Celebrating African-American Cookbook Authors

By Charleen - June 03, 2020

It has been stated that America is not so much as a melting pot of cultures, but rather a stew pot, where ingredients meld together to create a greater whole, but individual characteristics remain. From the very earliest days of our nation, our culinary traditions have been enriched by the melding of African and Caribbean influences with European and Native American cooking. Southern cuisine was not the only beneficiary of this rich African-American heritage, but also the pepper pot stew popular in Philadelphia, rumored to have sustained the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. This wonderful cultural exchange continues to this day, and some of my favorite stir-fries from the Chinese diaspora feature African-Caribbean spices and flavors. Yet the invaluable contribution made by African-American cooks to our culture and enjoyment of life has remained in the background, often invisible, instead of receiving the widespread recognition and honor that it deserves.  

African-American Cookbooks to Explore

A recent Eat Your Books post features six gorgeous contemporary cookbooks written by African-American authors. Among these are Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin, which won the 2020 James Beard award for Best American Cookbook. 

In her previous book, The Jemima Code, Toni Tipton-Martin highlighted numerous historical books by African-American authors, as reviewed in this post. Among them is a self-published cookbook by Malinda Russell, which is the earliest known African-American cookbook to be published. This historical book is available digitally for free, as part of the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan. 

Malinda Russell's book starts off with an introduction to her history (her grandmother was a freed slave), and why she is writing a cookbook in Paw Paw, Michigan -- far from her home in Tennessee. These few pages along are well worth reading, even if you have no desire to recreate old recipes. As a testament to her strength, you can see how many careers she has pursued, raising her handicapped son on her own after her husband died young. She has had all her savings robbed at least twice, picking herself up each time with indomitable strength.

In 1864, Russell left her boarding house and pastry shop businesses in Cold Springs TN to seek safety during the Civil War. "Hearing that Michigan was the Garden of the West, I resolved to make that my home...until peace is restored," writing the cookbook in hopes of raising enough money to get back to Tennessee. "I have made Cooking my employment for the last twenty years, in the first families of Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. I know my Receipts to be good, as they have always given satisfaction... and as I am now advanced in years, with no other means of support than my own labor; I have put out this book with the intention of benefiting the public as well as myself."

As might be expected from a pastry chef, her cookbook starts off with all manner of cakes. There are also fascinating glimpses into pickled peaches, and multiple preparations of meat and milk that allow them to be stored well, presumably at room temperature. The book ends with recipes for personal care items that might have been used in place of toothpaste, shampoo and hair dye. 

A 2014 NPR segment on cooking a meal to honor early African-American cookbook authors, highlights three additional books dating from 1827 to 1911.  Each one of these also contains a glimpse of the person behind the cookbook and what they experienced. The recipes excerpted from the books include a complete meal, from cocktails to fish with chow chow condiment, and ending with allspice cake.

In his 2018 James Beard Foundations Cookbook of the Year entitled The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, Michael W. Twitty discusses some of the missing black chefs from the culinary narrative of American cuisine. Just as behind many successful men, there was a woman, behind many famous restaurants run by white owners and chefs de cuisine, there are numerous unrecognized African-American (and also immigrant) cooks, waitstaff and janitorial crew. 

In his documentary Cooked (four episodes on Netflix -- well worth watching!!!), Michael Pollan shows poignantly how Southern whole hog barbecue played a role in bringing together black and white workers at the same table during tobacco harvests. I did a quick search and found the supporting passages in his book by the same name. Yet even today, "...a white-owned establishment with a black pitman out back -- is not atypical."

African-American & Chinese-American Interactions

Speaking of immigrants, reading Grace Young's Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge and later joining the facebook group Wok Wednesdays opened my eyes to aspects of Chinese-American history stemming back to the 1850's.  While I knew many immigrants predominantly from southern China had come over during the gold rush and played a key (but relatively unrecognized) role in building the transcontinental railroad, I had no idea that the Chinese-Americans in the deep South served as a bridge between white and recently emancipated black communities. They opened "groceries...serving both white and black customers." but "...mostly in the African-American communities where they lived." This continued on into the 20th century in the Mississippi Delta area. "Greenville, in particular was known for the dozens of Chinese groceries... as many as 50 stores in a city of some 40,000 people. 'I was raised in a grocery store,' Wong says, and he means it literally."

