How to Feast with Ancestors

Cultural preservationist Gabrielle Carter is reviving traditional Southern foodways on her family's farm in North Carolina.

Text—Tayo Bero
Cover Photo—Shak Oteka
Photos—Nicole Reynolds

Gabrielle E. W. Carter grew up eating extremely well. Her family owns a plot of land—a little under three acres—in Apex, North Carolina, with a large garden that has provided countless beautiful meals. From harvesting sweet potatoes to making wines and barbecue sauces, her family has, for generations, been immersed in the practice and preservation of traditional Southern foodways.

Still, it took years of living in New York City, doing food research, and working alongside other accomplished Black chefs, like James Beard Award winner JJ Johnson, for Carter to see the wealth of knowledge and culture that was right in her own backyard in North Carolina.

“This is very much a lifestyle that has been ever-present but wasn’t at the forefront of my life up until I was an adult and I started to actually recognize what was right in front of me,” she shared over a Zoom call from her home, on a hot mid-August afternoon.

Always fascinated by food culture, Carter started an online journal in 2015 to share stories of being in the garden with her grandfather and uncle, as well as her learnings about things like seed keeping, her family’s history in sharecropping and tenant farming, and their journey through enslavement. She soon began to share other people’s stories, which opened up a whole world of knowledge about Black rural life that she hadn’t previously been exposed to.

After a few years of digging deeper into this research, she began to feel pulled back to Apex. On New Year’s Day in 2018, she rented a minivan, packed it with all her stuff, and left her Brooklyn home, telling only her immediate circle of friends and colleagues.

Gabrielle E.W. Carter and her grandfather, Mayfield Wooard. Photo: D.L. Anderson

“I just took a leap because there’s no way to put it other than I was being called back home,” she says.


A beautiful ritual

Once she returned, Carter took the first step in her journey as a full-time cultural preservationist by filming and archiving her family’s stories. She spent nearly every day in the kitchen or the garden with her grandfather and great-uncle, learning how to make wine and distill brandy.

“Things like that were the tangible things that were being passed on,” she says. “And then there was just such a wealth of non-tangibles that I’m still actively recording.”

On one of those early days back home, Carter witnessed her first hog killing—an intricate undertaking with a rich history in North Carolina food culture.

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Traditionally, the hogs are reared and fattened on local farms and then killed by the farmers. Watching them take an animal they’d reared and turn it into a food source really opened Carter’s eyes to how connected we are—and should be—to our food. It also demonstrated the beauty and expansiveness of the knowledge that was held by the farmers and their families.

“I just remember it was a ritual, it was beautiful,” she says. “It was a process that was being passed down from these elders to these young men and young women who were out there working, and everyone had a job.”


Community and connection

The hog killing Carter observed was done by the family of a farmer who also supplies food for the backyard suppers she hosts periodically on her family’s property. These dinners bring together friends and guests from the local community who share their stories, knowledge, and family histories.

At each of these events, Carter asks the guests to bring something they find personally meaningful, such as photos of their grandparents. These items are placed on an altar that sits on the dinner table.

“I really feel like once you’ve grounded yourself and you feel connected to it in that way,” she says. “It just sets the tone for the rest of the evening.”


The food may be the main event at Carter’s popup dinners, but the storytelling is what makes these events so special. “It’s just such a beautiful exchange of ancestral love, basically. And it really has been healing.”

But amidst the joy of sharing these stories, Carter is also aware that there’s a lot of trauma that is uncovered when these histories are unearthed. Like the rest of the South, North Carolina has its own unique history of slavery and anti-Blackness that is woven into the experiences that are shared at the table.

“I’ve definitely encountered some things that are like, ‘Oh, okay. This is dark,’” she says. “And this is a part of the reality. Back then, [Black] people were not always safe.”

And so part of the discussion, Carter says, becomes about how to bring those traumatic histories into a current context and talk about what safety and community look like for Black rural communities in North Carolina today.

