Social justice organizer and soul food chef Devon Hamilton is grillin’ for the people

Folks who come by Devon Hamilton’s house are going to get fed, in more ways than one.

Hamilton (@grillin4thepeople on Instagram) likes to host big, open cookouts with no agenda other than a chance for folks to eat brisket, get to know each other better and relax.

“The people of color community at UW is relatively small,” said Hamilton. “It’s a space where people can take from it what they need.  And anytime there’s free food, folks are going to come out.”

Devon Hamilton, co-founder of Trade Roots Culinary Collective, goes by @grillin4thepeople on Instagram. COURTESY OF DEVON HAMILTON
Devon Hamilton, co-founder of Trade Roots Culinary Collective, goes by @grillin4thepeople on Instagram. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEVON HAMILTON

Hamilton, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a social justice organizer with a smoker and a set of tongs. At 25, the Los Angeles native works at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute to teach local youth of color about food systems and encourage farmers to consider the southern Wisconsin watershed when working their fields.

A self-trained cook, recently, Hamilton teamed up with chef Candy Flowers of Sweet Tea on State Street and Yusuf Bin-Rella, a chef at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They call themselves TradeRoots Culinary Collective, and their goal is to raise the profile of soul food and the cuisine of the African diaspora in Madison.

With the money they make from vending at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center’s weekend community market and pop-ups like a Father’s Day event at Robinia Courytard, TradeRoots hopes to send all three founders to Benin, a French-speaking country in West Africa between Togo and Nigeria. A tour of the country will be led by Afroculinaria writer Michael Twitty, author of James Beard Award-winning “The Cooking Gene,” in spring 2019.

The Cap Times spoke with Hamilton about what a healthy community looks like, how he cultivated his love of soul food and where to follow the TradeRoots Culinary Collective.

The Capital Times: You came to Madison for college. How and when did you first get involved in the food scene here?

I had taken a year off and went back to L.A., where I got connected with Ron Finley (an artist and activist known as the Gangsta Gardener). I got obsessed with plants and planting, native indigenous plants, succulents, grasses.

Then I came back to Madison, and I met up with a woman named Monica White who told me all about food justice and food systems and urban agriculture. She’s a professor (of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). She does a lot of studies around food systems and she just finished a book about black farming.

I went to Detroit, to the Black Urban Growers conference, and saw black and brown people growing food. And I thought, this is what I need to be doing … I need to get engaged with this and reconnect myself with the land.

(City of Madison food policy coordinator) George Reistad was on that trip as well. He plugged me into a job with UW-Extension, doing community garden projects. I worked with them the next summer as well on youth gardening programs, like the Mellowhood Foundation in the Meadowood neighborhood. I sit on that board now, and the REAP board as well.

How did your community cookouts get started?

Since freshman year, I hosted community cookout events out of my backyard, or if someone had a space I would just bring a bunch of grills over. We’d cook. I learned that food is one of the most interdisciplinary subjects in general, but also one of the best ways to get folks to build community around each other.

We’d host a lot of cookouts out of pocket. Invite folks over, eat a bunch of good food, and use those spaces to heal after certain things had happened on campus or celebrate or organize.

My mom. She is my biggest teacher. My mom did Thanksgiving, the big, important meals, and my dad did day to day. I learned sandwich making from him.

It started with soul food. My dad always claimed his Italian side, but he didn’t know a lot about it. My mom was black and adopted. We’re all disconnected from our roots.

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Devon Hamilton, chef Candy Flowers and chef Yusuf Bin-Rella have formed the TradeRoots Culinary Collective as a way to raise the profile of the food of the African diaspora and travel themselves to West Africa with Michael Twitty in spring 2019. 

The name of your collective is TradeRoots, though. Are you trying to reclaim some of that history for yourself?

All of that led to me meeting Candy Flowers at Sweet Tea. When she opened up shop, me and my friend were some of the first folks to come in. After coming in several times I asked, can I just work for you? You don’t have to pay me, I’d just love to learn from you.

She was like, you have a college degree, you shouldn’t be doing this! But she let me into there, and during my off hours I would go cook in the back of Sweet Tea — fried chicken and fish, rice and beans, mac and cheese and greens. All the stuff I’m familiar with.

What were the barriers for you to get involved in the food scene here?

The main barrier for me was finding time to do something that was a big passion of mine, and doing it in a way that’s not just a fancy beautiful dinner — which is awesome and appreciated — but to feed people in sustainable ways. I want to educate folks on nutritional values of food, seasonal availability, how to make things affordable.

I started with that mindset with community cookouts. A lot of it was word of mouth. Folks initially came for the free food but it turned into a space where people took from it what they needed, whether it was posting about some organizing event and spreading the word or just to relax.

I’ve been looking for a long time for ways to connect these interests and spaces and needs together, and the easiest way I’ve found it is through food.

It’s something that energizes me, that makes me feel connected to ancestors I know and don’t know about. It’s something that’s more than pushing a product or an event or money. It’s communal. It’s based in feeding people more than food.

Can you give a snapshot of what TradeRoots is about?

It became a thing after our need to raise up some funds to go to Africa with Michael Twitty. Anything we’re making from the events, we’re putting into a pool.

But we want this to be more than just a pop-up event. We want this to be similar to the cookouts, where people can learn from each other, find spaces to heal, to promote what they’re doing, a place of community.

We’ll be hosting pop-up events, we can do catering stuff. We’re looking to do classes. Between me, Candy and Yusuf (Bin-Rella) we have a lot of knowledge in certain areas.

We’re not just talking brats and burgers. We’re talking about really creative food that has an emphasis on foods of the African diaspora but other foodways too, like indigenous ingredients. How do these roots intermingle and create something new, sustainable, creative, welcoming to people and community?

We want to celebrate our heritage, our identities, through food.


By Lindsay Christians | The Capital Times