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A new dinner series at Ida B's Table puts the spotlight on foods of the African diaspora

Lisa Hamilton had no idea she would be getting a history lesson in addition to a flavorful feast when she attended the first diaspora wine dinner last month at Ida B’s Table in downtown Baltimore.

The five-course meal included a whole fish, steak, chicken and rabbit dishes made with recipes native to African countries.

"I learned of the deep connection between how traditional African food was prepared and how it was translated to American soul food and Caribbean cuisines as a result of the transatlantic slave trade," Hamilton, a Towson resident who is president and chief executive officer Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in a post-dinner e-mail.

Mission accomplished for the restaurant's Chef David Thomas, who is the creator of the reoccurring Diaspora Dinner. The next dinner, on March 27, will be a collaboration with the Mera Kitchen Collective, a Baltimore-based group that focuses on empowerment of refugee and immigrant women.

Thomas dreamed up the concept for the dinners last year.

"I think it’s always what I wanted to do," he said. "I don’t know if it was defined as the Diaspora Dinner until late last year. But it’s always been my thought of doing this series of wine dinners around the African continent and culture. It was always important to me."

The African diaspora is the term commonly used to describe Africa and the countries where its people were brought during the Transatlantic slave trade, a period from the 16th to 19th centuries when an estimated 10 to 12 million Africans were brought to what is now the United States. The traditions of those people have survived centuries later and are celebrated in the monthly dinners at Ida B’s Table.

"It’s about the history and the culture and the people behind the culture," Thomas explained. "After all these years we are still doing the same thing that we were doing 200 years ago."

The dinners, which started last month, are held in the restaurant’s cozy private dining room. A maximum of 40 people can attend.

"I want to keep it intimate," said Thomas who at the first dinner introduced each course with a mix of history, a couple of anecdotes and a bit of culinary knowledge.

During the first course, for example, Thomas explained that Calas, a deep-fried beignet made from fermented rice and rabbit, was originally cooked and sold by enslaved women in New Orleans’ French Quarter. While attendees devoured the surprisingly spicy spheres, Thomas recalled how he discovered the dish while researching Nellie Murray, a former enslaved woman who is considered the queen of Creole cuisine.

The result of this approach was equal parts scrumptious and informative, according to attendees.

Attendees like Hamilton and Nikolas X. Hill, a North Baltimore resident, said that they liked the approach.

"The final plating was so much more than the sum of its parts," said Hill, adding that he liked the mix of spices, flavors, and techniques coming together. "Listening to Chef David recount his diligent research stirred my soul. ... It was so wonderful to see these dots being connected."

Dinners with cultural elements are not a new phenomenon.

The Muhibbah Dinner Series, a ticketed dinner in Philadelphia where chefs participate in a potluck-like feast while raising money for the local immigrant population, is entering its sixth installment since its debut in 2017.

The Columbia Room, a James Beard Award-winning upscale cocktail bar has offered Women Rule, a specialty menu inspired by women mixologists and chefs.

Many of these experiences highlight food professionals of color “that are doing trailblazing and amazing things in an environment that is intimate so they can have meaningful interaction with the people who are consuming their art,” said Lezli Levene Harvell, the New York City-based founder and curator of The Iconoclast Dinner Experience, reoccurring food-related events in Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard and New York.

Levene Harvell’s events, which have been taking place for the past five years, “always” sell out, according to the pediatric dentist and food enthusiast who started her events after finding the food scene in New York to be “so homogeneous.”

“We not only have dinner, but we have conversation. We’re talking about things that impact culture through the lens of food,” she said, adding that conversations have included how gentrification has influenced the culinary cultural landscape of neighborhoods.

Cultural series like Thomas’ Diaspora Dinner are an opportunity for the public to be exposed to new cultures and, in some cases, a chance to provide exposure to diverse chefs, according to Levene Harvell.

“These people needed to be highlighted,” she said.

Hill thinks the Diaspora Dinner is important because it puts "ethnic" cuisine on display.

"It shows that ethnic cuisine doesn't have to be treated like Baby and put in a corner," he said. "It can be put on the same pedestal as other great dishes that grace modern menus in the best restaurants."

Thomas thinks that the food from the diaspora, which includes soul food, doesn't get enough credit.

"People think it's just fried chicken and mac and cheese," Thomas said. "There is a lot of history behind this food."

And thus, Thomas wants the history of people from the diaspora to be appreciated.

"I would like to see more African Americans get engaged in their history," Thomas said. "Yes, we came from enslaved people, but we were kings and queens. We were the architects of civilization. I want to tell the truth. I try and do it through food."

Thomas said he was inspired in part by Michael Twitty, the author of the James Beard Award-winning book "The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South." Twitty and Thomas teamed up in 2017 to host a dinner and a talk at the restaurant when it opened.

"His knowledge about our people and the cultural awareness that we have is unprecedented," Thomas said.

Thomas wants to create fond food memories for guests that last after the dinner has ended.

"That's what all the hard work is for," said Tonya Thomas, the restaurant's general manager and wife of the chef. "When you prepare this food, you want people to enjoy it. But the key part is having you enjoy the conversation. We don’t want it to be something that when they go home they forget about it. We want you to remember."

And of course, the taste of the food is an important factor.

Hamilton's favorite dish from the evening was a Senegalese dish which consisted of a whole fish, vegetables, and rice.

"It reminded me of my own childhood growing up in Georgia. I would go fishing with my grandmother when I was a little girl, and we always had the catfish we caught with grits," she recalled. "It felt like home because it was like the Senegalese version of catfish and grits."

Hill liked the chicken Yassa— a seasoned drumstick and thigh in a sweet mustard gravy — best.

"Anything put atop whipped parsnips is always a win in my book," Hill said about the West African dish.

Hamilton already plans to attend the next dinner.

"I put the March date on my calendar," she said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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