This Voices in Food story, as told to Garin Pirnia, is from Jametta Raspberry, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based chef who owns the pop-up catering company House of Gristle. In recent weeks, she and a team of volunteers have been making 600 to 1,000 lunches per day and handing them out to people in the community. She grew up in an all-white St. Paul suburb, attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu and worked at various high-end and quick-serve restaurants in the Twin Cities. In 2019, exhausted from her experiences with systemic racism in restaurants, she founded House of Gristle and now works for herself and her community.
Raspberry told HuffPost about the meaning of gristle, how the service industry works to keep BIPOC in lower-paying jobs, and how listening to a Black woman is the key to everything.
Gristle is the end of the chicken wing that me and my dad would enjoy after the family ate chicken. We would stay at the table longer and laugh together, and I really enjoyed these weird textures. Growing up in an all-white community, if you eat with someone, they would basically shame you: “Ew, you’re eating gristle? What? We don’t eat that. We throw that away.” I felt shameful about the food I loved. My natural rebellious self was like, “I’m going to use the word I like the most and that I think people hate the most as the name of my business, and I’m going to force people to say ‘gristle.’”
The dictionary defines it as an inedible part of a meat. I challenge that and I say it is edible. Instead of throwing it away, we need to start celebrating these things and including soul food in American cuisine. How did American cuisine overlook the 500 years of the people who basically served everybody during slavery? How did the burger end up being the symbol of America?
“If every single person found a Black woman and just had a conversation with her, they would be five to 10 times better. You’d be surprised at how she speaks, how she flows, what she knows, what her problems are. I think they just need to be heard more a little more.”
House of Gristle started out as this anti-restaurant concept, because I’ve worked in the field for 16 years as a cook and a chef, and I realized it wasn’t a sustainable career. I decided to start my company [without] a brick-and-mortar space, which I think contributes to having to operate on tight margins and puts you in a position to exploit your workers. I didn’t want to run a business that way.
When I first started, I wanted to be a culture changer. The first question [people ask] is: “Oh, what do you make, what do you specialize in?” I don’t have a specialty cuisine. I specialize in reaching as many cultures and as many types of cuisine that I’ve learned over time [as possible]. I try to find ways to utilize ingredients that aren’t as popular to keep that healthy food cycle working. I’m bringing in things like oxtail that can start a conversation: What is this? Where does it come from? The idea is to sit you down at the table with someone different than you and open up a conversation. And I’m letting the people form the concept of House of Gristle, because it is about connecting across the aisle from someone who’s different from you, and how we can push those things together and create the new American way of dining, because we are forced to change right now.
“I’ve experienced discrimination the entire time, whether it was because I was a woman or a Black woman.”
It took me 10 years to make [more than] $10 an hour. And I was a single mom the whole time ― I had little babies when I started. It was really important for me to work my way up through promotions, and when I felt that I had the leadership and understanding of how that worked, I was always overlooked for those promotions. I was always pushed toward these lower-paid positions. So I’ve experienced discrimination the entire time, whether it was because I was a woman or a Black woman. I was mostly always the only woman and always the only Black person employed. There was this culture of, “Fall in line or get out of line.” I’m passionate about the work that I do and I take it very, very seriously, and it’s just unfortunate that with my previous employers, I gave them multiple opportunities. You have someone who wants to be here. I want to learn. I need to sustain. What are you going to do about it? And nothing was ever done. It took about 15 years for me to say enough is enough. I’ll just do it myself. And so I started my own business.
I think it’s blatant racism in that this industry has upheld systemic racism and segregation [for so long]. You can walk into a restaurant and see front of house, back of the house, how it’s racially made up. You can see the executive chefs and how they’re made up. Here we are in 2020, finding out that you may not intentionally put the Black person as the busboy or dishwasher, but you did. If you don’t understand why you’re doing that or how you’re contributing, that’s going to continuously perpetuate the problem.
I’ve been around white people all my life. White people who continue to uphold white supremacy will say, “Change doesn’t happen overnight.” And they know what they’re saying. “Oh, it takes generations to make change.” It literally does not. Change is at a blink of the eye. I was frustrated before with people thinking that everything you needed to do would take years, and now that it’s happened, and we see change can happen overnight, I think we take that same ideology and keep applying it and effecting change and doing it quickly and say, “We have the power to have what we want to see.”
Can my son have a good quality of life? Can we guarantee that? My son is 6-foot-4 and he is Black, and he is very, very smart and very, very talented. I think about it every day since Trayvon Martin. If this little boy is walking down the street and something happens, that is a legitimate fear.
I know I’ve been screaming this at the top of my lungs for my entire career, and I’m a privileged suburban. I come from a Christian middle-class family. I’m light-skinned and articulate, so that gets me in the room. And I’m aware of that. And when I’m in the room, do you think I’m going to let you be casually racist around me? Nope, I always call people out. I’m the militant one in the room. You shouldn’t have let me in. You fucked up and let me in. We’ve got to erase all of our biases.
I really believe that if every single person found a Black woman and just had a conversation with her, they would be five to 10 times better. You’d be surprised at how she speaks, how she flows, what she knows, what her problems are. I think they just need to be heard more a little more.