On the corner of Holliday and Saratoga Streets of Downtown Baltimore, Maryland, Ida B’s Table offers comfort in a section of the city more known for Mercy Hospital and City Hall than restaurant row. It’s in this location that Maryland native Chef David Thomas and his family bring an old concept presented a new way, serving what he calls “modern soul food.”
When discussing “soul food,” it’s important to understand the historical context and how it came about. The phrase was popularized during the black power movement in the 1960s, and is commonly thought of as a plate of fried chicken, greens and ham. But it is really much more than that; the style of cooking originated during American slavery and has impacted every corner of the country’s landscape. Cooking is about culture and community, but for enslaved people it was also about survival.
“Through the horrors of the Middle Passage and bondage in North America, generations of slaves preserved and created culinary traditions that remain strong today,” says scholar Christina Regelski in an article for the United States History Scene. “Southern food reminds Americans of this difficult past, but it can also help us understand it and respect it.”
Through food and community Ida B’s Table is reassessing the definition of soul food and encouraging guests to enjoy delicious meals that fight against the stereotype that the food is limited to only the unhealthy and fried. Thomas invites guests to honor the important soul food heritage with a preference for non-GMO and organic foods and locally-sourced produce and proteins when possible such as blue catfish with cheddar faro risotto or slow-braised beef short rib on a root vegetable mash.
“You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from…”
Walking into the restaurant through the building’s original gold-plated doors, there is a sense of history and pride with a touch of modernity from the exposed brick. Colorful Ernest Shaw paintings of Nina Simone, Sun Ra and Paul Robeson, as well as moments in black and white photos—a young girl playing with her horse, boys at the confectionary shop, and African American waterman bringing in the catch of the day—line the walls at Ida B’s Table. These scenes of regular, everyday lives of the Baltimore African-American community were captured by the Phillips family who have been making images in Baltimore for seventy years.
Wafts of Ida B’s Hot Chicken, pimento cheese risotto, and buttermilk biscuits welcome you in as you make your way to the high top tables. At any point on a weekend, notes of blues, jazz and soul can be heard pouring out of the restaurant by local musicians.
Recalling a historical time when some of the most important minds of the twentieth century—such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Jessica Harris, Richie Havens, Paule Marshall, and Toni Morrison—some of the notable New York black intelligentsia of the day would dine, dance and discuss the important political and cultural happenings. So too does Ida B’s Table have the early beginnings of such important connection and discussion in Baltimore. Through the main dining room the sound of dignitaries and activists in passionate conversations can be heard, as well as friends diving into meaningful discussions. This is a place honoring the revolutionaries of the past and providing a seat for the change-makers of the present.
“You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from,” Thomas says of his intentions with his new restaurant, which opened in September 2017. “You look at slaves who really started this cuisine in the U.S. You can call it southern food, barbecue, Creole. It all derived from slaves.”
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Some of Thomas’ favorite dishes are the fry-bread tacos, an homage to the Native American staple and for his grandmother who was Blackfoot Indian. He introduces this meal in a modern way, from the traditional fried animal fat into a form that resembles a soft shell taco with curry aioli and fresh kale. Southern-food historian Michael Twitty inspired Thomas to create his own version of trough mush in his blackened scallops special, which has the perfect kick of spice.
Thomas’ venture into soul food is nothing new; he was serving similar creative dishes at his former restaurant, Herb & Soul, in Parkville, Maryland. What differentiates his new endeavor is the depths to which he is going to change the perception of soul food—efforts evidenced in the name of the restaurant.
Ida B. Wells was a passionate crusader against oppression who was born in Mississippi six months before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and the country was in notable upheaval. Wells was orphaned at sixteen years old when her parents died from Yellow Fever, leaving her to take care of her other siblings. While on a train ride the crew tried to move Wells to a car for African Americans. After refusing to move on principle, she was forcibly removed from the train, but not before biting a man’s hand.
This injustice was one of the catalysts to Wells’ career as a journalist covering issues of race and politics in the South. Case after case of racial injustices, Wells defended the rights of African-American children, businessmen and especially women with her reporting. Her life was threatened multiple times and her office was even set on fire, but she never quit. Wells fought against prejudice no matter what dangers she might have been threatened with and left behind a legacy of social and political heroism.
It’s this history that is at the backbone of Thomas’ latest Baltimore restaurant. “If Ida B. were looking at the world through the lens of food, how would she approach it? Then I thought about how I look at food and what I’ve always been curious about in terms of this soul food thing,” he tells me. “What’s the next step? For me that was modern soul food.”
Thomas explains a desire to go back in time in order to go forward. “I thought I am not worthy to use that woman’s name and do what I’ve kind of always done,” Thomas says. “Local sustainability is a thing, but I didn’t think it was a powerful enough message.”
Wells is not the only woman in Thomas’ life who has made an impact on him and served as a leading lady in this new restaurant. As a young boy, Thomas would watch his grandmother make biscuits and root beer in the kitchen at her home in Jonestown, a historic African-American community where slaves migrated to, now called Howard County.
“We lived in Anne Arundel County and we would go up there on the weekend like all black families did. It became a ritual for me just to watch her,” Thomas says. “I would say, ‘Grandma, when I grow up I’m going to cook just like you.’”
Thomas and his wife, Tonya (who manages front of house), considered every detail; each fork is picked out with intention, and each farm was chosen for a purpose. One of the many local farms Thomas sources from is Gaithers Gardens, a family-owned African American farm originally purchased in 1879 by Jeremiah Gaither. For 138 years this farm has provided fresh okra, tomatoes, eggplant, and other produce to the local and national community. Now it is down to ten acres and Eugene Gaither is taking on his great great grandfather’s farming tradition to preserve the family legacy and serve the community. This property is one of the few remaining African American farms in the country.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, African Americans now account for less than one percent of the nation’s farmers. Both Gaither and Thomas see education as the answer in helping to preserve farms as well as foster a healthier society. For the past five years, Thomas and Tonya have been educating children in Baltimore elementary schools through Days of Taste, a local program encouraging children to appreciate the taste and benefits of fresh food by introducing them to basic elements of taste, and teaching them about food’s journey from farm to table.
In such a short amount of time, Ida B’s Table is already setting a high standard for what kind of impact a restaurant can make on its community and has brought together some truly groundbreaking people. Twitty hosted an educational dinner there, Michelle Duster (Ida B Well’s great granddaughter) and Danny Glover attended the grand opening, and local artist Ernest Shaw was commissioned to paint a portrait of Ida B. Wells for the restaurant. Front of House Manager Cassandra Bailey (who is known as Mama Cass to many) is proud of the community that is cultivated at Ida B’s Table and gives multiple hugs throughout their shifts. “This is a family,” she says. “Families have differences, families figure it out, families move forward.”
Tonya, who was born and raised in Baltimore, feels proud of the city’s resilience and hopes Ida B’s Table can bring a lost light to the community. She wants the restaurant to “be a part of strengthening of Baltimore, especially in the black community. It’s a generation that is getting lost in a history that was here before. They don’t know a lot of it. Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore was a strong community and it was an avenue where black businesses were thriving.”
With the opening of Ida B’s Table and other growing businesses, Tonya feels thankful to be a part of the community that’s lifting each other up. “We’re all here together for the same thing. If we can show that between the people who come here and things we try to bring to this space, we can help be a step forward in a lot of things here in the city.”