One look at Nate Walls' Facebook page, and your salivary glands will go into overdrive. The community activist, chef and owner of the catering company Secondhand Smoke can't help but post every delicious recipe and food video he comes across on the Internet.
After all, he's been using food as a means of communication for most of his life.
Through Others’ Eyes
“I think that speaks to his humility and gratitude — he’s not a proud guy. He doesn’t think he has all the answers. He doesn’t think he knows better about the help others’ need. He’ll jump in and go to them and ask them, ‘What would best help you guys?’ He realizes they’re the experts with the struggles they’re going through. I think that says a lot about his heart.” — Bobby Howard
“I vividly recall him telling me he didn’t think he had the ability to communicate and connect with people like I did — but I told him, ‘Be yourself.’ I think that Nate’s ability to interact with people from all different walks of life, his ability to continue to be himself, it helps him gain rapport with those groups of people he didn’t necessarily think he would be able to connect with.” — D’Andre Jones
“I think probably one of his greatest strengths is that he genuinely loves people. When you have a heart for people and know that God has prepared you for the moment you’re currently in, you can’t help but be successful.” — Pastor Marcus Carruthers
Chef Matthew Cooper
"Food just brings people together, just naturally brings people together," he says. "People start acting right when good food comes to the table."
Walls was born in St. Louis, Mo., but moved to Stuttgart, Ark., when he was only 6 years old.
"My mama started having drug problems, and DHS took me and my brother, and then a lady adopted us," he says, his words quiet and plainly spoken, his face open and honest. With Walls, it's immediately apparent: What you see is what you get. He does not pull punches, and he does not attempt to hide the more painful parts of his life story. "I can remember that my dad was really abusive to my mom, and she was abusive to us. We would go two to three days and not see her and later find out that she had been locked in a closet. It was really bad. My older brothers from that family told me about it later. In contrast, I probably ended up in a better place.
"God always has a place for you."
The woman who adopted Walls and his older brother was a distant relative who ran a cafe about 50 miles outside of Little Rock in Stuttgart.
"She cooked a bunch of soul food," he remembers. "I started cooking when I was 8 years old, and I fell in love with it. It was what they called back then a little 'juke joint'. My brother was about four years older. She got money [from the state] every month, but it was only around $133 for both kids, so we had to make do. We had a few chickens, and we sold the eggs, that kind of thing."
His relationship with his adoptive mother would give him a lifelong love of and skill for cooking. Unfortunately, the relationship also left scars that had lasting implications.
"She was a little hostile," he begins, somewhat haltingly, searching for the right words. "By today's measuring stick, you might say abusive. She had fire and brimstone in her -- she was Pentecostal. My brother was always my protector, up until a point, and then when he got older, he got the brunt of a lot of the abuse. I don't know if I want to call it abuse -- the discipline. Then it flipped, and I was the protector."
By the time Walls graduated from high school, his older brother had moved back to St. Louis; now on his own in the tempestuous household, Walls decided to join the military as a means of escaping his situation.
"But she didn't want to sign the papers," he says. "I was still 17. She ended up saying that I was too dumb, and I would be back and all of that kind of stuff. It was a long time ago, but actually, that really fueled me. It was stuck in my head, and it stayed in my head."
Army to UA
Walls was well suited to the Army. After settling in, he felt at home there, and he learned to cook for even larger groups of people than he had cooked for at his adoptive mother's cafe -- sometimes for 1,200 to 1,500 troops. After his four-year stint, he headed to Fayetteville, where he attended the University of Arkansas . Not too long after, he met his future wife, Fayetteville native Gwinn Blackburn, at a nightclub. He gets a sheepish grin on his face when he tells the story.
"I got into a fight," he admits. "I think she had a thing for stray puppies and things like that, and she wondered, 'Who is this guy who is acting like this?' I don't know, there was just something about her. It calmed me down. She's a sweetheart."
Soon after, says Walls, "babies started coming" -- so school had to go on the back burner, and he went to work.
He did a lot of growing up during this period, and he would be the first to tell you that he struggled along the way. The scars left by his childhood and the relationship with his adoptive mother led him to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
"I would go through stints of not drinking or not using, but I would have night terrors," he says. "It would be terrible. I still have them sometimes.
