For Shanita McAfee-Bryant, gumbo isn’t just food—it’s philosophy

Photography by Natalea Bonjour

Shanita McAfee-Bryant knows the recipe for success. From creating new recipes within her family’s kitchen to winning Cutthroat Kitchen, a popular Food Network game show, McAfee-Bryant looks to use her talents to help those within her community through food advocacy and to bridge the divide in Kansas City with gumbo.

During the pandemic, McAfee-Bryant had the opportunity to do the boot camp held by the James Beard Foundation. “We made lasting friendships, good relationships and some of us got to talking about gumbo and how some of the things that we make are euphemisms for community work or what we were doing in advocacy,” she says.

McAfee-Bryant is now hosting the city’s first Gumbo Festival on October 9 in collaboration with the Troost Market Collective, which is putting on the fifth annual Troostapalooza celebration of local art, culture, music and food on October 8.

“When you look at this collaboration, a gumbo on Vine looks very different from a gumbo in the Northeast or a gumbo on the Westside,” she says. “But they are still a gumbo. They are still just as important. This is the idea.”

The family-friendly Gumbo Festival will be in the Jazz District. Teams will compete against each other at the event, which will also feature live music and vendors.

We talked to McAfee-Bryant about gumbo as a food and a philosophy, plus got her picks for a perfect day of eating and drinking in KC.

Where did your inspiration come from to make a Gumbo-inspired event? I was reading Marc Morial—now president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans—who wrote a book during the pandemic called The Gumbo Coalition. He was talking about how the same philosophy to make gumbo can be applied to leadership or community development, meaning there are thousands of different recipes for gumbo and it has a rich history that comes from struggle.

How does gumbo relate back to a community like Kansas City? If you apply that same ideology to what we are trying to do with Gumbo Fest, it’s really to revitalize an economically disadvantaged area. It takes more than just one thing: It’s not just the businesses, it’s not just the developers, it’s not just the politicians, it’s not just the city funding, and it’s not just the tourism. You need all those components to create a thriving neighborhood. They all have to work together, and no one thing is better than the other. Same with Gumbo. You don’t want it to just be turkey stock or ham stock. You need all of the components.

How did this collaboration with the Troost Market Collective come about? I knew that they had Troostapalooza, and I wanted to make sure that one, we weren’t on top of what they were doing, and two, once we found out that it was going to be the same weekend, I was like, “We have to work together on these because I don’t want to create an East Side divide”—because they were doing something on Troost and I was coming from Vine. I’m going to be at Troostapalooa on Saturday and they’ll be at the Gumbo Fest on Sunday to support each other.  

Favorite spots

Rise and Shine: “Those at Urban Cafe are creative and consistent. The best pancakes in town!”

Coffee, Please: “I love what TJ at Kinship Café is doing in KCK. His coffee is creative and delicious, not to mention the coffee shop is a vibe.”

Lunch Box: “I have one thing to say about The Russell: shrimp tacos. They know how much I stan for those tacos and chocolate chip cookies.”

Evening Vibes: “Chef Pam and her team at Waldo Thai never disappoint. The brisket curry is next-level. It is so spicy for my weak taste buds, but I cannot get enough.”

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