Steve McIntyre is making a career of whipping up poetry on a plate.
The 27-year-old Mobile, Ala., native gives his French-style fine dining training southern flare at Birmingham’s Eat At Panoptic food truck. Braised oxtails seasoned with the “Cajun Holy Trinity” of onion, bell pepper and celery perched atop a bed of sweet potato gnocchi and shrimp and grits are two of his favorite dishes to craft.
McIntyre moved to Birmingham in 2019 after finishing culinary school in Montgomery to continue his career and train future Black chefs. Before the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down, he hosted cooking classes for the Birmingham Housing Authority.
Cooking is a necessary skill and career path that can be pursued no matter what walk of life you are from, McIntyre said of why he teaches the class. But food is also more than just a sauté of flavors and culture. McIntyre talked about food’s potential to facilitate progress in the South for Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black” series.
“The kitchen table itself is such a humbling place. We can all come in and the little kid becomes the guest of honor if it’s their birthday,” McIntyre said. “Just the joy and pride we have about food in the South is beautiful.”
A lover of food, poetry, politics and Black history, McIntyre says food tells the story of the South. Enslaved people were given the worst and the last of their owner’s leftovers. But they took the scraps and incorporated African cooking techniques to create what is now the region’s finest dishes. McIntyre points to George Washington Carver’s teaching black farmers about crop rotation to aid soil fertility.
He considers soul food the first examples of farm-to-table cooking that still brings, well, souls, together. Elected officials and military members from all over the world are common patrons of Mrs. B’s Home Cooking in Montgomery, near Maxwell Airforce Base. Civil rights organizers strategized at Brenda’s Bar-B-Q Pit.
“You can see a lot of history through our food,” McIntyre said. “Think about your great civil rights leaders and politicians. The kitchen table is important especially in the South because that is where people connect to their representatives or their civic leaders.”
Food has narrated a large part of McIntyre’s life as well. His great grandmother, Fannie, inspired his love of vegetables. They would cook corn, okra, and tomatoes and watch, “The Price is Right.” The comfort of those memories influenced him so much that McIntyre watched the Food Network instead of cartoons when he was younger.
It was his true love — food — that put him on the correct career path after he dropped out of college. While working as a bus boy at the Trellis Room in Mobile, he tried the restaurant’s signature dish – a white truffle risotto.
“Tasting that dish at that moment, I wanted to get serious about being a chef,” McIntyre said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ The way the flavors stacked on top of each other, it was life changing.”
Born and raised in the South, McIntyre pays attention to how his state is changing. He has kept an eye on Alabama’s political map and noticed has more counties are leaning more democratic. He felt a shift in morals as more white people questioned their own racial biases during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
He heard the calls for unity during the election cycle, which gives him mixed emotions as a Black man. He thinks about Langston Hughes’ poem “Dinner Guest Me” and how Black people become responsible for that unity by soothing white guilt.
“It’s like we as Black people always have to be the comforter,” McIntyre said. “We have to be the ones to answer the questions about racial inequality.”
He compares those moments to Langston Hughes’ poem “Dinner Guest Me.” The poet becomes an honored guest at a dinner party hosted by white people who are ashamed of their whiteness. Instead of relishing the savory food, Hughes’ blackness becomes the center of attention as the white hosts pick his brain about how to keep relations between Black and white people peaceful during the Civil Rights Movement.
“My interpretation of the poem is that he wants to enjoy the dinner that is before him,” McIntyre said. “Those issues were very important, but he cannot be the spokesperson for Black people. He can only speak for himself. To them it was questions during a dinner party, but to him it was his life.”
McIntyre found himself in the same position while doing a private chef job. A white woman admitted her shame of perpetuating racism. His advice to her: When you know better, you do better.
“I was like, ‘You can still stand up for inequality. I will stand up because I am a Black man, but you can also shout and you can also do these things, too,’” McIntyre said. “Now you are seeing all these people in the South realizing their way of thinking makes no sense. We still have strides to go but I believe the gears are turning.”
Food can be the centerpiece of reconciliation, he believes. Chefs put their soul into their food. That effort produces a meal that not only tells the tales of the place where they are eating, but also tells the story of the person preparing it. The magic happens when multiple parties connect through that meal.
“When you have those connections, you’re able to see eye–to–eye a lot better and that can lead to more progression, to more things being passed and better conversations happening and leading the South to a new era.” McIntyre said. “I live in a better South than where my grandma lived in. So hopefully my kids will see the South as a whole as a place that is more up to date with the rest of the country.”
If you’re Black, under 30 and have something to say about the future of the South, email Reckon reporter Starr Dunigan at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach her via Twitter and Facebook. While you’re at it, consider joining the Black Magic Project Facebook group, where we talk about topics concerning Black, southern community and culture.