"My wife, she went through a hard time with me. She had every reason in the world to leave, but she didn't. I had gotten into heavy drugs, and, finally, she said, 'You're going to have to leave. I can't make you do anything, but I can't be a part of it. I have to remove myself from it, just for the kids' sake.'"
The thought of losing his family was a shock to his system. Recovery was a long path, but Walls was determined.
"I stopped hanging out with the people who used," he says of the first steps. "You talk about 'triggers', well, people are triggers sometimes, too."
Turning back to religion was significant in his recovery as well. When he was a child, religion was often justification for corporal punishment. The marks left were emotional, as well as physical. When he met Pastor Marcus Carruthers at the Dwelling Place Church in Fayetteville, those wounds started to heal.
"I started going to church more, and I started following him around," says Walls of the beginning of their relationship. "I did different events with him. But I'm not just looking [at him] -- I'm looking to see what he's about. It's with cynicism. He asked me about it one time, and I said, 'I've known people in my life that have been religious, but they haven't been what they said they were.' He said, 'I am what I am. You can follow me around, you can shadow me for a year, and you'll see.' And I did that. He kind of brought me back to a place of being a human being."
"He has the same heart that I have," says Pastor Carruthers. "He gives, he shares, he loves the community completely. ... I believe that life is about what we give, not what we get, and his heart is to do whatever he needs to do. We've tried to reach people that most think of as invisible. The word of the Lord says that we should do everything for people who can offer us nothing in return. That's how I live my life and how he lives his, as well."
Cooking is caring
Once he was on the other side of addiction, Walls could start focusing on his future.
"I want to take care of people, I guess," he says. "I was doing some work over here at the old City Hospital. Some patient advocacy. I worked at Decision Point. I worked at the VA. So I've been cooking all along."
Others recognized his potential for running his own business even before he did.
"It happened by accident," he says. "I would go to people's parties and commandeer the grill. And then, people started paying me to do it."
And just like that, Secondhand Smoke was born. But Walls' business wasn't simply a capitalist endeavor, and he wasn't solely business-minded. As he wrote on his business Facebook page, "Secondhand Smoke is where community service intersects with old timey barbecue."
"I think Nate is committed to trying to understand what the community wants and needs -- he's more caring about the community, as a whole, as opposed to looking at using it as a way to profit," says community activist D'Andre Jones. "That's what makes him unique. He's consistently seeing ways to make lives better as opposed to just looking at it from a business person's perspective."
Walls thinks the first time he cooked for a community event was for Willow Heights, the public housing complex near downtown Fayetteville. The Fayetteville Housing Authority was considering selling the property to developers, and, as the community became more involved in and aware of the details of the transaction, information about the poor repair of the property was filtering out to the community at large. Activists were working to spread the word about the issues affecting the tenants at the complex.
"It really bothered me," says Walls. "I grew up in the projects, like that one. And fast forward 30 years of people getting treated like that -- no air conditioners, asbestos. It was terrible. Just bad conditions. I thought, 'Dude, you have to do something about this. You have to get involved. You can't always sit back and think, 'Oh, they're going to take care of it.' And I was blessed to have people around me that also wanted to help. They wanted to contribute. There are some really good people in Fayetteville -- genuinely good people."
So Walls cooked for the event, because that's how he contributes. That's how he communicates. But he doesn't stop there. Walls' compassionate nature drives him to find out more from those affected most by the situation he's trying to help change.
"I just went door to door [at Willow Heights] and talked to people about the conditions there, and that kind of thing," he says. "A lot of the people I met that way still text me. They texted me after they got their air conditioners and let me know how things were going. Sometimes, some of the people don't have food, so I'll call someone to see if we can do something about it. And sometimes, they just want to talk."
As he became more personally involved, he says, he started feeling more and more responsible for the outcome of the situation. It was his first introduction to full-fledged community activism, and he watched, wide-eyed, as it unfolded around him.
