An Inspired New Cookbook Nook in Nashville

A remarkable collection inspires the shelves inside a civil rights landmark

Photo: danielle atkins

Caroline Randall Williams in front of some of the titles at the shop inside Woolworth on 5th.

In the winter and spring of 1960, the sit-in movement came to Nashville. Students from the city’s historically black colleges lined downtown’s segregated lunch counters—S.H. Kress, Woolworth, McClellan—peacefully demonstrating for their right to service and a seat in the face of harassment and violence. Avon Williams, a local civil rights lawyer and first cousin to Thurgood Marshall, represented the young activists, bailing them out of jail. His wife, Joan Bontemps Williams, fed them hot chicken wings and perfectly boiled eggs from her kitchen in North Nashville and sent them back to the lunchless lunch counters with full bellies and renewed spirits.

Nearly sixty years later, the pioneering pair’s granddaughter, the Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams, is a part owner of Woolworth on 5th, a restaurant and bar that opened in February in one of the very spaces that were once barred to her grandparents. “We want the restaurant to be a welcome table—to represent what those students sat in for,” says Tom Morales, a Music City hospitality veteran who oversaw the project, including rebuilding the twenty-two-seat counter to
its 1960s specifications, and approached Williams about becoming involved. “To be invited into that space to participate was a deeply moving opportunity,” she says. “Tom was very conscious of the nuances of this project—keep what’s good, honor what was hard, and look to how we can do better moving forward.”

Photo: danielle atkins

The building’s restored exterior.

It was Morales’s research into the building’s history and ongoing exploration of African American and Southern foodways that first led him to Williams and her mother, the novelist and songwriter Alice Randall, who together penned the 2015 cookbook Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family. You’ll find their recipe for sweet potato, kale, and black-eyed pea soup on the lunch and dinner menus. As of this summer, you’ll also find the restaurant’s newest addition—a small but rewarding cookbook shop in a corner of the main dining room. Curated by Williams and Randall, the shop is dedicated to African American authors, with works from early standard-bearers including Edna Lewis and Rufus Estes as well as current voices such as Bryant Terry (author of Afro-Vegan), acclaimed food historian Michael Twitty, and baker Jocelyn Delk Adams.

The inspiration for the shop, which will carry a rotating selection of around a hundred vintage and new titles, began with Williams’s late grandmother. A former Tennessee State University librarian and gifted home cook, Joan Bontemps Williams died in 1998 and left her vast cookbook collection—roughly two thousand volumes—to then-eleven-year-old Caroline. Amassed over five decades, the collection included an astonishing range of titles, from classic compendiums ordered from glossy magazines to obscure tomes her grandmother had tracked down at bookstores, including Nashville’s beloved (but now shuttered) Davis-Kidd and Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City. The food that graced Bontemps Williams’s table was often rooted in regional tradition and recipes gleaned from African American cooking classics such as Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, The Taste of Country Cooking, and A Date with a Dish, but she was just as likely to deliver discoveries from books such as Chinese Regional Cooking and Dinner at Buckingham Palace. Williams fondly remembers globally inspired meals of tender duck breasts with oranges and wild rice, and bowls of sauerkraut. “I grew up thinking so many different kinds of things looked like love, looked like Southernness, looked like black womanhood,” she says.

Inside the new cookbook shop, her grandmother’s legacy of culinary discovery continues to grow. Although you can pick up some of the cornerstone titles found in Bontemps Williams’s collection, Williams is most excited about the young authors pushing the boundaries of how we understand African American cooking. “I’m getting to add all of the new stuff my grandmother can’t,” she  says. “The whole Woolworth project is about honoring the past but moving into the future.”