I sat down with Caroline Randall Williams to chat about her new Discovery+ series, Hungry for Answers, where she travels the United States uncovering the fascinating, essential and often untold Black stories behind American food. Born and raised in Nashville, Williams is a writer, poet, educator and activist who was introduced to traditional soul food during childhood by her grandmother, “an old school southern black lady,” Williams describes, who often dined on roasted chicken, baked fish and sweet potato. “I had a student say to me one time, ‘Ms. Williams, you eat like a White girl,’” Williams recalls to Urbaanite. “I was like, ‘no, I eat like an old Black lady.’”
Caroline’s Journey to the Food Network
In 2010, Williams was a teacher through Teach For America while living in the Mississippi Delta. It was during this time she met Academy Award winning actress Viola Davis and her activist husband Julius Tennon at a party for Teach For America while living in Greenwood, MS where Davis and the rest of the cast were filming The Help. In 2015, Williams and her mother, acclaimed local author Alice Randall, collaborated on the NAACP Image Award winning cookbook Soul Food Love, featuring a century’s worth of recipes passed down from four generations of Black women. “We co-wrote this book in the spirit of trying to think about Black health and wellness and history and traditions,” Williams narrates. “My mom and I really wrote that book as an act of will and social justice and a desire for change and also looking to the past in order to change to say ‘I want to talk about where we’ve actually been.’”
After launching their own production company, JuVee Productions, Davis and Tennon reached out to Williams to inquire if she’d be interested in fronting a show. Soon after, they got a call from the Food Network interested in picking up a cooking show featuring Williams. In light of the powerful opinion piece she penned for the New York Times in 2020 titled, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument,” Williams created the concept of Hungry For Answers, centered around conversations about Black food. “I said to them ‘only if I can cuss and wear black,’” she laughs of pitching the concept. “My mom says in the cookbook, ‘we deal in the real.’ Food is a way to tell bigger picture stories about who we are, where we’ve been and where we want to go.”
Hungry for Answers
In the four-episodes series streaming now on Discovery+, Williams travels the country telling the stories of Black food, ranging from the origins of Nashville hot chicken to exploring the connection between America’s sugar addiction and slavery. Williams was intentional about asking “really hard questions about cultural appropriation versus appreciation and really shedding some light on some history that has been wrong and seemingly permanently swept under the rug,” she explains. “I am somebody who likes to shine a light into the dark and who likes to do it in a way that invites people to speak more collaboratively to one another.” Among the tough questions she asks throughout the series is “who gets to cook Black food?” and “what does it actually mean to cook a dish that is not of your people and then profit from it?” She explores these topics in the first episode, sitting down with André Prince Jeffries, owner of Prince’s Hot Chicken, along with Hattie B’s founder Nick Bishop and Party Fowl co-owner Austin Smith, to discuss the Black origins of hot chicken in Music City. Williams also ventures up the road to Lynchburg, TN to visit the Jack Daniels Distillery and meet with Fawn Weaver, chief historian of Uncle Nearest Premium Whisky, unveiling the truth behind the involuntary relationship between Nearest, the brilliant man and former slave who was forced to teach Daniels how to make the famous Tennessee whiskey. In the midst of these hard-hitting conversations is progress, which Williams witnessed when Bishop expressed a desire to sit down with Jeffries and have an open conversation in an effort to “model positive change,” providing the show’s host with a renewed sense of hope.
“One of the things that was reinforced for me on a personal level was that people are prepared to be pushed harder than you think if the spirit that you come to the table with is one of actually trying to get somewhere instead of “catch them out,” Williams observes. “I think that in this world, in this moment, just because somebody’s got a different set of goals than we do, we’ve lost our ability to sit down and talk with them and believe that perhaps we can get to some consensual reality around what’s going on here and go forward together. I learned in the show that there is more capacity for that than I sometimes cynically would think – and it gave me some hope.”
Location: Germantown Inn
Photographer: Si Miller
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