Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

Photo by Stan Barouh

African American, Foodways, Ethnography, Media Production

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Hon*


Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor was a multimedia performer and culinary griot, specializing in the food and culture traditions of Gullah people. She shared her insights as a journalist on National Public Radio, Public Television, and through numerous magazine articles and books.

Vertamae Smart, the 3-lb. surviving twin born prematurely in the South Carolina Low Country in 1937, was warmed in a shoebox by a woodburning oven. She was raised in Philadelphia by her parents, Frank and Clara Smart. As a teenager who was ridiculed for her Gullah ways, Smart learned to cook in the style of her paternal grandmother, Estella Smart. In 1958, at age 19, she sailed to Paris to develop her artistic talents and found acceptance among expatriate artists of the Beat Generation. She came into her own while traveling throughout Europe, and began a career of writing about culture through the lens of food and a lifelong tradition of hosting dinner parties for friends. After marrying sculptor Robert Grosvenor, she eventually settled in New York’s East Village, performing as an actress on Broadway, in film, and as a dancer, costume designer and frequent cook for Sun Ra’s Solar-Myth Arkestra, all while continuing to write and to host dinners for Black artists. Multitalented, Smart-Grosvenor also participated in the Black Power and Black Arts Movements, and the culinary revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. 

With her professional success, Smart-Grosvenor became a heralded public radio contributor and host, producing documentaries, Slave Voices (1983) and award-winning Daufuskie: Never Enough Too Soon (1990), and hosting NPR’s Horizons series (1988-1995). She earned a James Beard award for Seasonings (1996), a radio series of holiday food specials, which led to two PBS series: The Americas’ Family Kitchen, and later, Vertamae Cooks. 

Smart-Grosvenor is particularly acclaimed for her groundbreaking writings about her travels, food, and Gullah culture. Her first book, Vibration Cooking (1970), connected memoir with recipes from her heritage and travels to showcase the power of food to reminisce, bond people, signal identity, and make social commentary, earning her the moniker of an unsung godmother of American food writing. By reclaiming and transforming the pejorative term “Geechee” into a positive identity, and promoting the breadth of African American culinary knowledge and experiences, she dismantled historical gender stereotypes of Black women cooks and offered a more equitable view of African American gendered culinary knowledge and expertise. She also wrote a pioneering study of the experiences of Black domestics (1972).

Smart-Grosvenor won numerous awards for her professional work including a Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of New Hampshire, and a National Association of Journalists Award.  

Among her publications are:

Vibration Cooking: Or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (1970)

Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap (1972)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)