More than a culinary manual, African American cookbooks serve as critical texts in understanding history, culture and power.
Written between formulas are often stories of liberation, family and enterprise. The first cookbook written by a black woman in the United States was published in 1866. Malinda Russell was a freed woman who owned and operated a pastry shop in Tennessee.
After her home was robbed by white men, and having moved to Michigan to regroup and seek protection, Russell self-published, A Domestic Cook Book. Proceeds from the book were to help her rebuild her life and revive her pastry shop. In the space of less than 40 pages, Russell tells us about her life between the European-inspired recipes she shares. Continuing in her vain are four food books published in the last year that defy stereotypes, tell hard truths, and provide recipes common and uncommon to the black experience in the United States.
Adrian Miller, a former Clinton White House aide and lawyer, consolidated a decade of research into The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families (University of North Carolina Press 2017). Miller introduces us to George Washington’s beloved slave chef, Hercules, who would run away to freedom. Sally Hemings’ brother, James, a French-trained chef, and the first enslaved kitchen staff to be paid a wage. The book moves forward to LBJ’s cook Zephyr Wright and ends with the Obama administration. There are recipes included.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (HarperCollins 2017) is 2017’s sleeper hit in food books. Part memoir, part history, part cookbook, and all of author Michael Twitty’s personal narrative of discovery, The Cooking Gene takes on foodway ownership, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Tracing his family roots, Twitty also traced food preparations and the politics of food all the way back to Africa. The chef and historian is extremely candid about his sexuality, his early hatred for soul food, and his conversion to Judaism. Between all of his layers is a book as rich as Alex Haley’s Roots and as visual as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.
Cookbook author and food writer Julia Turshen’s anthology Feed the Resistance: Recipes + Ideas for Getting Involved (Chronicle 2017) is an exciting addition to this list because of the contributors and the contributions. Celebrated black chefs like Tunde Wey, Jocelyn Delk Adams, and Bryant Terry provide healthy and affordable recipes that can be used to feed movements or families. Other contributors include Devita Davison and Stephen Satterfield. One of the special contributions comes from Erika Council, granddaughter of restaurant-owner and Chapel Hill community organizer, Mildred “Mama Dip” Council. Proceeds from this book are donated to the ACLU.
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