In May 2019, Dr. Joseph H. Ward‘s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, both born and reared in the Midwest, came home to Wilson. Zella Palmer FaceTimed me as she and her mother Alice Roberts Palmer stood outside David G.W. Ward‘s house near Stantonsburg, the house in which Joseph Ward’s mother Mittie Ward and grandmother Sarah Ward toiled while enslaved. D.G.W. Ward was the father of at least three of Sarah Ward’s children, including Mittie. Joseph Ward’s father, Napoleon Hagans, who lived not far away in Wayne County, was my great-great-grandmother’s brother, and thus Cousin Alice and Zella are my people. I was so grateful to be able to share, even if remotely, the tangle of emotions the Palmers felt as they stood on ancestral ground. But who knew there was more to come for Zella in Wilson?
This week, Zella announced that the cookbook she wrote with Wilson’s own barbecue pitmaster extraordinaire Ed Mitchell and his son Ryan Mitchell is now available for pre-order on Amazon, with a publication date of June 2023! Zella is chair of Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture in New Orleans and passionately committed to preserving Black foodways. Who better to capture the family stories and recipes of my father’s old friend Ed Mitchell? And who better than I to provide source material and to introduce the world to Black Wilson at the book’s opening?
My gratitude goes to Ed Mitchell, who has long stood in the gap for the preservation of eastern North Carolina food culture (and respect and recognition for its practitioners and purveyors); to Ryan Mitchell, whose True Made Foods embodies the spirit of sankofa; and to my cousin Zella Palmer, who drew me into this project and showed love and grace when I missed deadlines as I struggled to find words during my father’s illness.
“In his first cookbook, … Ed explores the tradition of whole-hog barbeque that has made him famous. It’s a method passed down through generations over the course of 125 years and hearkens back even further than that, to his ancestors who were plantation sharecroppers and, before that, enslaved. Ed is one of the few remaining pitmasters to keep this barbeque tradition alive, and in Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque, he will share his methods for the first time and fill in the unwritten chapters of the rich and complex history of North Carolina whole-hog barbeque.”
Y’all — get your orders in!