On the night of April 4, 1938, Clara Smart of Bo Peep Crossroads, in Hampton County, S.C., gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl. The midwife emerged from the birthing room to inform the father, Frank Smart, and the maternal grandmother, Sula Ritter, of the condition of the mother and children. Her words were these: “Da boy da weight like little ov’r a five-pound bag gah sugar (6 pounds); the gal da weight like a five pound bag gah sugar little ov’r
half full (3 pounds). The boy dead and the gal ‘bout ta dead.”
These words prompted Sula into action. She wrapped the baby girl
in a blanket and placed her in a shoe box. Then she placed the pasteboard box
on two slats of the oven door of her wood-burning kitchen stove to prevent it
from scorching while providing the warmth of an improvised incubator.
Family and neighbors came to visit Clara and to see the baby
in a shoe box. Because she had a short body and long limbs, someone remarked
that she looked like a kuta (a turtle in Gullah), a name that has stuck with
her to this day. Clara suffered birthing fever and was unable to nurse her
daughter, so Sula fed the baby goat’s milk through a sterilized glass eye
dropper. The resilient infant, Vertamae Smart, survived.
In 1956, 18-year-old Vertamae Smart, a Gullah-Geechee girl,
6 feet tall with a flat nose and full lips, sailed to Paris to face another
test of her resiliency. Many factors led up to this astounding point in the
life of a child who just 18 years past was “’bout ta dead.”
When she was 10, her family moved to Philadelphia, where Estella
Smart, her paternal grandmother, had migrated years before. It was a difficult
adjustment. Vertamae was teased, taunted and made fun of because of her Gullah
dialect and country mannerisms. To protect her from being tormented, her parents
sheltered her, not allowing her to have visitors or to socialize with other
children. She was allowed to go the library, an institution she still relishes.
She read books that took her to faraway places and other periods of time,
quickly exhausting the children’s section.
Vertamae developed a keen imagination as a means of escape. She
read adult books about places around the world, and Paris captured her imagination.
Estella Smart, herself a strong woman Vertamae later wrote about for an anthology
called “Picturing Us,” encouraged her to learn about other people and other cultures.
Her parents were astonished by her talk of visiting Paris; they didn’t take her
seriously, but they didn’t begrudge her this fantasy, either. Vertamae was so
serious about seeing the world that she got a job working as a stock girl in an
upscale Philadelphia department store to save traveling money. During this
time, she was drawn to the bohemian life style of coffee houses, fascinated by the
poetry and intellectual conversation that marked the Beat literary movement of
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Her running buddies
were poet Larry Neal and playwright Charles H. Fuller, a future Pulitzer Prize
winner for “A Soldier’s Play.”
“We were like The Three Musketeers,” she reminisced.
In time, she saved enough money for a ticket on the S.S.
Rotterdam. She booked a hotel room on the Left Bank, where, she had read, the avant-garde
of Paris congregated.
Vertamae left her parents’ household with a basic knowledge
of food preparation and common cooking skills. She had eaten the food cooked by
her grandmothers and her parents – her father cooked – all her life, but she
never imagined where their culinary tradition of Gullah-Geechee cuisine would
After a few months in her new environment in Paris, Vertamae
met sculpture Robert Grosvenor at a party. Later he invited her to his birthday
party, where they discovered they had the same birth date. He helped her acclimate
to her dazzling new lifestyle in Paris, and she fell in love the tall, blue-eyed,
blond artist. They married and returned to America in 1961. They had a daughter
named Kali, and the family settled in a ground-floor garden apartment with a
studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an area teeming with budding artists,
writers, musicians and actors. Now the little Kuta from the Lowcountry swamp of
South Carolina was at the center of an American cultural movement. Intellectuals
and artists gathered at each other’s homes and at popular East Village coffee
houses. She moved among an intellectually stimulating coterie, which nurtured
her desire to exercise her own creativity. She took acting lessons in a class
taught by a young actor named Lou Gossett and landed a part in “Mandingo,” a
Broadway play that lasted three days.
