A James Beard Award-nominated Houston chef and a lauded Houston writer are teaming up to share the recipes, culinary contributions, and foodways of Black Texans.
Chris Williams, the executive chef behind Lucille’s and owner of nonprofit Lucille’s 1913, and food writer Kayla Stewart will co-write Black Texas, a cookbook that highlights the recipes and stories of the many contributions Black people have made to Texas cuisine.
“What we’re wanting from this book is for it to be presented and received as an authoritative book on this part of American culinary history, and to set up a platform for other parts of our culinary history,” Williams says. “I’ve seen so many cookbooks that are so beautiful, but are created by people who are coined as authoritative on Black or African things, but have nothing to do with it.”
But that’s not the case here. Williams and Stewart — who both met years ago during an interview — both have ties to Houston, with Williams, originally from Southside Houston, while Stewart is from Glenshire. The two met years ago during an interview for one of Stewart’s stories. Now, they’re gearing up to be co-writers.
“We speak the same language,” says Williams, adding that they both are “grunts” with a tenacity to get shit done. “We both appreciate coming from where we come from and loving the same industry, but working on different sides of it.”
Williams says the initial groundwork for such a project began after opening Lucille’s and doing research at his grandmother’s house, where he looked through a collection of family history and recipes that told the story of his great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith, who would become the namesake of his Museum Park restaurant. There he learned of his family’s influence on the local culinary and barbecue scene in Texas, and later, while working in Kendleton with his nonprofit, he became aware of his family’s roots in Kendleton, the small Fort Bend County town of 342, that reached back to Reconstruction. Both instances have helped provide a road map of connections to explore over the next two years, he says.
Stewart, who co-wrote the cookbook Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island and whose work has been published in various outlets, including Eater and the New York Times, said she first visited Lucille’s in college with her family. It was only after graduate school in New York, when her food writing took her to the South, that she found herself profiling Willaims for the Southern Foodway Alliance. “Something clicked” collaboratively, she says.
With Williams seeking to turn his great-grandmother Lucille’s treasure chest of recipes into a modern piece of work, and their common interests in travel and expanding the definition of Black food, “it was clear that we would work on something together, and we just hadn’t seen a story about Black Texas,” Stewart says.
Now, the Black Texas project is underway, with plans to compile a combination of recipes that people can cook through and stories that further illustrate the foodways of the Black community in the South, Stewart says. (Lucille’s famed chili biscuits, which are served at her namesake restaurant, will be included.)
Williams says he and Stewart plan to further map out their journey in December and will begin the bulk of their research in March 2023. Traveling and sitting down with Texas residents will be essential parts of their work over the next several months.
“The only way you can develop real empathy is when you’re sitting there breaking bread with them, and breaking their bread, which contains their culture in it, and there’s so much history that goes into it,” Williams says. “... I’m excited about getting to know Texas better.”
Black Texas is slated to publish in two years with Ten Speed Press.
“We hope to share the many other stories from recipes from Lucille’s, what she was cooking in that era, what Black food has evolved from, and where we are today,” Stewart says. “We’re excited to give an overview of the state and its culture of Black food.”