She’s also learned not to overthink those harder moments, which she finds makes it easier for her guests to talk freely about the more difficult parts of the experience. “Just set the table, and the ideas, the conversation, the tone, all of that will happen naturally as the evening unfolds.”

Helping farmers, honouring tradition

Carter and her partner, Derrick Beasley, are also co-founders of Tall Grass Food Box, a community-supported agriculture initiative that helps farmers connect directly with customers by putting their products into a biweekly food subscription service. Carter, Beasley, and their third co-founder, Gerald Harris, put together a box of fresh produce with foods from Black farmers across North Carolina, with each box containing items like assorted leafy greens, eggs, and fresh herbs.

The initiative grew out of the destabilizing impacts of the pandemic on Black farmers, which the group witnessed firsthand. The company is rooted in the culture of Black mutual aid and the ways Black communities have always shown up for each other when there’s a moment of uncertainty, Carter explains.

“If there’s been a death or if there’s been any type of issue, we normally show up with food,” she says. “We just show up and we ask what’s necessary, what’s needed.”


The trio thought TGFB would only last for a little while, a stopgap solution to help farmers during the most difficult parts of the pandemic. But it has continued to thrive, bringing in more than 20 farmers, whom Carter and her partners pay retail prices for their produce.

Legacy and stewardship

Carter’s leap of faith to return to her roots has brought her more successes and new opportunities than she could have anticipated: multiple self-produced short films; features in food blogs and magazines, as well as in the critically acclaimed Netflix series High on the Hog; and the thriving Tall Grass Food Box. And amidst all of that, she’s also taken the time to learn some of the recipes and methods of her ancestors for herself.

One such recipe is her great-grandfather’s barbecue sauce. He was a pitmaster, known in the  community as the go-to person when you wanted to get your pig roasted.

“My mom has memories of my great-grandfather having this huge stack of money that was the money from his barbecue, and he would add to it and put it back under his mattress,” she recalls. “And every time I learn something new about him, I’m blown away because of the  entrepreneurial spirit that he had, that my grandfather has, and what he’s passed down to me.”

Winemaking is also a big family tradition, which she’s picked up since returning home. From scaling her great-uncle Herbert’s grape arbor to collect muscadines to going through the whole process of harvesting the grapes, smashing them, and then witnessing the freshly crushed juice turn into wine over a period of five or six months, “it was just super powerful and empowering,” she says.

Carter’s grandfather and great-grandfather also owned a juke joint—located in a separate house that once sat close to the part of the property where she and her partner now live. “Everybody in the neighbourhood knew about it, and everybody’s got all these vibrant memories of dancing and having a good time,” she says.

She sees a clear link between her family’s old juke joint and the dinners she’s hosting now on the same property. “I absolutely think that that’s the continuation of that same Black joy,” she says.

“Even as our community is changing very quickly, it’s cool to be able to have a part in creating that atmosphere for people to still feel free and feel safe and feel connected to something ancestral.”

Carter’s stewardship of these stories and traditions has led her to reflect on her own legacy. “A big part of the work I do is thinking about what my children and my children’s children will potentially have access to,” she says.

“I wish I had the materials when I was growing up to know that Black Southern rural culture is a cool thing. This is our inheritance.”


Part of preserving that legacy is also protecting the land on which it was built. The state of North Carolina recently acquired a portion of Carter’s family property to put in a highway, which displaced a number of her relatives. She plans to begin raising funds to preserve the rest of the land by planting trees, putting in high tunnels, and adding other features to help counteract what she sees as the erasure of her family’s legacy on the land.

“They put their literal bodies into the soil. So I really want to preserve this space and honour it.”

Tayo Bero is an award-winning culture writer and radio producer based in Toronto. You can find her work in publications like the Guardian, Refinery29, Chatelaine magazine, and the Walrus, as well as on CBC Radio.

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