Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting inside a small family-owned diner in Harlem.
It’s almost 5 o’clock in the morning. The year is 1929. A young man with a flour-dusted apron places a warm, sweet potato waffle and three seasoned fried chicken wings in front of you. It smells delicious. He leaves, then quickly returns with collard greens, maple syrup, hot sauce and flavored butter. The diner is crowded with young poets, painters and musicians unwinding after a long night.
OK, you can open your eyes now. The Harlem Renaissance poets and musicians are now frozen behind panes of glass and framed on the walls around you. There is still a steaming plate chicken and waffles at your mercy. You’re in downtown Durham about to sink your teeth into a signature dish at Dame’s (Almost) Famous Chicken and Waffles.
“There’s a connection between jazz and chicken and waffles,” owner Damion ‘Dame’ Moore explains. “[It] traces back to the Harlem Renaissance, when musicians would play after hours at venues as late as 3, 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. Some restaurants catered to these musicians and would serve the chicken that was left over from dinner, as well as the waffles being prepared for breakfast.”
It is no surprise that chicken and waffles was born in the spirit of improvisation. Like jazz, which infuses African aesthetics of rhythm, syncopation and improvisation and with European instrumentation, chicken and waffles is also a unique and unlikely hybrid. Infusing a traditional southern African American dinner dish with a breakfast (or dessert) meal of medieval European origin, chicken and waffles has been served in black communities for nearly a century. Now, it’s available in my hometown – Durham.
When you enter Dame’s Almost Famous, chances are you’ll be waited on by one of three artists: Poetic Mike Anderson, Brother Righteous or Poet 231.
Lamont Lilly, also known as Brother Righteous, is the author of a book of poetry and essays called “Sunday Morning: The Literary Mixtape.” He is also an editor and contributing writer for the Triangle Free Press and a columnist for The Spectacular. Lamont explained his relationships with art and community during an interview.
“Activism and art go hand in hand, so I work with [community organizing agency] El Kilombo, tutor, you might see me at Walltown Children’s Theatre or volunteering for Witness for Peace,” he said. “It’s not about just writing poetry or essays. It’s about living what you are preaching and writing.”
Lilly works alongside an emcee and producer who asked to be identified as 231. A tall brother with long locs and a focused disposition, 231 is a self-described “sage hermit” who creates music as well as handmade jewelry.
“It’s been pretty dynamic as far as the teamwork that’s involved [here],” he said of the restaurant. “You don’t see that in a lot of businesses – it’s kind of family oriented. And everyone who comes in is a guest in our house.”
The linchpin and third member of the team, Poetic Mike Anderson is one of Durham’s gems. The Poet Laureate of the African American Dance Ensemble, and director of an autobiographical anti-gun violence film called “S.T.R.A.Y. (Showing Truth Reaching All Youth)” Mike is Dame’s cousin.
“Whenever you rebuild a part of the community that seems like it’s about to fade away, that turns off every investor there was, you have to say that the comeback is a renaissance,” he said. “Now (downtown) is turning heads and folks are invested. … We’re a part of that.”
Mike hit the nail on the head. Dame’s (Almost) Famous Chicken and Waffles is part of a renaissance in downtown Durham with new restaurants, galleries, music venues, and food trucks opening every month. As Durham’s cultural palette expands, businesses like Dame’s feed our growing appetite for diversity and distinguish us as a city with an increasingly unique culinary palate. Many of these new businesses employ writers, poets, musicians and artists – the creative center and foundation of Durham’s reemergence. Dame’s epitomizes this trend. Mr. Moore explains,
“Durham is an eclectic place. We are becoming a destination with a very strong downtown. … [We] want to enhance the quality of life in Durham.”
Church. He is doing just that.