Ice Cream Can Tell Centuries of Black Stories—Just Ask Chef Lokelani Alabanza

The small-business owner, vintage cookbook collector, and Tennessean shares about the recipes and memories that inspire her.

June 19, 2020
Photo by Simply M Photography (Molly Denison Wantland)

Hearing the words, “Your ice cream reminds me of when we ate ice cream at my mother’s funeral” would wipe the smile from most cooks’ faces. But for Nashville ice cream maker Lokelani Alabanza, this reaction from a customer was the ultimate compliment. Alabanza is a storyteller who mines Black history and cooking for inspiration, translating her discoveries into the language of sugar and ice, and triggering such profound emotions is the whole point.

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Hello everyone ! 👋🏾 Thank you for the outpouring of support. It’s taken a few days to process. I’m Lokelani Alabanza. ( Lokelani is the flower of Maui, Alabanza is praise in Spanish) It’s been a mouthful since childhood. They call me Loke for short. The past four years have been dedicated to the world of ice cream. It’s been an amazing and challenging experience. It’s truly unbelievable how much humans love ice cream. Love it! Throughout the past four years, I’ve managed to created over 300 flavors. The inspiration can come from anywhere, a color, history, a thought, smell, book, person , drive in the car. I have a deep fondness for nostalgia, it’s been the most potent ingredient that I use. Nostalgia and ice cream are a stunning combination. Food connects all of us. Don’t ever underestimate it’s power. Through ice cream I started a journey into its history. Stepping into a world that I didn’t even realize existed. Names that have been forgotten, legacies that created the path that I would one day walk down. Was it coincidence or perfectly timed, that I would learn the name of Sarah Estell. A black female entrepreneur who owned and operated an ice cream saloon in downtown Nashville in 1840. With this new knowledge gained, it’s brought me so much confidence. Recent changes in the past few months have led me to venture out on my own. I have a new project I’ve been working on @saturatedicecream. You’re always welcome whenever you’re in Nashville. Be well. Be safe. Let us always be good to one another. p.s. What’s your favorite flavor?

A post shared by Lokelani Alabanza (@yokiyanifanza) on

Alabanza—who recently launched Saturated Ice Cream, a line of dairy free, CBD-infused flavors, and before that was the executive pastry chef and culinary director at Hattie Jane's Creamery—is a nostalgia junkie. “I collect recipes and recreate them [through ice cream]. It’s like collecting antiques but with food,” she explains. One look at her vintage cookbook collection, which features volumes penned by Black chefs over the last century and longer, and it’s clear she has a fascination with the past.

Alabanza’s flavors include Gin & Juice, 'Nana Puddin’, Sweet Potato Casserole, and Peanuts & Coke, each one an ode to the artifacts she uncovers on her sentimental journey through Black America’s past. There are so many stories to tell, and not enough time or patience for most people to read them. So Alabanza distills an entire era or event into a few scoops on a cone. “How can I feed this to you?” she thinks when something inspires her. “How can I get this into an ice cream flavor?”

A fraction of Lokelani's vast cookbook collection. Photo by Louisa Shafia

Alabanza has been amassing old cookbooks for as long as she can remember, combing estate sales and antique malls, or just receiving them from people. “Everyone knows, Loke wants the old books,” she laughs. But the books form her professional roadmap, each dog-eared page and underlined word an insight into a cook’s soul.

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Top Comment:
“As a lover of ice cream, history, and food, I now want to go to Ms. Alabanza’s ice cream shop. Thanks for sharing her story. Happy Juneteenth!”
— Pugwoman

“One of my favorite finds was a huge stack of recipe index cards wrapped in twine at a flea market. They’re handwritten in cursive, organized by course. It cost, like, $5. I’ve read through all of them.” There are treasures hiding in the pages. One of her favorite desserts is Dee’s Coconut Pound Cake, a recipe she found in a cookbook with a wedding gift inscription from 1975. When it comes to recipe research, Alabanza says, “I go deep.”

But the California native did not hit her stride until she moved to the South five years ago. “I didn’t realize how this is a place of preservation of food stories and traditions,” she marvels. For Black Southerners, food is interwoven into identity.

“Southern food is specific. It’s about growing your vegetables, feeding your family, taking care of your community.” She discovered Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code, the groundbreaking compendium of more than 150 cookbooks published by African-American authors that reveals the role of Black women in shaping American cuisine. It gave Alabanza newfound pride in her heritage.

“Church picnics! Ten different versions of a green bean! The dessert table! I didn’t see that sense of tradition growing up out West.”

Vintage recipe cards, ready to be channeled into ice cream. Photo by Louisa Shafia

Seeing Black cookery in an elevated light gave Alabanza a new appreciation for her late grandmother, who hailed from Chattanooga, Tenn., and to whom she was very close. Her grandmother was a wonderful cook, but didn’t leave behind any written recipes. Cooking these other women’s recipes heals her longing for connection.