She couldn’t attend many of the
gatherings because it was difficult to find a baby sitter, so she started hosting
them more often at their apartment, opening two separate doors: Her imaginative
banquets got noticed and she decided to find an outlet for her creativity. After
much thought, she chose writing. Vertamae knew she had a gift because she had
received countless compliments on the witty notes she sent to friends, but what
could she write about? She borrowed a
typewriter and started writing about what she knew best: food and her
Meanwhile, her marriage ended.
By the time her second daughter, Chandra, was born in 1963,
Vertamae was part of the “Arkestra” of eccentric jazz band leader Sun Ra, who claimed
to hail from the planet Saturn. She and several other space goddesses adorned
the stage, dancing and reacting while Sun Ra and the band rendered cosmic tunes
such as “Galactic Voyage” and “Supernova.” In addition to their work on the
stage, the goddesses created the colorful futuristic costumes they, Sun Ra and
his band members wore.
In 1969, Vertamae and her daughters left for France, where
she met old friends who took them to Italy and Spain. Later that year, a friend
who discovered that 8-year-old Kali had written a collection of poems took the
collection to another friend, an editor at Doubleday Publishing. While talking
with Kali, the editor discovered that Vertamae had written an autobiographical
cookbook. Thus was born “Vibration Cooking: The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.”
The book, published in 1970, chronicles her journey from the swamp lands of
South Carolina to the glitter of Paris, Italy and Spain. It focuses on
Gullah-Geechee cooking and stresses improvisation in the kitchen. Vertamae
teaches her readers to ad-lib instead of measuring ingredients exactly – to
make do with what you’ve got.
Her oldest daughter is also a published writer. “Poems by
Kali: A Little Black Girl Speaks Her Mind”
was dedicated to the four girls killed in the bombing at the Sixteenth
Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
Although she has traveled the world and written several
other popular cookbooks, Vertamae is best known for her work in radio. In the
early 1980s, she received a phone call from Debra Amos, an assistant producer
for National Public Radio, requesting that she tape a New Year’s commentary for
the network. Vertamae’s untrained but natural radio voice and creative savvy
triggered her appointment as an NPR contributor. She hosted a succession of
different programs for NPR, delving into subjects ranging from food and culture
to exploring African-American history, communities and personalities. Only the
heartless can come away from her telling of “Slave Voices: Things Past Telling”
with dry eyes. When you hear it, you will know instantly why she has won every
award radio has to offer. Vertamae Grosvenor is so intimately rooted within the
personality sphere of the African-American creative community that she was an
honorary pallbearer for James Baldwin and gave the following illuminating and
humorous eulogy for her old friend Nina Simone at the Abyssinian Baptist Church
in Harlem, N.Y., in April 2003.
“I talked to her on
the phone one afternoon before she was going on tour. She asked what I was
“I’m just cooking.”
“What you cooking?”
“I’m just cooking some
rice and greens; some black-eyed peas and some chicken.”
“Fix me a plate and
I’ll take it on the plane.”
“So she came by the
house in her limo. Now the day before I had been to a thrift shop and bought
this beautiful lace duster. So I was cooking with the duster on – I thought I
was cute. Nina came in and I had the plate fixed, but she kept looking, so I
“That duster. I need
that duster for a song.”
“I just bought this
duster yesterday. Besides I’m taller than you and it will drag”
“That’s just what the
I took the duster off
my back and gave it to her. She said that she would mail it back.
“How are you going to
heat up this food on the plane?”
“I’m in … first class.”
Vertamae was an advisor and an actress in two movies: Julie
Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and Oprah Winfrey’s production of Toni
Morrison’s “Beloved.” In “Daughters,” she played the role of a hair braider and
served as a food and language consultant. She did her job so well that in one
scene she is seen plucking a slaughtered chicken – a real chicken. The movie’s
20th anniversary will be marked with a two-day symposium hosted by the College
of Charleston Avery Center for African-American History and Culture Sept. 16
and Sept. 17.
Vertamae was a food consultant for “Beloved.” A comment she
made in jest about having her actors’ union card on her landed her the role of
Grace in the film.
In 2008, this renaissance child of the Lowcountry had a
brain aneurysm while working for NPR in Washington, D.C. She eventually moved
back to the Lowcountry, where she is recuperating and approaching a full
recovery – and, of course, writing and planning her return to radio.