Not surprisingly, given the predominance of impoverished laborers that came from China to work the fields, railroads, laundries and food services, similar types of incendiary rhetoric and exclusionary laws were applied to both Chinese, legal immigrants of which were barred from becoming naturalized citizens, and African-Americans in nineteenth century America. In his award winning book Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848-82, Najia Aarim-Heriot details the parallel treatment of Chinese immigrants and African Americans. Along with other researchers, the growing anti-Asian sentiment is framed in the context of backlash against the gains made by the 13th-15th amendments. Oddly, as evidenced through an analysis of political cartoons, the Chinese and Mormons were seen as the greatest threats. "Though suggesting the firmer hold by the Irish, African, and Native on their claim to American soil, the cartoon also warns that these bedfellows may be subject to ejection, deportation, or exclusion should they refuse to 'behave themselves in a dutiful manner.'"
As stated in Encyclopaedia Brittanica,  "The Chinese Exclusion Act ended in 1943 when it was replaced by the Magnuson Act, which permitted an annual quota of 105 Chinese immigrants," but continued to permit states to ban ownership of property and businesses by ethnic Chinese. My mother immigrated via Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War, seeking education in Texas with the hope of returning home to support democracy. As it was nearly 90 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, she was shocked to learn about Segregation. She saw no reason to wait in long lines for the white drinking fountain, nor to stand with her petite frame placing her face at armpit level in the crowded front of the bus, when there were seats in the back. Once a bus driver stopped the bus to inform her that she was in the "colored" section and ask her to come to the front section to stand. She demurred, stating that she was colored -- yellow -- drawing the smiles of fellow bus riders in the back. She recounted these experiences through a series of lightweight airmail letters home, poking fun at herself as a country bumpkin discovering many things in America 美國 (Měiguó), literally the beautiful nation, but unfortunately those letters were lost after my grandmother's death.

Among the recipes that Grace highlights to show how members of the Chinese diaspora adapted traditional cooking techniques to local flavors and ingredients are a set of amazing Chinese-American-Caribbean stir-fries. Around the same time that my mother was living in Texas, Grace recounts the story of Rose who notes that in the 1950s, "the combination of Chinese foods with Jamaican flavors was fashionable, and a popular ingredient was Pickapeppa, a local sauce known as Jamaican ketchup". This sauce is featured in Chinese Jamaican Stir-fried Chicken with Chayote.  Other delicious dishes include Chinese Trinidadian Chicken with Mango Chutney, Winnie's Chinese Trinidadian Stir-fried Shrimp with Rum, and Chinese Jamaican Stir-fried Beef and Carrots. This latter recipe is one of my favorites.  I love the simplicity of only 5 main ingredients that are easy to keep on hand. I had to mail order the Matouk's Calypso sauce, which is well worth it. After tasting it, I immediately ordered three more bottles!

Supporting African-American Restaurants and Authors

Although almost all new groups to the US have faced discrimination and barriers, the systemic prejudice against African-Americans has remained shockingly overt and pervasive. It is truly sad to hear about mothers being afraid to let their children run and play outside. This needs to change. Although many of us may feel powerless as individuals, together we can change things. We can improve communication and we can vote, both literally and in the choices we make in our every day lives. 

Take the time to talk to people with different looks, cultures or backgrounds. It is enriching and important to see and respect people for who they are. And try to identify and support your local businesses!

After my brief visit to Jamaica, I always regretted not trying the jerk chicken that the boys ordered because it was more expensive than the delicious Jamaican meat pies. While I do not know if he smokes his chicken over green pimento wood or not, both the jerk chicken and the curry goat at Leon's Caribbean Restaurant in the southside of Pittsburgh are fantastic!  Check out his website for a video introducing himself and his goals to help grow his community.

I would also love to return to New Orleans, where I have been blown away by the restaurants, but this time I plan to seek out some of the restaurants featured in this article.  

As for cookbooks, I am really looking forward to cooking from In Bibi's Kitchen: The recipes and stories of grandmothers from the eight African countries that touch the Indian Ocean. I have always been fascinated by regional differences in cooking within the same continent. Plus, this book will be joining the shelves next to Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage recipes and family stories from the tables of immigrant women, which is organized by continent (Europe, Africa, Asia, Central & South America and the Middle East) and The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home cooking from Asian American Kitchens. I guess I have a soft spot for grandmothers spreading love through cooking. 

Know of great restaurants with African-American owners or head chefs?  

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