116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For many Black restaurant owners, Black history isn’t just something celebrated during the shortest month of the year — it’s a lived experience practiced by hand every single day.
At LaToya Wright’s home in Cedar Rapids, Black history can be heard when oil sizzles in a small countertop fryer. As she cooks fried chicken wings every week with her three children, she is ensuring her favorite food as a child becomes her kids’ favorite meal.
“It brings me peace,” she said as she waited for the last batch of wings to float to the top of the oil. In her home, the quiet moments are the ones after the chicken is done.
As she shook the chicken in a bag full of breading ingredients, she remembered how she fell in love with cooking. As a child, she learned to watch for the reactions when others tasted her mother’s food.
With a heavy hand for seasoning she inherited from her mom, Wright continues to do that at home and at work in Leafy Bar, her restaurant at Lindale Mall.
It’s a way of life her kids have picked up, too. When the Kool-Aid for dinner was complimented, the kids squabbled over who, in fact, should get credit for making it.
“The smell of cooking makes me over the moon,” said her daughter, Calee Wright, 9.
Wright passes on her love in hopes that her children will some day take over the restaurant.
The National Restaurant Association in 2020 estimated that 8 percent of U.S. restaurants are Black-owned.
Safe spaces like Wright’s home were what Carol Cater-Simmons and Chad Simmons wanted to recreate when they opened SugaPeach in North Liberty six years ago.
Natives of Georgia and Illinois, respectively, it didn’t make sense to them that they couldn’t find any type of soul food where they lived.
“We realized there’s value in people having a space to feel comfortable and welcome in,” Simmons said. “Traditionally, in the history of African Americans, we got to know people through breaking bread.
“We wanted it to be a space where people could be real and authentic and be themselves, regardless of who they were and where they’re from.”
It hasn’t been easy keeping the restaurant going while balancing the artistry of Cater-Simmons’ soul food with the practicality of business. Ingredients like collard greens, okra, black-eyed peas and certain seasonings have been procured through long drives, retail partnerships and ingenuity.
“The way that we leverage our culture and, in essence, how we share our culture with others — that’s what defines soul food. The food itself is not so unique. The way it’s delivered is what makes it special.”
In doing so, they’ve done more than provide a different cuisine in predominantly white Eastern Iowa — they’ve provided comfort for those far from the home and built bridges to the Black experience.
Soul food can be scary to some people and difficult to explain, they said. That’s why at SugaPeach, actions speak louder than words to convey the meaning of a cuisine.
“When they’re skeptical, first they try the food,” Simmons said. “(Then) it’s not really about race. It really is how they’re experiencing our culture. And our culture is that you’re part of our family, and we’re going to treat you that way.”
Soul food is not all that different from Southern cuisine, but the way it makes you feel is, Cater-Simmons and Simmons believe. For those insulated from Black culture or who haven’t had the chance to spend time with Black folks, the menu offers that connection.
“As a Black person, food is everything to me. No matter where I was in life, that was the one thing that brought me out of where I was sinking in.”
Cater-Simmons’s favorite food growing up was her mother’s extra cheesy macaroni and cheese. Simmons’ was the savory cornbread his grandmother would let him sneak a slice of before she used the rest for stuffing.
Today, they pass on those memories by being friendly educators on what collard greens are, or staying after closing to ensure a family has enough to eat when their kids drop the food on the floor.
Southern cuisine is the vehicle. Soul food is the make of the car, Simmons’ said.
“The way that we leverage our culture and, in essence, how we share our culture with others — that’s what defines soul food,” he said. “The food itself is not so unique. The way it’s delivered is what makes it special.”
They pass on their heritage because learning how to take care of someone else builds character. Cooking collard greens, a five- to seven-hour venture, allows for much more than a side dish at dinner.
“It helps develop who you are,” Cater-Simmons said.
“If you’re teaching someone,” Simmons said, “you have a lot of time to talk to them about things around life that they need to know to thrive and survive. Cooking allows that.”
Means of survival
“If you can cook, people will always pay for what they like,” she said.
Her passion for food came from its association with joyful Sunday afternoons spent with family, card games, loud music, laughing and dancing.
“Food, in any culture, brings multiple levels of living and life,” Madden said. “As a Black person, food is everything to me. No matter where I was in life, that was the one thing that brought me out of where I was sinking.”
She passes the love for food on to her children as a means of family stability, both physically and emotionally.
Passion the key
Patrick Rashed, the owner of Caribbean Kitchen in NewBo City Market, lives a life his grandfather only could have dreamed of in Jamaica, where he sold fried fish at soccer fields to stave off poverty.
Though Rashed has pursued a number of talents in his life, including national-level gymnastics and a master’s degree in social work, he always comes back to cooking. Not because he has to, but because it’s the passion that sustains him.
He continues the tradition of his mother and grandfather who cooked outdoors -- not for fun, but because they had no kitchen.
On his menu today are favorites from his childhood like the beef patty he ate with sweet coca bread and the vegetarian dishes he learned to make at age 12, when he worked at a Jamaican restaurant in New York.
For about 75 cents, a beef patty would fill him up for most of the day. Now, he charges $5 for them.
“Making something special out of food came out of poverty,” he said.
For African Americans and those from the Caribbean diaspora, Rashed said food gives a sense of identity, a tie to history and a sense of ownership in the world.
For Black restaurant owners in particular, it’s the passion that sustains them as much as their sales.
“Without passion, you will always struggle, no matter what you’re doing,” Rashed said. “I was the only one I could depend on. But because of my passion, I did what I had to do to get back on my feet.”
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