Hearing the words, "Your ice cream reminds me of when we ate ice cream at my mother's funeral" would wipe the smile from most cooks' faces. But for Nashville ice cream maker Lokelani Alabanza, this reaction from a customer was the ultimate compliment. Alabanza is a storyteller who mines Black history and cooking for inspiration, translating her discoveries into the language of sugar and ice, and triggering such profound emotions is the whole point.
Alabanza — who recently launched Saturated Ice Cream, a line of dairy free, CBD-infused flavors, and before that was the executive pastry chef and culinary director at Hattie Jane's Creamery — is a nostalgia junkie. "I collect recipes and recreate them [through ice cream]. It's like collecting antiques but with food," she explains. One look at her vintage cookbook collection, which features volumes penned by Black chefs over the last century and longer, and it's clear she has a fascination with the past.
Alabanza's flavors include Gin & Juice, Nana Puddin', Sweet Potato Casserole, and Peanuts & Coke, each one an ode to the artifacts she uncovers on her sentimental journey through Black America's past. There are so many stories to tell, and not enough time or patience for most people to read them. So Alabanza distills an entire era or event into a few scoops on a cone. "How can I feed this to you?" she thinks when something inspires her. "How can I get this into an ice cream flavor?"
Alabanza has been amassing old cookbooks for as long as she can remember, combing estate sales and antique malls, or just receiving them from people. "Everyone knows, Loke wants the old books," she laughs. But the books form her professional roadmap, each dog-eared page and underlined word an insight into a cook's soul.
"One of my favorite finds was a huge stack of recipe index cards wrapped in twine at a flea market. They're handwritten in cursive, organized by course. It cost, like, $5. I've read through all of them." There are treasures hiding in the pages. One of her favorite desserts is Dee's Coconut Pound Cake, a recipe she found in a cookbook with a wedding gift inscription from 1975. When it comes to recipe research, Alabanza says, "I go deep."
But the California native did not hit her stride until she moved south five years ago. "I didn't realize how this is a place of preservation of food stories and traditions," she marvels. For Black southerners, food is interwoven into identity.
"Southern food is specific. It's about growing your vegetables, feeding your family, taking care of your community." She discovered Toni Tipton-Martin's The Jemima Code, the groundbreaking compendium of more than 150 cookbooks published by African-American authors that reveals the role of Black women in shaping American cuisine. It gave Alabanza newfound pride in her heritage.
"Church picnics! Ten different versions of a green bean! The dessert table! I didn't see that sense of tradition growing up out west."
Seeing Black cookery in an elevated light gave Alabanza a new appreciation for her late grandmother, who hailed from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and to whom she was very close. Her grandmother was a wonderful cook, but didn't leave behind any written recipes. Cooking these other women's recipes heals her longing for connection.
"I carry pieces of nostalgia with my grandmother. I'm looking to create things from those places," she explains. Now that she lives close to her grandmother's birthplace, she finds reminders of her everywhere. "When I see a lemon cake with lemon icing or a peach cobbler, they resonate deeply within me."
For Alabanza, the highest form of expression is creating a flavor that captures a historic moment, a time capsule gift-wrapped in a confection. When it all comes together, and the ice cream matches up to the intensity of her emotion, she feels a deep sense of satisfaction. "It means that I am doing the thing that I'm supposed to be doing." Her flavor called Juneteenth is a perfect example.
Last year, Alabanza did a deep dive into the history of Juneteenth, the anniversary marking June 19, 1865, the day the Union army reached Galveston, Texas and informed enslaved African-Americans that they were free. She combed the accounts of early Juneteenth parties for evidence of food and flavors, and condensed those traditions into a bright scarlet sorbet. On Juneteenth you make red food, "to symbolize the blood of the millions of slaves that died in slavery," she explains. "That was the old parable they would tell the young people. So you'd have red velvet cake, strawberry cake, strawberry punch, and hibiscus tea."
Alabanza's Juneteenth tastes like a spring day, nearly as tart as it is sweet, with a color between watermelon and cherry. The flavor reveals itself in stages, starting with a juicy raspberry kiss followed by the tropical embrace of hibiscus. The elements are smoothed into each other with sugar — that sacred commodity of the cane-farming South — and a gulp of lime. The taste is a moment of celebration distilled into an ice cream, the feeling of eating fruit as a free person for the first time.
"People are open to learning what [Juneteenth] means for America and the Black community," says Alabanza, and she feels lucky to be creating in this time of momentum around racial justice. "In all honesty, it has helped launch this brand that I've been sitting on for two years," she admits. But more than that, it could be the start of healing for the Black community on a mass scale. "Whether you're teaching, parenting, or making cakes, it's about making a space for the beauty to come in. My ice cream is one little piece of this."
For now, Alabanza is practicing her culinary alchemy, spinning a sometimes bitter past into glorious flavors. "We have to get through this pain, but there is joy to be had."
This story was originally published on Food52.com: Ice Cream Can Tell Centuries of Black Stories — Just Ask Chef Lokelani Alabanza