home that extended as many did, with “Little” house additions attached to the main “Big” house, for the Black people who had been purchased and enslaved in their home. Family lore hinted at, “Only a few slaves, who were treated very, very well,” but so fearful were White people, of mass insurrections by those they had enslaved, that Charleston architecture on a grand scale included iron fences which were all deadly spiked at the top to prevent enslaved Black people from entering homes of White people who governed and owned them. Many iron markers, that served as warnings, have been removed, but many remain above door frames, such as iron swords, and other weapons. Charleston’s historic district architecture displays an elegant southern charm, laced with a hideous southern omen which lingers unreconciled, to this day. One cannot walk its cobbled or brick streets without noticing that every thing of beauty which passes by was purchased with the blood of thousands of Black people who became enslaved at the hands of White people, determined to obtain and protect their wealth and their power. Not an easy thing to comprehend about one’s own family, a now liberal and inclusive family, and so when speaking of such things, I observe an uneasy sense of familial recollection that sways between both shame and duty, when Stratton visits with his family. Always, it is present, and always, it is something that only a project, such as, Kindred Issue, hopes to expose by way of integrity, without the appropriation of another’s culture.
One of the last stops we made, as we walked the streets of old Charleston, was at a place I now refer to, as, “Stratton’s Cottage.” Here, my man took a much needed break during his early college years, and spent some wonderful time with his aging grandparents, while picking up a hammer to begin what would become, decades later, a new profession in National Register of Historic Place Preservation, for the greater New England area. Today, not only does he make his way to Boston University Tanglewood Institute, or Boston Playwright’s Theatre, and many other such venues, with his photography gear; but he also makes his way around New England to Old South Church, Boston, and many other historic locations, with his carpentry gear. Charleston gave him, what was to become, a lifelong passion for all the arts and sciences in their many varied forms, and the cottage was a place where he lived and loved a way of life, while so blissfully unaware of what family history lay beneath the floorboards. His was an idyllic journey, while throughout his childhood and long into his young adulthood, he developed a lasting affinity for tradition, architecture, cuisine, and family that enveloped him in unconditional acceptance and confidence. He could not then, as he does now, begin to closely examine the thousands of southern regional, and especially Charleston, lives that would come to the forefront of his consciousness, where they daily live and breathe and whisper a history to him that demands to be accounted for. A revised and hidden history that is, in part, his own. A history he now calls, Kindred Issue.
Southern Sojourn: On Kindred Issues, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.
“Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch.