I'd like to use this opportunity to express solidarity with the protestors speaking out against police brutality and institutional racism across the country and world. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police is the latest in dozens of examples of Black folks being victimized by our increasingly militarized police force, symptomatic of covert and overt racism that still plants deep roots in our social fabric.
One way that people who are privileged can help support communities oppressed by structural inequalities is to support small business owned by members of these communities. I was reminded this week, then, while remembering Black-owned businesses I have visited in the culinary world, of a singularly powerful and magnificent dinner I had in Houston back in fall of 2018.
This was my first real visit to Houston. I had been to either of the airports for connections a handful of times, and also performed a concert as part of a UT Choirs tour in January of the same year in the far western suburb of Katy, without visiting any other places in town. Needing to visit a Chinese consulate to acquire a visa for my January trip to Shanghai, I made the 2.5 hour drive to Houston for a 36-hour stay, determined to explore and learn a bit more about this massive metropolis.
As usual, I planned my trip around food. The issue is (sorry Houston-ites) that Houston isn't exactly a bastion of much except freeways, urban sprawl, and corporate headquarters. How lucky, then, that I stumbled upon the most culturally-relevant restaurant not just in the city, but possibly the US.
Indigo is a project of chef Jonny Rhodes and his wife, Chana. He returned to his own childhood neighborhood in the Northside neighborhood of Houston, a historically Black community, determined to create a restaurant deeply connected to the experiences of his community and the Black community writ-large.
On Indigo's website, they summarize their philosophy:
Through the crucible of oppression, African slaves and Indigenous Americans birthed soul food in the southern parts of the United States of America. Fresh New World crops in conjunction with Old World crops, African-Indigenous ingenuitive food ways, and animal carcass scraps gave weight to low culture cooking. This deep and dark history of systematic oppression and mass incarceration is tethered to the food world. Restaurant Indigo will use this history and current times to incubate Neo-Soul food. The term soul food was created during the 1960's Civil Rights Movement. With ongoing mass incarceration and poverty, a new wave of soul food has emerged. Chef Jonathan "Jonny" Rhodes' tasting menu is a revised reflection of what it is like eating through the "isms" of America as a copper-colored person.
The dining room is a tiny 13-seat space adjacent to a market in Chef Jonny's childhood neighborhood. Despite getting a last-minute reservation, I was expecting to be part of a fully-occupied dinner service, seeing as how the place had such acclaim and could only serve 26 diners nightly. It was a weekday, however, and I was surprised to learn when I arrived that I would be the only diner that evening.
Chef Jonny invited me to take a seat at a small table inside the kitchen to enjoy dinner on my own with him, his sous chef, and his wife. I gladly accepted. Chef explained that each dish I'd have that evening would have special significance in the history and present experience of Black folks. They weren't offering wine at this point, since they didn't yet have a license, and requested guest bring their own if they'd like to imbibe. Since it was just me, I opened a 375 of Billecart-Salmon and poured four glasses to share with everyone in the kitchen.
"Gold Links" was the name of the first dish, which was small slices of potimarron (a type of pumpkin) preserved in Satsuma mandarin skins with a preserved kumquat gel and anise hyssop. Chef Jonny explained that the point of this dish was the golden color and also the abundance of vitamin C. The dish explored the history of gold teeth in Black culture. Despite contemporary aspersions that gold teeth are symptoms of decadence, for enslaved Africans, they were part of self-preservation. Scurvy was a disease common in slaves, mostly due to the lack of vitamin C in their diets. Slaves would fashion crowns for their decaying teeth out of precious metals, especially gold. Each small wrapping of tangy pumpkin and kumquat was meant to represent a gold tooth. An excellent first dish, and fascinating history.
Chef Jonny's kitchen deliberately does not have an electric or gas range, in particular because few in his community had access to gas. In his kitchen, he cooks the following dish over a small wood-burning fire. Called "Domino!", the dish is an homage to the old gentlemen who played dominos in Chef's community, who used to say to him, "Fish and bread keeps a poor man fed." Using fish locally caught from the Gulf, cooked over pecan wood, Chef Jonny's dish explores what life in poverty in America's cities is like, needing to subsist on their ingenuity, strategy, and skills, both in fishing and dominos. The gently-cooked fish was robustly seasoned, and accompanied by a ramp ranch, caramelized tomato, and pickles. Simple and delicious, and a window into the food of folks in poverty.
The next dish was a vegetarian evocation of Carolina BBQ. Using Chef Jonny's meticulous preservation and curing techniques, he preserves local turnips after smoking them, creating a tangy, smoky, meat-like texture. Beneath the turnips, Jonny hides braised and smoked collard greens as well as caramelized carrots. The dish is called "Slum Beautiful," and while I cannot remember the story behind it, I can certainly recall the wonderful, complex tang and smoke of the veggies!
The last savory course of the evening was a smoked aged pastrami with mustard, beets, and sorghum, a fascinating look at the divergence between marginalized White and Black communities in the 1900s. The pastrami speaks to the experiences if Italian-Americans, who were initially persecuted and some later romanticized through the exploits of the mob, while Black folks were driven out of the south and had a difficult time assimilating into White culture, being persecuted by police for the same "crimes" romanticized when committed by White people. The pastrami was incredibly complex and tender, and I found the story of the dish, titled "Assimilation is not freedom," to be among the most fascinating of the night.
I cannot recall the dessert courses I enjoyed that evening. Sadly, any dish for which I didn't have a photo saved now escapes me. Such is my brain!
I was so fortunate to find Indigo, and share this meal with Chef Jonny and his team––can’t say I’ve had a culinary experience quite like this, or quite as powerful. Chef and I sharing wine and political/philosophical conversation throughout the meal was priceless. We discussed some of our favorite literature and philosophical threads, all eventually applying to the struggle and liberation of marginalized communities. We concluded the dinner with our shared belief in the commonality of food and our shared experience as humans, and the transcendence of food beyond the perceived barriers of otherness.
In response to this time of increased awareness of structural barriers to equality in the US, one thing those of us with privilege can do is support businesses in these marginalized communities. While the restaurant is currently closed due to the pandemic, I implore you, if you find yourself in Houston: go to this restaurant. Talk to Chef Jonny, his wife Chana, and the staff. This is a special and important place in the culinary world and deserves the attention it’s getting in Houston and that which it will get nationally.