Monthly Archives: August 2012

The heartbeat of Harlem

HARLEM SHOUTS OUT ITS HISTORY…. its buildings and street signs proudly carry the names of heroes and icons like MARSHALL THURGOOD ACADEMY, Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and The Schomburg Center to name just a few.

‘In the 1920’s and 30’s the upper Manhattan district of Harlem had become the flourishing capital of African American culture as writers, musicians, artists, photographers, philosophers, and intellectuals created works that probed the black American heritage with a psychological intensity and fierce pride.’

A trifecta of luck was on my side when I visited Harlem –The Schomburg Center had two ‘I-must-see’ exhibitions (upstairs, artist Romare Bearden’s work, and downstairs, a large Malcolm X exhibition of video, personal diaries, and a handwritten letter to Betty Shabazz – gold!), and it was Harlem Street Fair!

Food for thought and food for sampling…. everyone was out and about. My first stop was at a Caribbean BBQ to try Jerk Chicken and Fried Plantains. I’ve always found that street food is the best food and here I ate the best Jerk Chicken I’ve eaten anywhere – including the West Indies. I ate my way up and down several blocks in the name of research.

Harlem is serious about food. Stalls were selling seriously sized servings. It was a really hot day in the high 80F’s when I spied a stall selling huge plastic cups of Watermelon Juice. Icy cold and delicious!

Then I noticed ‘dessert’…

Red Velvet cake

An acre of Red Velvet Cake 🙂

Who can say ‘No’ to a vast tray of Red Velvet Cake? And why would you? Red is my favourite colour so why not a RED cake? Also known as Devil’s Food Cake, this cake’s history is a bit like the mythology surrounding Australia’s Pavlova – everyone from New York to New Zealand claims to have invented it. You can believe it was a signature dessert at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York during the 1920′s, or an Eaton’s department store recipe invented by store matriarch, Lady Eaton and served in their stores during the 1950s. Supposedly store employees were sworn not to reveal the recipe. Or maybe the original red colour came about through a chemical reaction between the original ingredients.

The red in contemporary versions of Red Velvet Cake comes from baking with beetroot, raspberry or red food colouring. I’ve experimented cooking with each of these and raspberry wins – with just a dash of food colouring gel added to lift the colour.

During the 1920’s Harlem was the hub of African American artistic experience. It became a meeting place for artists, poets, writers, and activists including: writers Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, Jessie Redmon  Fauset, Arna Bontemps, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston; the photographer James Van Der Zee; and the musicians Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake.

At that time Cotton Club and The Apollo Theater were the mecca for the ‘new music’ of Jazz, blues, and ragtime. These days the ‘new music’ at The Apollo includes Open Mic, and The Cotton Club still plays jazz but mostly to tourists.

Much of the area has become gentrified and there is a fight to keep some of the old areas architecturally – and culturally – intact and safe from redevelopment.

Harlem continues to inspire pride in its African American heritage and draw new artists and writers to embrace its streets and its history. I certainly felt its embrace.

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Ssssh…. I’m in love with Charlotte

Outside The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte

Outside The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte

WHAT BETTER INTRODUCTION TO THE SOUTH, than to arrive at Charlotte Airport in North Carolina, and be greeted in the Arrivals lounge by rows of white wooden rocking chairs!

These weren’t rocking chairs for the elderly!  All ages including teenagers were curled up in them and busily interacting with their iPads and earbuds.

Everybody loves a Southern accent – warm and smooth as caramel – like a warm embrace on a summer’s day. I arrived very early in the morning of what stretched into a gorgeous hot summer’s day. While back home Sydney froze in winter woollies, I was applying sun screen. No complaints there!

I only had 4 days to fit a lot in and in the heat and such a short space of time I was doing well to fit 3-4 interviews in each day all over town.

I ate my first Peach Cobbler at Simmons and I heard staff and customers do ‘the Nines’ banter for the first time. All the while, cicadas buzzed loudly American-ese in the trees outside.

At Mert’s restaurant I ate Fried Green Tomatoes for the first time and chose a slice of Red Velvet Cake from among the row of tall delicious cakes on display. Who’d have thought to put the words popcorn and shrimp together, let alone create the concept that is ‘Popcorn Shrimp’? I also ate more catfish while in Charlotte … but had given up on any thoughts of espresso coffee. 😉

Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina and an important financial centre – and the second largest by assets after New York City. The skyline is full of pretty shiny pink-grey glass buildings built in the financially fluid 1980s.

A lot of people also travel here for the famous NASCAR races held at the ‘Nascar’ stadium nearby. As it happened, I travelled around town in a black SUV, as I soon realized that private car hire was more reliable and affordable than a taxi, when travelling any distance out of town.

Nicknamed the Queen City, Charlotte and its resident county are named in honour of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who had become queen consort of British King George III the year before the city’s founding.

Charlotte is also the home of one of my favourite artists, the late ROMARE BEARDEN. I saw more of his collage work as part of the fabulous John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art held at The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American arts and culture.

The Gantt is named after architect Harvey Gantt who became the city’s first black mayor in 1983 – a remarkable institution both architecturally and historically.

Across the road is another architectural milestone on the skyline – The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The Bechtler is a giant orange shape than seems to lean on one slim orange pirate’s leg, and standing outside it is the large mirrored Firebird sculpture you can see in the picture. For an Australian, it was hard to look at that sculpture and not imagine a cockatoo. Don’t you agree?