Nashville chef spotlights forgotten Black history with CBD-infused 'ice cream magic'

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

From her work in food science for companies including Dole to the production of her own micro-batch CBD ice cream, Lokelani Alabanza knows flavor can evoke nostalgia. They might conjure spirits. They can even tell the forgotten tales of Black entrepreneurs.

As the owner of the plant-based CBD-infused Saturated Ice Cream, Alabanza is a conjurer of sensory memories.

Her Magnolia flavor, named after her great-grandmother, layers Ethiopian Geteme honey with a hint of magnolia essence in a base of coconut milk. It once made a friend weep.

"She said it reminded her of her grandmother too," Alabanza said. "And those are the things, those are the times when I know I did everything correctly. That's the nostalgia, and that for me is ultimately the beauty of what I'm doing."

Many of Saturated's flavors honor women in Black culinary history.

An avid cookbook collector, Alabanza created Mamy's Spice Cake ice cream as an ode to Ebony magazine food journalist Freda DeKnight's 1948 recipe collection, "A Date with a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes."

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Some flavors are stark reminders of Black history's dark moments, such as the Juneteenth raspberry-hibiscus-lime sorbet, red to represent the lost blood of millions of enslaved people.

Others lift up the stories of pioneering women such as Sarah Estell, a free Black woman who owned an ice cream saloon during the slavery era on what is now 4th Avenue in Nashville.

Books from the collection of Lokelani Alabanza, the founder and owner of Saturated Ice Cream, seen at her home in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Estell, who also had a catering business, was a local icon running an inclusive ice cream shop in a time when such sweets were reserved for the wealthy. Her flavors included the popular-at-the-time Parmesan, something Alabanza faithfully recreated using old cookbooks. 

"I take Black food history and make ice cream and put them together," she said. "If you don't want to read your history, I'll feed it to you."

A storied career and a dream

The 40-year-old Alabanza's road to entrepreneurship is full of stops in other people's kitchens. An internship during her time at the New England Culinary Institute brought her to Bay Area's CCD Innovations, where at just 20 years old she stood shoulder to shoulder with top chefs, engineering flavors for companies including Jack in the Box and Frito Lay.

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She was offered a permanent position but craving adventure, she launched a pastry career under top Los Angeles chefs including Elizabeth Belkind and Dahlia Narvaez at the now-shuttered Campanile.

Alabanza later moved with her then-husband to Okinawa, Japan, where she became a private chef. She returned stateside to work in Las Vegas in Bouchon's bakery before taking a job at the Hutton Hotel in Nashville. 

There, an equipment malfunction in advance of a dinner featuring James Beard chefs forced her to make 250 pink peppercorn-strawberry ice cream bars by hand, a meticulous process that took her two weeks. The dinner guests thanked her with a standing ovation.

Books and recipe clippings from the collection of Lokelani Alabanza, the founder and owner of Saturated Ice Cream, seen at her home in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Alabanza landed a dream job as the culinary director for Nashville's Hattie Jane’s Creamery, where she created more than 300 flavors. "It pushed my boundaries," she said. 

She said it helped her develop grit and resilience, tools that would come in handy when she was permanently laid off at the onset of the COVID pandemic.

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"When you don't do things when you're supposed to, the universe will do something for you," Alabanza said. "It taught me that I had things to do. I always was under someone else's umbrella, so it was just time for me to do exactly what wanted."

Alabanza had a friend sick with cancer who spoke of the power of nostalgia and the gentle comfort of the nonpsychoactive hemp derivative CBD. That conversation inspired Alabanza to combine both in a plant-based ice cream that also highlighted important moments in Black history.

Lokelani Alabanza, the founder and owner of Saturated Ice Cream, at her home in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

"(It's) a refreshing and beautiful moment to witness the stories being told and revitalized through a woman of color who is also passionate about ice cream," said Rhonda Cammon of Perfectly Cordial. Cammon, who makes fruit-forward craft mixers, is the first Black female board member of Nashville's chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild

'Out here making ice cream magic'

In June 2020, Cammon convinced Alabanza to join her in a collaborative pop-up shop where they promptly sold out of everything. 

Not only is Saturated Ice Cream good, but the fact that the flavors summon the spirits of forgotten Black food icons including Estell is refreshing, said Cammon. "She's out here making ice cream magic. It's like if Willy Wonka was telling the story of Russell Stover. It just makes sense."

Russell Stover, however, is not a footnote in history but a brand name with widespread recognition. 

"I think there's been a lot of forgotten history," said Cammon. "A lot of people who have been previously reduced to one or two sentences now have full stories. Is it abnormal? No. Are we grateful we're hearing it? Yes, because if we had a dollar for everyone reduced to a sentence we'd be millionaires."

Saturated Ice Cream is available at saturatedicecream.com and at select pop-up events.

Alabanza is also writing her first cookbook, which she describes as a journey through Black American ice cream history. "It's a beautiful ode to things in the past," she said. 

Lokelani Alabanza, the founder and owner of Saturated Ice Cream, at her home in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Alabanza's mission to unearth Black food stories was in part inspired by Toni Tipton-Martin’s "The Jemima Code," a compendium of more than 150 Black cookbooks ranging from an 1827 house servant's manual to books from Edna Lewis and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor.

"I didn't know these books were out here," she said. "They didn't teach about them in (culinary) school."

Her work to dig up that history comes alive in flavors such as old-school coconut cake or Southern ambrosia, concocted from recipes found in dog-eared cookbooks. "Ice cream has become such an incredible vessel to tell these stories," she said. 

Even as a child, Alabanza collected things, dusting off rocks, tiny animal figurines and anything else delicate and doll-like. 

"I've always been curious by nature, and I think that's why I always got lost in books," she said. "Food is the same way, so to recreate these recipes in this way made sense. The ice cream is these little objects I'm collecting."

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com