Harlem Renaissance author, Zora Neale Hurston, characterizes her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the US, as “what you might call hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick,” a metaphor that captures the creativity, beauty and vibrancy of the black vernacular tradition which Hurston as a folklorist, anthropologist, playwright, short story writer, and novelist celebrated throughout her literary career. Numerous scholars, writers, and students study, research and honor Hurston’s legacy, and, after discovering Eatonville Restaurant and its founder’s vision for it, I must add to this list, restauranteurs. Andy Shallal, an Iraqi American, artist and activist who owns several restaurants in the DC metropolitan area, opened Eatonville almost a year ago and features upscale Southern cuisine, murals by local artists, and an atmosphere that reflects Hurston’s vivacity.
I have to credit Shallal with further opening my eyes to the idea that teaching does not have to be limited to the four walls of a classroom. So organizing a field trip to Eatonville Restaurant for the thirteen students in my African American Literature course brought me enormous joy and satisfaction. We’d just finished studying everything from Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road to folktales that she collected as an anthropologist like “Why Women Take Advantage of Men” and “I’ll Betcha Makin’ Money” to “Sweat,” one of her most well known short stories. We also viewed Jump At the Sun, perhaps the most thorough documentary about her personal and scholarly life. Students then took a take-home test on the unit, and were, perhaps, sick of Hurston by the time I surprised them with the announcement that our next 70-minute period would be an outing to Eatonville Restaurant. To keep it educational, I framed this field trip as follows: “we are not only going there to eat some good food, but we are also going to look closely at the decor and dissect the murals that cover the walls of the restaurant to see how much of her life you can read from them.”
Two days later, we boarded a school bus for Eatonville, arrived 15 minutes later, introduced ourselves to a gracious manager/coordinator, sat at a gorgeously set table, reviewed the menu, placed our orders, and, guided by another manager, toured the restaurant. Students recognized a lot in the murals, “That one right there is about Voodoo”. . . “And those are the men down in Polk Country working on the railroad.” Students even picked up on statements made by the tour guide that contradicted what they had learned from the documentary but were polite enough to discuss it among themselves rather than challenge him. More than that, they didn’t want anything to delay them getting to their food.
Shortly after the tour was over, our food was ready. Students dined on fried green tomatoes and cornbread for appetizers, they followed up with cheeseburgers, shrimp Creole, oyster po’ boys, fried chicken, and loads and loads of ribs. I was in search of a meatless option, and, at my good friend Angel’s suggestion, I had the Cajun mushroom loaf, a vegetarian alternative to meat loaf that I thoroughly enjoyed. The thick, hearty slices of loaf glazed with a tangy, chipotle sauce topped a plate of garlic mashed potatoes and came with a side of braised collard greens. But exclamations like “wow, I’m lovin’ this mushroom loaf” only drew taunts from my students, like ”go ‘head and have some ribs Ms. Mondie. . .you know you want some. . .we won’t tell nobody.” We laughed and washed down whatever dishes had brought us joy with mason jars full of ice tea and lavender lemonade.
We had a great time expanding the walls of our classroom for one sunny, Thursday afternoon. And if we don’t totally get all of the nuances of Hurston’s expression, we seem to all agree that “Eatonville (restaurant) was like hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick.”