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Meet the Natchez chef who is teaching the origins of soul food

Meet the Natchez chef who is teaching the origins of soul food

Chef Jarita Frazier-KingChef Jarita Frazier-King — Photo courtesy of Jarita King

Visitors flock to Natchez, Mississippi, the oldest city in the state, year after year to get a glimpse of the past. The over-300-year-old destination on the Mississippi River is known for its antebellum homes, which operate tours throughout the year. But this “Old South” imagery is just one part of Natchez’s history.

The city is the southernmost point of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a Native American trading route-turned-scenic byway. Mississippian tribes lived in the area as far back as 1250 AD, building the nearby Emerald Mound. The city’s name comes from the Natchez people. There’s also an Irish presence, along with influences from neighboring Louisiana.

Jarita Frazier-King, owner of the Natchez Heritage School of Cooking, seeks to challenge the misconceptions about what Southern food entails, focusing on the African diaspora, including the enslaved people that worked on the plantations in Natchez and throughout the South.

She’s been featured by the James Beard Foundation and the Museum of Food and Drink in New York, and she runs the Soul Food Fusion Festival, which benefits disengaged youth in the community.

“We teach people about the roots and history of soul food dishes, particularly what we call ‘classic cuts’ of soul food and how the African Americans and Native Americans influenced most of the food that we eat here in the south, food that we eat today,” says King.

Cornbread in particular is one of the dishes few people know the history of, which she discusses in her lectures.

Cornbread is a staple across a multitude of cultures.Cornbread is a staple across a multitude of cultures. — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / GMVozd

“I call it the universal staple because in pretty much almost every culture, whether it be Jewish, Irish, Native American, African American, cornbread is always a staple that you have with some sort of meal. Whether it be fry bread in the Native American [culture] or some kind of seed bread in another culture, cornbread is still the base of it.”

King’s inspiration for her cooking also comes from her own heritage. She is an 8th-generation descendant of a union between George Fitzgerald, a Scottish Irish man, and Mary, a Jamaican slave woman. Her family tree is on display at the Natchez Museum of African American Culture and History and also includes Native American ancestry.

Her grandmother, a local baker, was one of fourteen children, so King has a large extended family. Many of their gatherings, including family reunions, center around food.

“I’ve been standing up on a stool cooking since I was five years old,” said King. She also worked as a community nutrition specialist at Alcorn State University in nearby Lorman before leaving to start her own business.

Since starting the cooking school in 2017, King has continually welcomed visitors to the kitchen like they’re family.

“I like to say, it’s like stories on a plate, because it’s more of an experience that you get when you’re at Natchez Heritage School of Cooking. We like to put people right there in grandma’s kitchen, at your grandparents’ house, taking you back to that scene or just to have that feeling.”

Here, the curious can learn to make dishes with traditional ingredients, such as black eyed pea and collard green fritters. Everything happens as a group, with each person being assigned a different element of the dish. The class ends with everyone sharing a meal together.

Overlooking the Mississippi River from NatchezOverlooking the Mississippi River from Natchez — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks

“We do what you would see in African American culture and Native American culture. People sitting down and doing things together as a group…we give them a wooden spoon when they leave the cooking school and we ask them to send us back a picture of them in the kitchen doing something with their families.”

King also recognizes food’s ability to bring people of all backgrounds together, something instilled by her great-grandmother.

“She always says we didn’t know no color, we were all family. That’s just how I was raised. That’s the same thing that I want people to take away from the cooking school…for one day, race, color, none of that matters, we all come together at the table and are the same at the table, just like family.”

While the pandemic has changed how her business runs, it’s renewed an interest in the traditional ways of making food, and has reminded people of the importance of family and community – and sharing meals together around the table.

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