I collect cookbooks, and I’m ashamed to admit that, prior to the summer of 2020, I could name only one food-focused book by a Black author on my shelves, and it was American Grown by
Michelle Obama, about creating a kitchen garden at the White House. I purchased it because I adore All. Things. Michelle. not particularly because I was seeking more knowledge or insight from her as a food authority. Years later, I would tune into Waffles + Mochi for that 😉
Lightheartedness aside, during that season when so many of us were reckoning with our own blind spots and biases and trying to learn more and do better, I read. A lot. With pancake syrup as a lightning rod for a cultural awakening to the harmful, yet deeply ingrained, imagery and language in American food brands, one of the first books I picked up was The Jemima Code by Toni Tipton-Martin, published five years earlier. While this conversation may have been new to White people, newsflash, it was not new. Beautifully designed and oversized, this is a lovely coffee table book, sure to spark meaningful conversation.
I learned so much from this book and gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the immeasurable contributions of Black cooks and chefs to American history, food culture, and the way we eat today. I thought I would recognize a problematic stereotype if I saw it. I considered myself a foodie. I've dined at more than one Ethiopian restaurant. And I recognized how very limited my actual experience and frame of reference were. A narrow worldview is the canned fruit salad maraschino cherry equivalent to a multi-course global feast. Commercially engineered. Artificially colored and sweetened. And it will rot you from the inside if it’s all you consume. I may prefer Luxardo, but I still had a lot to learn.
I also realized I had some major gaps to fill in my culinary library. I started with eBay and Etsy and purchased a few historically significant and out of print titles which had piqued my interest while reading The Jemima Code – Cleora’s Kitchens, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, caterer to the stars Milton Williams’ The Party Book, and – the jewel in the crown – a signed copy of Pearl Bailey’s Pearl’s Kitchen. Hungry for more and with a whole new world to explore, I didn’t stop there. I knew Toni Tipton-Martin had a new book out. One of the celebrity chefs I’d met had written a memoir. B. Smith was more than a restaurant at Union Station. I had been introduced to icons like Leah Chase and Marcus Samuelsson by watching Top Chef, and I knew their food writing would feel like a visit to their kitchen tables and nourish my soul.
The list that follows, far from authoritative or even compiled with any specific logic or parameters in mind, is merely glimpse at a few titles that have continued to expand my culinary and cultural horizons; teach me some new techniques; cultivate a deeper interest in particular people, places, and events; and feed my family well. I hope they may do the same for you.
Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin
Featuring recipes from two centuries of African American cooking, Jubilee brings to life a selection of dishes from many of the cookery books showcased in The Jemima Code and more. In a book filled with historical scholarship and personal storytelling, the lush photos remind us why we’re here – to truly see our commonality in shared cravings and celebrate the bountiful gifts these talented chefs have left for us. As Tipton-Martin writes in her introduction, “Our cooking, our cooks, shall be free from caricature and stereotype. We have earned the freedom to cook with creativity and joy.” Two items (Salmon Croquettes and a Mac & Cheese inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef de cuisine James Hemings) on my Black History Month Book Club food + wine pairing menu came from this book, and the Louisiana Barbecued Shrimp has become a new favorite at the Kurt dinner table.
My gosh yes, this unparalleled author/activist/poet/prophet/Patron Saint of Poignant Prose even wrote a cookbook. Actually, more than one, but this one THIS. ONE. This one’s personal. This one lets you in. This one takes you to church and confesses. Angelou becomes our travel guide, history teacher, and life coach. She shows us what gaining self-reliance and independence looked like for her. We learn how she got her first writing job by making brunch. She tells us about cooking a cassoulet for the venerated food authority M.F.K. Fisher. And, of course, there’s a story about Oprah. Even minus the food this is a compelling narrative, but each recipe is so much more than an epilogue. Every dish evokes its own sense memory. BYOT.
Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano
One of my top ten reads from last year and of all time, this book is a conversation about race, gender, and class. It is the story of a restaurant built in a formerly segregated Art Deco Greyhound bus station in Savannah. It is a southern baptism by fire. It is a Black female chef from Queens and White male media entrepreneur from Staten Island laying bare for us all the lived experience of their individuality and unconventional partnership, struggles, successes, heartbreak, fears, biases, hopes, and dreams. It’s a love story, but not that kind. It’s a cookbook. Sometimes. It’s a blueprint for how to turn a culturally charged concept into a viable business while maintaining fidelity of place, purpose, and perspective. It’s a journey to make a difference and leave a legacy. It’s an example of how new stories can be written in the unlikeliest of places. It’s an unfinished symphony. It’s the kind of honesty we rarely experience yet should constantly strive for. It’s uncomfortable and healing – because often the most important kind of truth-telling is both. Read. This. Book.
Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora edited by Bryant Terry
Curated by a food activist and author, this book is an amalgam of everything promised in the title and so much more. Visually compelling and substantial enough to be a coffee table centerpiece, Black Food is also filled with the kinds of essays, poetry, and stories that you’ll want to carry around with you and read for their simultaneously immediate and timeless inspiration and edification. This is culinary and cultural writing on a whole new level. Yes, there are dozens of recipes and mouthwatering pictures of food. But there are also playlists and entire chapters centered around concepts like “Spirituality,” “Land, Liberation & Food Justice,” and “Black Women, Food & Power” interspersed with Interlude sections devoted to “Leisure & Lifestyle” and “Radical Self-Care.”
