“Hail Storm” shows importance of Black chef in southern culinary innovation

Photo courtesy of Lance Warren.
Photo courtesy of Lance Warren.

There isn’t anything particularly new about Shola Walker’s bakery, Mahogany Sweets. She says she’s a “manifestation” of the work of John Dabney, a renowned 19th century Richmond chef.  

Walker participated in a panel discussion about “Hail Storm: John Dabney in Virginia,” a film by Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren of Field Studio, a documentary production company, at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia on Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.

Ayers and Warren said there wasn’t much information available on Dabney when they first learned of him, but what they did read interested them. Ayers said Dabney’s history seemed to “illuminate the nuances” of the 19th century Black experience.

Black chefs such as Dabney developed southern cuisine. Dabney in particular was known for his “hail-storm” mint julep and a recreation of his process is shown in the documentary. Flowers, berries and sprigs of mint decorate the drink.

“We reap the rewards of all of the trailblazing and all of the time and effort [Dabney] put in before us,” Walker said.

Dabney opened a restaurant in the 1870s and was successful despite facing prejudice. Historian Elvatrice Belsches, who participated in the panel, said the extent of Dabney’s wealth isn’t known, but his properties suggest he was economically comfortable. The opportunities presented to his family weren’t typical of the era, Belsches said.

His relationship with White people was complicated; he was admired for his character, but wasn’t respected, recalled his son, whose character is portrayed in the film. When Dabney died in 1900, Richmond’s White newspapers noted his passing. He also purchased a home at 1414 E. Broad St. in 1866, a White neighborhood at the time. Today, it’s the site of an interstate off-ramp.  

Walker said Black people are underrepresented in the culinary field despite the significance of chefs like Dabney. It was important to her to open Mahogany Sweets in an area significant to Black history, which is why the bakery is located in Jackson Ward, Walker said.

“Little kids can come in [the bakery] and say ‘I can do this because I see me now,’” Walker said. “Every time I go into work I feel like it’s just me and my ancestors.”

Belsches provided research for the film. She said she employed a “scorched earth effect,” trying to find as much information as possible on Dabney, emphasizing the difference between “history” and “public history,” which has already been analyzed and distilled to make it accessible.

As a result of her research, Belsches learned more about Dabney’s brief career as a jockey, in addition to the cemetery where he was buried after dying of kidney disease. Due to the weather-beaten status of the headstones, the precise location of his burial couldn’t be found.

“I have known about him, scholars have known about him, for decades,” Belsches said. “But he needed to be brought in a greater way to the public sphere.”

Belsches said new projects and scholarship will come from her research on Dabney.

The 26-minute documentary layers storytelling techniques, showing re-enactments of Dabney’s life, historical documents and interviews with Dabney’s descendents. Much of what is known of Dabney’s life is based on accounts from his son — despite Dabney’s success as a restaurateur and caterer, spending the first 41 years of his life as a slave left him illiterate.  

Walker, whose gluten-free and vegan bakery specializes in southern recipes with a health-conscious twist, says it’s important for Black culinary specialists to continue their work for future generations.

“I’m taking from my history and I am trying my hand at it, I’m trying my version of it,” Walker said. “[Individuals like Dabney] are the reason I’m here.”

“Hail Storm” can be viewed for free at www.hailstormdabney.com.

Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor 

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