“I carry pieces of nostalgia with my grandmother. I’m looking to create things from those places,” she explains. Now that she lives close to her grandmother’s birthplace, she finds reminders of her everywhere. “When I see a lemon cake with lemon icing or a peach cobbler, they resonate deeply within me.”

For Alabanza, the highest form of expression is creating a flavor that captures a historic moment, a time capsule gift-wrapped in a confection. When it all comes together, and the ice cream matches up to the intensity of her emotion, she feels a deep sense of satisfaction. “It means that I am doing the thing that I’m supposed to be doing.” Her flavor called Juneteenth is a perfect example.

Last year, Alabanza did a deep dive into the history of Juneteenth, the anniversary marking June 19, 1865, the day the Union army reached Galveston, Tex. and informed enslaved African-Americans that they were free. She combed the accounts of early Juneteenth parties for evidence of food and flavors, and condensed those traditions into a bright scarlet sorbet. On Juneteenth you make red food, “to symbolize the blood of the millions of slaves that died in slavery,” she explains. “That was the old parable they would tell the young people. So you’d have red velvet cake, strawberry cake, strawberry punch, and hibiscus tea.”

Alabanza’s Juneteenth tastes like a spring day, nearly as tart as it is sweet, with a color between watermelon and cherry. The flavor reveals itself in stages, starting with a juicy raspberry kiss followed by the tropical embrace of hibiscus. The elements are smoothed into each other with sugar–that sacred commodity of the cane-farming South–and a gulp of lime. The taste is a moment of celebration distilled into an ice cream, the feeling of eating fruit as a free person for the first time.

Compared to last year, Juneteenth 2020 is shaping up to be bigger than ever. “People are open to learning what it means for America and the Black community,” says Alabanza, and she feels lucky to be creating in this time of momentum around racial justice. “In all honesty, it has helped launch this brand that I’ve been sitting on for two years,” she admits. But more than that, it could be the start of healing for the Black community on a mass scale. “Whether you’re teaching, parenting, or making cakes, it’s about making a space for the beauty to come in. My ice cream is one little piece of this.”

For now, Alabanza is practicing her culinary alchemy, spinning a sometimes bitter past into glorious flavors. “We have to get through this pain, but there is joy to be had.”

The flavor Juneteenth will be available for delivery all summer in the Nashville area. Saturated Ice Cream will start by focusing on monthly ice cream subscriptions and local delivery, with national availability coming soon.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • alcord
  • Lyle Yarbrough
    Lyle Yarbrough
  • Rose
  • Pugwoman
  • mary anne collins
    mary anne collins
My cookbook The New Persian Kitchen is a winner of Food52's Piglet award. I love cooking Iranian rice and hearing people crunch on the crispy tahdig from the bottom of the pot. I'm passionate about sharing the ingredients and techniques for making Persian food in my writing, cooking classes, and online store, Feast By Louisa where you can find my Persian Spice Set, Tahdig Kit, and other goodies.


alcord August 30, 2020
...after hearing her voice on Milk Street cooking podcast.
alcord August 30, 2020
It is the first three words, "Hearing the words..." in this article - her words, her tone and her personality that contributes to a fine tasting ice cream - any of her flavors.
Lyle Y. June 20, 2020
I can’t wait to try several of these masterful creations, they all sound fantastic. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Loke comes from an incredible line of talented cooks/chefs. Her inspiration is genuine and compliments those who inspired her...thanks to my Mom and Sister who were and are incredible talents in the kitchen. Hats off Loke☺️❤️ Job well done! I can’t wait to try your latest creations. Keep inspiring 🙏🏿
Rose June 19, 2020
What a fabulous article this is! I fully enjoyed taking in Ms. Alabanza's love of history and food and finding a way to combine these into something we all love, which so beautifully honors Black American history.
Pugwoman June 19, 2020
As a lover of ice cream, history, and food, I now want to go to Ms. Alabanza’s ice cream shop. Thanks for sharing her story. Happy Juneteenth!
mary A. June 19, 2020
I would love to order some ice cream and I am in Nashville. How do I order

Louisa S. June 19, 2020
Hi! For now you can go to City House restaurant where they will be serving Alabanza's ice cream all summer. Keep an eye out for her website to go live, and/or follow her instagram for updates.
sonia June 19, 2020
Someday I am going to Nashville, you inspire me.
Elycooks June 19, 2020
What a wonderful story and an inspiring woman!
Victoria G. June 19, 2020
This is so interesting and inspiring. Looking forward to following you and getting into your nostalgic recipes from the south!
ohm0lly June 19, 2020
Collecting heritage recipes and translating to ice cream is just about the coolest thing in the world. Thanks for sharing Loke's work!