I was at home. I felt home. But I most definitely was not home.

By Nneka M. Okona
December 20, 2018
Courtesy of Gumbo Yaya Chicken and Waffles

Before I saw the crowds of people gathering, the smell of fried chicken lured me in. And the syrupy sweetness of what I suspected were waffles. As the owner hurriedly explained it would be a bit of wait, I scanned the menu, deciding what I’d order, and that made me stay.

Nearly an hour later, my empty stomach growing angry, I sat down inside the Paris restaurant, which comfortably seated no more than ten people at picnic-like tables. To my left, a couple engaged in conversation so quiet only the two of them could hear. Across from me sat a group of teenagers, most of them Black, some with braids, a few with afros. They were laughing as they ate the very popular (and very massive) fried chicken sandwich with waffles as a bun.

Placed in front of me minutes later with a smile, my order arrived: two pieces of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese smooshed with crunchy breadcrumbs, and a quartered waffle dusted with powdered sugar.

Without realizing it at first, I found myself tapping my feet and humming the melody of ‘90s R&B, the likes of Carl Thomas, Blackstreet, and Jodeci, my eyes scanning the images of famous Black people I’d grown up learning about in school on the walls and phrases like ‘FOOD for the SOUL’ splashed in bold red paint.

I was at home. I felt home. But I most definitely was not home.

No, I was nowhere near my home in the Southeastern United States, where one could expect menu items like these. Rather, I’d stumbled upon Gumbo Yaya, a restaurant that opened in the tenth arrondissement of Paris in 2015.

Gumbo Yaya Chicken and Waffles, which markets itself as an American soul food restaurant, doesn’t have many soul food offerings beyond fried chicken and the macaroni and cheese (you'll find pecan pie, cornbread, and sweet tea lemonade, too). But even those two items aren’t have a certain Parisian twang to them. For instance, the chicken, though juicy, and the breading, though perfectly crunchy, was herbier. I tasted thyme, a bit of parsley, maybe even a little ground mustard.

And if you’re anticipating your mother’s, aunt’s, or grandmother’s mac and cheese, you should modify your expectations. The mac and cheese was my least favorite itemat Gumbo Yaya: the tortiglioni noodles a bit overcooked, the cheese sauce too dry, and the underseasoned breadcrumbs adding none of the pizzazz they’re supposed to.

What spoke to me, as I chewed, digested, drowned the fluffy, light waffles in Aunt Jemima syrup, and sipped on Canada Dry ginger ale, was the abundance of greater diaspora links and connections.

“I’m originally from Benin, but I have aunties living in Macon, Georgia,” owner Lionel Chauvel told the website Travel Noire. “I would visit them during the summers and on Sunday mornings we would eat chicken and waffles.”

Blackness as a monolith is a prevalent assumption from those who aren’t marginalized themselves. But the beauty in blackness and its global iterations, as evidenced at Gumbo Yaya, is that it becomes a shared experience. One where Black folk all over the globe are sharing and learning from one another. Where the communal sense of celebration and appreciation becomes a back-and-forth conversation, rather than a stiffed, reductive monologue.

France, in particular, holds a special place of reverence for Black Americans. Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, countless Black Americans migrated to France. And during the Harlem Renaissance, literary greats like James Baldwin found refuge in the south of France, writing and creating away from virulent racism of his home country. In Paris, specifically, Black Americans who etched artistic legacies—Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, Angela Davis, and countless others—called neighborhoods like Montmartre and St.-Germain-des-Prés their homes. France wasn’t perfect, as racism can be found anywhere, but it was home. Their new home.

All these decades later, the memories of those ties and influence Black American artists undoubtedly left in their wake, seem to be embedded, even if not consciously, in what Gumbo Yaya tries to do with each plate of chicken and waffles.

At least, I felt so when I dined there on a balmy night in July, waiting nearly an hour to be seated but not in the least regretful as I cleaned every square inch of plate. And as I did, as I signaled to my waiter, a Black French man himself, with a wide grin that I was ready to pay and leave, my mind wandered.

I thought of Nina Simone and Josephine Baker. Creating and playing gigs. Building a new community in a new place. Feeling they had enough air to breathe and to exist as their creative selves while in Paris without the weight of American racism. I imagine they, too, strolled the streets like I did subconsciously hoping to eat something comforting, something reminiscent of the warmth and good things of home.

Maybe Gumbo Yaya Chicken and Waffles isn’t the best chicken and waffles in the world. But it captures the essence of a Black American staple so beautifully that it’s hard not to see it for homage of something greater than itself.

Gumbo Yaya, 3 Rue Charles Robin, 75010 Paris, France. +33 9 84 15 40 88.

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