While Living Abroad, Hosting Dinners Brings Me Back To My Black Southern Roots

When you are outside of your culture, it’s important to develop rituals that remind you of home.

As a booze writer, I love to find interesting and obscure stories, especially about Black folks that I can bring to life.

One story I stumbled across in my research was that of Bertie “Birdie” Brown, a notorious Black moonshiner in Fergus County, Montana. It was rumored that her “white lightning” was some of the best in the area. Even before Prohibition, the locals were familiar with her moonshine. Not only was it a smooth sip, but it was safe to drink, which was a major concern during this era—as a bad batch could lead to blindness or death. Not much is known about Brown, but she was born in Missouri and then settled in her homestead in Brickyard Creek in the early 1900s. So, when Prohibition became the law of the land, many turned a blind eye to Brown’s illegal brewing activity. She was the queen of hospitality, setting up her parlor as a drinking den for those who wanted to drink and party without the watchful eye of the tax agents.

Saint Liberty Whiskey honors Bertie Brown with a bottle named after her.

Brown and I have a lot of things in common. I left home at the age of 17 from Missouri to make my path in the world. While I’m currently based in Berlin, I have lived in London, Prague, Belfast, Cork, Marrakech and Sighisoara, Romania. While I’m not a bootlegger (I did have bootleggers in my family though), I do make boozy things at home. And just like Brown, I love to invite people over for soirees and serve the food and drinks I witnessed when I was a child. When I used to go back down south to visit, my Aunt Judy would cook so much food to make sure everyone was well-fed and left her house with a to-go plate. And my mother would always feed the kids in my neighborhood when I was growing up. No matter who you were, there was always a plate ready for anyone hungry. 

Once I started traveling abroad in 2014, I missed the foods that reminded me of home and my Southern roots. I was also feeling a little isolated. The problem was, I never learned how to cook all the southern food that I grew up with like collard greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pie. I was young and foolish, but now I wish I paid attention when my mom used to try to teach me how to cook, as my mom is now getting older and does not cook as much when I visit. And being abroad, I can’t just watch her in the kitchen like I used to. So, I decided to start learning on my own. I ask her for recipes, and she tells me how she makes it on our weekly calls; I then write them down for later usage.

My dinner parties began in 2015, while I was living in Ireland. Being that the only thing I actually learned how to cook growing up was fried chicken, I started there. Most Irish people have only had fried chicken in the form of  KFC. They loved mine and were very keen on hearing about and tasting other traditional soul food. It opened up endless conversation. I never had the desire to cook much until now—living abroad and far away from the States. Ironically, I feel closer to my roots than ever before.

Bottles of homemade Sloe Gin for friends.

As I navigate dinner parties abroad, my family plays a big, motivating role, but, naturally, so does Brown’s legacy. She’s the auntie in my mind whose history feels intertwined with my own. I also think back to things I read about cocktail parties that came into play once the Volstead Act became law and Prohibition started. I think about all the cocktail parties that popped up to replace bars. Although many were for drinking and debauchery, a few became like a salon where creative folks gathered to drink and talk about topics that affected them during this era. A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, used to host fabulous parties in her Harlem townhouse that attracted notable Black Harlem Renaissance figures like Langston Hughes, Florence Mills and Paul Robeson. I wanted my home to be like that: a place for drinks, food and conversation. 

When you are outside of your culture, it’s important to develop rituals that remind you of home. It’s not just about the food offered at my home but the cocktails as well. Being that I write a lot about booze, my home bar has always been overflowing with bottles and books. Although I have the skills to make drinks, I typically hate making them as I prefer to go sit at a bar, chatting to the bartenders about drinks and flavors. But for friends, I love crafting inventive cocktails. I often make drinks to go, especially during the pandemic when bars were all closed, and we had to shelter at home. Over the years, I learned to make ginger beer to make a tasty dark and stormy, and other boozy things that guests could use to make a cocktail at home. I’ll make a Negroni or Old Fashioned because you can never go wrong with those two classics. Or I’ll give samples of my homemade sloe gin, a liqueur that comes from infusing sloe berries, sugar and high-proof gin that’s popular in the UK. 

The more comfortable I get with cooking, the more I try my hand at making other classic southern dishes like red beans and rice. I’m making progress: My Irish friend group loves my sweet potato pie and fried chicken so much that I now give cooking lessons so they’re able to make these dishes when I’m not around. I moved on to other dishes like mac and cheese—I’m not going to lie, this still needs work—but the thing about cooking is you get a little better with each try. Most things are more miss than hit, but I have made it my mission, just like Brown, to create spaces for breaking bread, sharing drinks and embracing culture.


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