This is a guest post by Arley Arrington, our in-house pastry chef (or cake QUEEN, if you will).
Many of you are familiar with Brookville’s strong commitment to supporting our local farmers and friends with the way we source our ingredients. It really is an exciting challenge for those of us who are creating the food, desserts, and cocktails served every night. And we certainly highlight that every day: “Always from Virginia, Always with Love”. We get to draw a lot of inspiration from where we are right now, in this moment. But there is also a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from for each individual chef that is poured, folded, and mixed into everything we create. I think that is where the “always with love” part of our motto comes in.
For me personally, who I am feels very different from what the image of Charlottesville is: I am African American, half-Jamaican, and spent the first half of my childhood in New Jersey and Queens/Brooklyn (way before gentrification, so don’t get any ideas). I have lived in Orange and Charlottesville for the last 16 years, but every now and then, I am reminded how different my past is from where I am now. One of those instances was when I made a sweet potato pie for our dessert menu. I was so excited, because my family grew up on sweet potato pie at every holiday. Whenever I go home to Orange, I usually make a quick stop to grab a pie from Mel’s Diner, even if there is no occasion, because sweet potato pie is too good to require an occasion. I was even a little nervous I wouldn’t be able to measure up to Mel’s pie. So, as I pulled my pie out of the oven, with nervous excitement for everyone to try a slice, I was quite surprised to learn that only two other people working at Brookville had ever tried sweet potato pie, and most hadn’t even heard of it. Apparently, sweet potato pie is a black thing. I thought it was just a thing. But when you are a minority, your norm more often becomes abnormal, taking second place to the dominant culture. That was when I remembered: “Oh right, I’m black, and I live in Charlottesville, and I work on the downtown mall.” It is easy to forget that I have a story to tell, and that people would benefit from hearing it. It might seem small and simple, but I get to tell my story through my baking. For the last few weeks, I’ve been making sweet potato pies with the specific purpose of honoring my past. More than ever, each pie has to be perfect—I’ve tinkered and tinkered to get the perfect blend of spices, I simmer longer to really make the flavors explode, and I spend an extra half hour on each pie to assemble a braided crust that people won’t really see all that well in the one slice they order. But I don’t really mind. The pies must be beautiful, simply because black is beautiful. They are my quiet, behind the scenes sonnet to black folks. It is a labor of love, certainly in honor of Virginia, and the food community here. But more importantly, this time around, it is a deep love for my past and the culture that has shaped me.