Vertamae Samrt-Grosvnor calls it vibration cooking, and she thinks it's the way everyone should cook: a pinch of this, a dash of that. It's common sense, it's instinct. If your don't feel like adding carrots, don't. If you like garlic in your scrambled eggs, mash it in. If you don't have the tablespoon of parsley your recipe calls for, go on to the next ingredient; the recipe will not bite.
"Most of the people I grew up with cook that way," says Smart-Grosvenor, author of "Vibration Cooking," an autobiography liberally dotted with recipes that for the most part do not give exact measurements, just ideas. "I never saw them use a recipe, it would never occur to them.
"When we tasted something we liked, we'd ask, 'How do you fix yours?' They'd say, 'I put in nutmeg and a little bit of allspice.' No one told you how much, there was something almost mystical about it. My father was a good cooker, always was asking how do you fix this and that, and when they would tell him, he'd just say, 'Well, I don't like that, I'll do it this way.'
"It's like jazz to me. I usually riff, I like to improvize."
Smart-Grosvenor notes that most of the food she describes in "Vibration Cooking" (Ballatine, 1986, $3.50) is Afro-American cookery not soul food. Soul food, she says, was a trend in the '60s, when people claimed it grew out of what the masters left over in slave days.
"First off, historically, slaves would be beaten for eating the same food as their masters."
A few of the African influences in the food are hot pepper, okra, greens, one-pot rice dishes and seasonings.
"It's like all peasant cookery -- when they kill a hog, they use all of it, the chitterlings, ham hocks." It doesn't differ from southern cookery, she says. "Both white and black people eat it."
In her many travels around the world, Smart-Grosvenor has been exposed to a wide variety of cuisines. There is one she isn't partial to. "I don't like nouvelle cuisine, it's not hearty enough, I can't get into it." But of the others: "I found that I could relate to any peasant cookery of any country.
"I'm not a snob about food, I like food and cooking. The worst thing about writing a book is that no one invites me to dinner anymore. But it's not a textbook, I'm not a black Julia Child. I really want to be invited to dinner again."
For Smart-Grosvenor, cooking is literally a spice in life. "I just think that since cooking is something you do every day, for every meal, you should do it with a lot of humor. Life is just getting weirder and weirder. So you should keep on cooking and laughing.
February is Black History Month, and in celebration Smart-Grosvenor, who is also an actress, a poet and a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," had some friends over for dinner one night recently. "The menu tonight, in honor of George Washington Carver," she announced, "will be peanut butter chicken, sweet potatoes and an old-time southern favorite, Jell-O with fruit cocktail."
If you would also like to celebrate, below is the recipe for peanut butter chicken, with the measurements included. But please, feel free to riff.
EXPRESS LANE: chicken, peanut oil, green pepper, onion, cayenne pepper, chicken broth, chunky peanut butter, rice or potatoes or plaintains PEANUT BUTTER CHICKEN (8 to 10 servings)
This West African dish is sometimes called Ground Nut Stew.
3-pound frying chicken, cut into small pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
Peanut oil for frying
1 cup chopped onions
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon cayenne or more to taste
2 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 cups chunky-style peanut butter
Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper, and brown in peanut oil. Add onions and green pepper, and cook until the onions are transparent. Add cayenne and chicken broth, and simmer gently 15 minutes.
Combine 1 cup cooking liquid with peanut butter, mixing into a smooth paste, and add to chicken mixture. Continue simmering until chicken is tender. The sauce should be on the stiff side.
Serve with boiled rice, mashed potatoes or plantains.