Carla Briggs is one of the bakers featured in our Let Good Things Rise series, and we're thrilled to welcome her to the blog to reflect on how she (and her sweet potato cinnamon rolls!) embody a long Black culinary lineage.
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Early one Saturday morning, my nephew and I gather to make Sweet Potato Cinnamon Rolls. The joy of being my assistant is written all over his face. At 12 years old, he is learning the art and science of being a great baker.
Together, we go through the bread-baking process. He peels, cooks, and mashes the sweet potatoes until they’re the perfect consistency to add to the dough. We follow the recipe, measuring out all the ingredients with meticulous attention to detail. I talk to him about gluten development and the kneading process. After the ingredients are added to the stand mixer and kneaded for a few minutes, we stop and pull out a piece of dough to do a windowpane test, checking if it's fully kneaded. He’s surprised there’s so much science and work that goes into baking.
I share my knowledge and expertise with him because I’m excited he wants to learn, but also because I want him to have a set of skills he can use to make money and create wealth for himself. My time with him reminds me of my early days as a baker and the valuable time I spent in the kitchen with women who shaped my culinary career without ever experiencing their own success or fame in a professional kitchen.
I come from a long line of gifted chefs and bakers; despite their talent and skill, they struggled to create or maintain wealth that would change their legacy in part because of the color of their skin.
Black people’s contributions to the food industry are overlooked
Historically, the contributions of African Americans to the food industry are not common knowledge. In fact, it was the work of scientists of color that even made it possible to bake this simple recipe for Sweet Potato Cinnamon Rolls.
Chemical engineer Norbert Rillieux, a New Orleans-born free man of color, revolutionized sugar processing in the early 19th century with his invention of the multiple effect evaporator, which became the basis for all modern industrial sugar evaporation. But even though his method was cheaper, safer, and more efficient than existing sugar production, he still experienced racist treatment, including being mistaken as an enslaved person while applying for a patent.
George Washington Carver’s research in the early 20th century gave farmers insight into how to save and use sweet potatoes. His in-depth writing and agricultural inventions have been invaluable to the industry, but he lived a simple life.
As a bread baker myself, I’ve found the accomplishments of Joseph Lee particularly inspiring: a 19th century baker, he invented a bread machine with superior kneading action that enabled commercial bakers to make consistent products. He used his knowledge, talent, and problem-solving skill to change the way commercial bakers bake, even today.
Learning of the immeasurable ways Black people have contributed to the food industry is an example of why representation matters.
We’re told that our contributions are not meaningful; that we are the help and the assistants, not the game-changers. These scientists did groundbreaking work that benefited so many people, but they were thought of as less than human. The industry and media paints people of color as inferior, but the ways they have improved the world make them great.
Ultimately, knowing that people who look like me have made an impact in food changes the way I think about my role in this industry. It shows and tells me that my contribution is not worthless.
Culinary injustice continues every day
Listen to my story and do a simple dive into our country's history of racial inequality in food. You’ll see the culinary injustice that has happened in the past — from enslaved chefs whose contributions went unacknowledged to Black farmers who were forced off their land — and is still happening today. The foodservice industry is full of people of color, but despite their gifts and skills women and men of color are not treated fairly, don’t get the same opportunities, and are not building wealth despite their contributions.
Exceptional women and men show up with confidence, consistency, creativity, resourcefulness, and dedication to their craft, families, and communities in amazing ways each day, but they’re often robbed of their industry-changing culinary ideas. When these ideas and contributions are taken, the wealth gap perpetuates and people struggle to live sustainable lives.
Building on the foundation of my family’s legacy
My mother, great-grandmother, grandmother, aunts, and family friends were the foundational instructors of my culinary education, and they look just like me. These gifted women were precise in measurement but seldom used a measuring cup; knowledgeable about recipes but often never referenced a cookbook.
I remember the tin of index cards full of shorthand recipes my great-grandmother referenced to make her delicious creations; those cards were an example of the confidence and beauty she instilled in her food. She spent most of her life in a field working with minimal education, but she was able to perfect her skills in baking and loving her family.
Her contribution to food is small and unnoticed to many, but because she shared her gift, I am now able to share mine. I honor her and others by using the knowledge they have taught me to build wealth and legacy for my family.
Creating a better future in baking
The joy and passion for baking I received from my great-grandmother and other women in my family is why my bakery, Viola’s Heritage Breads, was created. It exists because I get to watch my nephew discover confidence and joy in a craft that I have spent years finding creative freedom and confidence in.
Through Viola’s Heritage Breads my hope is simple: to create a legacy around baking that is rooted in the heritage of the gifted women and men who came before me, maximizes my gifts and skills, creates opportunity, and paves a path for people who look like me to share their amazing gifts with the world.
For more personal recipes and baking stories, see our Let Good Things Rise homepage.
Cover photo by Eloi Moli