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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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