Chef Toya Boudy’s new cookbook, “Cooking for the Culture,” is as much about the ingredients and process of making a satisfying life as it is about the ingredients and process of making a delicious dish.
Why? “I’m taking everything back,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in New Orleans. The image is a statement about the racism that tried to turn watermelon and other foods associated with Black culture into stereotypes.
“Watermelon nourished and hydrated us while we were working. I gripped that watermelon for all Black and Brown culture.
“I want everyone to take the narrative and switch it,” she said. “It’s what we do. … We’ve flipped so many negative things and made it positive. … Everything that makes people feel uncomfortable. I want to say: Relax your shoulders and rest your mouth. Just let us be.”
Boudy’s life is an example of flipping the script, so along with recipes for buttermilk turkey wings, fried catfish and white chocolate bread pudding, each chapter contains forthright essays about her rebelliousness, poor grades and teen pregnancy. She also writes about the path she is now on with her husband of 10 years, Christopher Boudy Sr., and her four children, including her eldest daughter, who is now in graduate school.
“I hope by the end of this book, you are sparked to spread your wings, find your ‘why,’ heal and feed people along the way,” she writes.
“I feel like I make good decisions,” she said of her life today, noting that her younger self “grieves” for the missteps she took — ones that pained her parents, Emily and Ernest Thomas, both great cooks. They set a firm but loving example and remained steadfast as she found her footing. And she knows that her husband and good friends have lifted her up as she worked to move from steppingstone to steppingstone.
She wants to do the same for others.
“Somebody opened a door for you, so that means you have to wedge that door a little more open for someone coming up behind you,” she said, explaining why she shares intimate details of life in her work as a writer, public speaker and even at food demonstrations. As she noted in one of her podcasts, “If you’re at a place where you don’t want to be, it took work to get there.”
It takes work to change your destiny, too.
At 15, Boudy started cooking professionally by making food in a corner store. She attended cooking school on and off for more than a dozen years, as she went about bringing her vision into focus. In time, she met her husband, who filmed her first YouTube videos. She self-published a cookbook and landed spots on cooking shows on TLC, the Food Network and Hallmark’s Home & Family.
Encouraged by friends to share her life-affirming perspective in a podcast, she recorded 33 episodes in 17 days — in her house, in the school carpool line or wherever it made sense. Each project and effort led to the next move forward. When Countryman Press approached Boudy about “Cooking for the Culture,” the podcast gave her an edge with the publisher, she said. Once the contract was penned, she and photographer Sam Hanna photographed nearly 80 dishes — including baked mac and cheese, fried fish, and cornbread — in 10 days in her home.
“I used to call it ‘my crazy,’ but I realized it’s my genius,” she said of her drive. The cookbook was published in February — just in time for Mardi Gras — and she was invited to make gumbo on the “Today” show and “The Dish” segment on “CBS Saturday Morning.”
The exposure has brought the New Orleans native a far-flung audience: “I didn’t think about my book being sold outside of Uptown [New Orleans], and you’re telling me about Australia?”
Boudy remembers feeling insignificant as a teen, like she was on the outside looking in. Now she feels like she’s in the door, “but [is] not yet at the place where I can sit back. You know how you sit on the couch, but you don’t sit back until you’re really comfortable? I’m still sitting up straight.”
The final photo at the back of the book shows her hand grasping a turkey wing, bright jade nails against the golden, brown poultry. Jade brings good fortune, she said of her nail color choice.
She loves that photo because she sees it as an example of how she won’t be nudged to be less of who she really is: “Can you flatten your hair? Can you only wear muted colors? You don’t want me to draw too much attention? I’m done with that.”