"People started trusting me," he says. "I was saying, 'It's going to be OK,' but then I started feeling bad, and Olivia [Trimble] said, 'It will work out,' and then Melissa Terry started unraveling all of this stuff and Alli Quinlan unearthed some stuff right there in one of the FHA meetings. This thing was total community work. People got involved. It was almost like a movie."
Walls was energized by the community participation. Meeting those he was trying to help face-to-face personalized the job for him. This was not new: He had always been interested in others' stories. When he went away for basic training, he carried a little tape recorder with a microphone attached into the barracks and carefully interviewed his bunkmates.
"They wanted to talk," he remembers of the experiment. "Everyone had a message, everyone had a personality. It's kind of what I'm doing now, really. I would listen to it even when I got back, and I would smile, every time. Because it was different cultures and stuff, but it was all the same -- all the same homesickness, every one talked about the foods that they grew up with, all kinds of stuff about their girlfriends."
And that, perhaps, is the secret to Nate Walls' empathy: He is able to look underneath different skin colors, economic strata, religions, political parties and genders to see that the beating hearts, buried deep, are the same in all of us. It's one of the reasons, he says, he's said "Yes" to helping with a wide swath of social issues and causes.
"I've always said, 'I'm not a black cook, I'm a community cook that just happens to be black,'" he says. "There have been so many people who have helped me -- I can't get into that 'just us' thing. I don't pick teams. I wouldn't feel right. There are so many people that have helped me, of all kinds of races and colors."
Use what you know
It helps that Walls draws on his own life experiences when he's helping others.
"He's gone through some rough stuff," says community activist Bobby Howard. "I think that just helps him have the perspective that he's not going to give up on people. He's realistic. He knows people aren't perfect, especially people who need help. He's willing to walk with people. He's doing this really important work now, having gone through some difficult times -- he knows what it's like to have someone walk alongside you."
"I think [his experiences] do play a role in how he views life today," says Pastor Carruthers. "Every situation and circumstance, God uses that to shape us into who we are today. I believe the past has something to do with his impact here and, also, his future. He's a humble person who has been through some things, but I believe when you go through things, you're stronger on the front instead of the back end. He's stronger then he ever was."
When he went to talk to the people experiencing homelessness in a tent village on the south side of the city to learn how he could help, Walls could personally identify with the stories about drug or alcohol addiction, living in poverty and domestic violence. And, even in a community that considers itself progressive, he can personally empathize with those who have experienced racism.
"My wife grew up here," he says. "She said, 'It's kind of like a pretty prejudice.' At the top of it, it looks progressive, but you start chipping away, you start seeing stuff."
An example: One afternoon, Walls was handing out flyers and business cards for Secondhand Smoke in the Country Club neighborhood in south Fayetteville when a police car pulled up to him.
"He asked, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm just passing out business cards.'"
Someone in the neighborhood had called the police to report him.
There are many more stories like this. Working at the City Hospital, for example, around residents of an older generation, exposed him to many people who held blatantly racist views. And sometimes, of course, the thinly veiled racism comes from people more his own age.
"Ain't nothing you can do about it, but that doesn't make it good," he says pointedly. "If you say something, if you start a back and forth, you're not going to end up on top, that's for sure."
Walls hopes the kind of work he's doing is a step in the right direction.
"Through community involvement, you are changing things," he says emphatically. "A lot has changed already. There are people in our groups who ordinarily wouldn't hang out with each other or even be in the same zip code, and now they're hanging out. I think that's a win."
He thinks community meetings like the one recently held at Genesis Church in Fayetteville, where people experiencing homelessness and community members came together to talk, are a step in the right direction. He dreams of hosting a "culture fair" in Springdale where members of different cultural groups share what's unique about their cultures and history with others. If we continue to do that, he says, "we will find out that we're all the same.
"We're mad at people, and we don't know why," he continues. "I see that in the community between Hispanic and black people. But anything that comes across as anger and hate is fear. Fear is always at the bottom."
Walls is charismatic and convincing. His sincerity and conviction make one believe that anything is possible. And with Walls at the wheel, maybe it is.
"It's happening," he says with a smile. "It's not going to happen overnight. But everybody wants the same thing. Everyone has the same dreams. It's going to happen.
"So I just keep on plugging away."
NAN Profiles on 10/14/2018