In Pursuit of Flavor by Edna Lewis
Long before NPR called her “the first lady of Southern cooking” or she was commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp, Edna Lewis received her earliest culinary education at her mother’s side in Freetown, Virginia – a community founded by her grandfather and other freed slaves after the Civil War. In Pursuit of Flavor feels like that same kind of lovingly imparted instruction, written so conversationally that the stories and recipes combine with same delightfully delicious effect as butter, garlic, and fresh herbs in a simmering pot. Early in her career, Lewis helmed the kitchen at Manhattan’s storied Café Nicholson, where luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland dined on her simple, yet stunning, food. Her extraordinary list of awards and distinctions aside, Lewis' most remarkable accomplishment may be in the humble fostering of personal connection through books like this and a life lived in pursuit of flavor.
The Dooky Chase Cookbook by Leah Chase
If you’ve ever visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., perhaps you’ve seen Leah Chase’s portrait in its permanent collection, as iconic in her own right as the establishment bearing her founding father-in-law’s name. From its 1940s roots as a sandwich shop and lottery ticket outlet, Dooky Chase's grew into a New Orleans landmark for Creole cuisine – and a destination restaurant for celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world. Here, Chase serves up a collection of recipes from Dooky Chase's menu and her personal archives. Classics like Okra Gumbo, Crawfish Etouffee, and Corn Pudding appear alongside stunning works of African American art that hang in restaurant’s dining room. It’s almost Mardi Gras time and if a visit to the Birthplace of Jazz isn’t in your immediate future, this cookbook is the next best thing.
Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein
I first ‘met’ Kwame through the lens of a produced reality show narrative when he was a contestant on Top Chef – before this book was written, before he was a James Beard Award winner, before all the D.C. press (good, bad, and ugly) leading up to and immediately following the opening of his restaurant Shaw Bijou. And when it closed just three months later, the third-party framing of who he must be as a Black man, a fine dining chef, and an ambitious entrepreneur continued to pile on – at once a self-made success story, hubristic trope, and cautionary tale. In Notes, Kwame shows tremendous depth, self-awareness, and vulnerability while telling the story of who he is, and still wants to become, on his own terms – and includes a few recipes from his fascinating journey. Though no longer a presence on the D.C. food scene (he has returned to his New York roots), Kwame’s story is forever interwoven with this city’s culinary zeitgeist. Entertainment Weekly called Notes the possible “literary heir to [Anthony Bourdain’s] Kitchen Confidential… With the same brutal honesty, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and atmosphere-conjuring prose.”
Rituals & Celebrations by B. Smith
Though Barbara Smith is no longer with us, her legacy as a lifestyle maven and entertaining expert lives on in books like this one. Organized by month, Rituals & Celebrations opens with a symbolically significant New Year’s Day Buffet, complete with her suggestions for thoughtful favors and gifts for guests. B. takes us on a seasonal journey through the year with sumptuous celebrations for occasions like Mardi Gras, Mother’s Day, Juneteenth, July 4th, and through holiday traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas. She also offers tips for staging an in-home wine tasting, planning a family reunion, and hosting a memory-making Women’s History Month “Rite of Passage” dinner – and so much more. With Barbara’s creative crafting ideas, authoritative tone, and aspirational, yet accessible, style, Rituals & Celebrations has become one of my go-to resources for unique ideas to make any gathering feel more special.
The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food: A Cookbook by Marcus Samuelsson with Osayi Endolyn, recipes with Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook
With The Rise Samuelsson sets out to “recognize Black excellence in the culinary world in the same way it has been uplifted in the worlds of music, sports, literature, film, and the arts.” Building on the three pillars of Authorship, Memory, and Aspiration, Samuelsson weaves his personal narrative through 150 recipes developed in honor of fellow chefs, activists, and authors. Also collected here is an extensive list of additional resources: online and brick and mortar stores specializing in African and Caribbean foods; Instagram handles for all the chefs and food authorities featured in this book; more chefs to know and watch; a book list; podcasts; culinary media and organizations; and organizations focused on social change. The liner notes truly live up to their promise, “A stunning work of breadth and beauty, The Rise is more than a cookbook. It’s the celebration of a movement.”
If reading cookbooks isn't your cup of kombucha, here are a few outside-the-book ways to explore Black food culture:
Binge the Netflix series High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.
Brew a steaming cup of Safari Breakfast or Earl of Harlem tea from the Ambessa line developed by Chef Marcus Samuelsson in partnership with Harney & Sons Fine Teas.
Stream Chef’s Table Volume 6, Episode 1 about Mashama Bailey (Netflix). Mashama co-authored Black, White and The Grey in the book list above.
Add Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" to your meal prep playlist. (Okay, this song doesn't actually have anything to do with food, but it's classic Blues, and I love it.)