Black, White, and The Grey: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant. Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano. Ten Speed Press/Lorena Jones Books. 2021.
What could happen if a White, working class, Italian American, male entrepreneur decided to buy a dilapidated, abandoned, formerly segregated Greyhound bus station, built in 1938 in Savannah, Georgia? What could happen if his vision was to turn the building into an upscale restaurant, having no experience running a restaurant but loving food? What if he was determined to have a Black chef as his business partner, although he knew no Black chefs? What if part of his goal was to unite this Southern city through exceptional food?
What happened is remarkable and was marked by a tremendous load of uncomfortableness. In the words of John Morisano, known to his friends and family as Johno, "Together we set out on this journey to learn from each other and live a life that I could have never dreamed would be so fulfilling while simultaneously being so damned uncomfortable: uncomfortable running a business I knew nothing about; uncomfortable in my relationship to race, class, and culture; uncomfortable learning so much about myself and human decency from the most unsuspecting people and places; uncomfortable in our successes; uncomfortable with our failings, my failings."
Mashama Bailey, the Black woman, who became Johno's business partner and co-author of this heartful food memoir, was a chef but had never been an executive chef. She also embarked on a steep learning curve—learning to trust herself as the executive and a full partner, and particularly in partnership with a White man. She writes, "Something I needed to figure out was whether I distrusted Johno because he is White. And whether history had conditioned me to automatically distrust White people. The answer is, yes, my suspicion is an inherent bias. My distrust subsided when I began to exercise my voice, my power."
This book is not a theoretical treatise on solving race problems in America or even a practical how-to guide. It is real, as if it is all happening in the nitty-gritty dirt of the dish pit (I had to look up what a dish pit is, even though I read a lot of food memoirs). What comes out of the dish pit, hopefully, is sparkling glasses and plates, clean pots and pans. Bailey describes what comes out of this tough, courageous, committed partnership: "Once we began to use our combined voice to not only build a business but to create a self-sustaining business culture, my suspicion resolved. We had to have each other's backs first before I began to believe him and before our team would ever begin to trust us."
The book's format is unique, making clear whose voice we are reading: Mashama's words are in bold, dark print, and Johno's in regular font, hence lighter. I'm sure that was a conscious choice. Their writing process was also fascinating to this writer, but no spoilers on that.
Black, White, and The Grey is a story about the boldness, honesty and triumph of a consciously chosen intercultural, interethnic friendship that has created a culture that impacts a Southern city with a history of enforced segregation and present-day de facto segregation. I refer to an "interethnic friendship" because it is a scientific fact that there is only one race—the human one. And yet, this is a book that is very much about an everyday, deeply personal grappling with race relations in the United States. The Grey, incidentally, is the name of the restaurant, which comes from its location in the former Greyhound depot.
Food memoirs, at least the ones I'm drawn to, are always about more than food, and they're often about healing. As Johno says, "Food can cure many ills." And Mashama writes, "Restaurants play a big part in changing people's perspectives. Eating together humanizes. When you are sitting across the table from someone it's easier to see your similarities than your differences." This story could be an intimidating example of what we all should be doing—taking on racism in our everyday lives, and we most definitely should be finding ways to do that actively. I found encouragement in some final words from Johno, "Quite simply, the Grey is our work in progress." It helps me recognize that we are all, individually and collectively, a work in progress.