This has been a hard few weeks. Necessary hard, but also heartbreaking hard. It has felt prudent to let Black voices take the stage. To really listen to the yearning for reform and change, and to be part of that change. These are big feelings; big and important realities.
I only recently started this newsletter as a point of levity during quarantine, and a place to share food and family stories. I want to continue to do that. I think food is part of the quilt we are all made up of, and has healing properties, and learning possibilities through the stories of cooks and their recipes.
I wanted to take a break, but now I want to press on with fresh eyes.
So I am going to wade back in, if you care to join…
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, and like most people who love to cook I site my mother, aunts, and grandmothers as my best teachers. But also, I will give my father a little credit.
My Daddy was a man of few words. His parenting style was more of “show” than “tell.” He would often ask me to hop in his truck without explanation of where we were going. We would drive to parts of the county I was pretty unfamiliar with to get what everyone now calls “Southern soul food.” My Daddy just thought of it as good food that his cardiologist and my mother would not have approved of because every tasty bite was marinated in bacon fat or fried. We would frequent Black establishments where there may or may not have been a proper door or floor boards. We would settle into plates of blackened catfish, fried chicken, collard greens that had been stewed for hours with ham bones, runny spoonfuls of black eyed peas, crispy cornmeal fried okra, sweet cornbread, or crunchy hushpuppies with a side jar of vinegary pickles or sweet peppers. There was always the option of plain or sweet tea. And certainly some chocolate, lemon, or banana pie piled mile high with meringue.
These life affirming dishes were always served by a hospitable lady who would call me “sweetie” or “baby.”
You can’t talk about Southern food without talking about the Black women who crafted these recipes long before any of us were born. Black food in this country is the tale of African roots, survival, love, and heartbreak. You can taste it, and I am so grateful I got to experience the real thing even though my wide, young eyes did not know the depth of what I was tasting.
The minute I graduated college, I moved to New York City, and when I would feel small and lost, I would go to the Pink Tea Cup in the West Village to get a “meat and three” plate of Southern specialties like the ones I had shared with my Dad. It is amazing how food can bring you home. So, I wanted to learn more about making recipes to bring me home.
About this same time I began taking Gourmet magazine (RIP 2009). I was enamored with the transporting photography, the challenging yet relatable recipes, but also for the history and food culture stories. It was then that I learned about Edna Lewis. Ms. Lewis was considered the grand dame of Southern cooking and really helped educate the country on the multi-layered genre of Southern food. She also had a special talent for cooking with garden vegetables, particularly greens. She really pioneered “farm to table” before that was a thing. She was basically a celebrity chef before that was a thing.
I loved this essay by Edna Lewis published in 2008 called “What is Southern?” It truly brought me home, and made me a little homesick, but also excited to realize I carried my heritage to my new home. And cooking was the transportation to get me back to my memories of my parents and the complicated place where I grew up.
Another pillar in the Southern cooking community was Leah Chase. Although, in this video with Julia Child you will note Leah saying her cooking is not Southern because she hailed from Louisiana which is like another country altogether. I loved watching her make biscuits, which made me crave this favorite Southern treat. Leah made these biscuits with such little effort and exactness that I figured I may not be able to pull this off. So I went in search of a new recipe where butter could be used instead of lard because my cardiologist may feel slightly better about that. I found a new voice in Quin from Butter Be Ready. Here is her awesome biscuit recipe. I used them to make summer peach shortcakes with a little whipped cream. No complaints.
There are so many great cookbooks out there written by Black authors, and I appreciate that the light has recently been shone on the fact that there is a place and need for more. Here is a roundup of books that I love, and some that I am adding to my shopping list:
Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin: The James Beard Award winning celebration of African American cooking.
In Pursuit of Flavor by Edna Lewis: Edna Lewis’s poetic writing will make you both hungry and nostalgic.
The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty: Another James Beard Award winner who you should also follow on Instagram for informative and fun posts @thecookinggene
Vegetable Kingdom by Bryant Terry: The authority on Vegan food rooted in African culture.
Tasting Rome by Kristina Gill and Katie Parla: I personally love Kristina (one of her prints is hanging in my kitchen!). She has a wonderful photographer’s eye, and these recipes are authentic Roman joy.
Black Girl Baking by Jarrelle Guy: The cookbook behind the talented blogger Chocolate for Basil.
I encourage y’all to dig into a few of these books and try some new recipes. If we can get closer to one another at the table, it is much easier to embrace your neighbor. Of course this conversation is much larger and needs to continue for as long as it takes. I imagine for the rest of my life at least.