We talked to her about the book, her own Thanksgiving traditions — and her cookbook collection. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
How did “Jubilee” come about?
My goal all along has been to draw attention to the invisible or marginalized African American food professionals who have been in our midst, in plain sight. I knew all along it couldn’t be contained in one project, and so we were strategic in planning several books that could help the reader develop the same appreciation that I had for these cooks.
You talk in the introduction about finding within the cookbooks you gathered a “collective culinary IQ.” Tell me a little bit more about that.
The idea of a culinary IQ is the dexterity that we can see in these cooks. They worked in one capacity all day and then they returned to their homes and to society that has marginalized them, and they are nimble enough to navigate both worlds. The cookbooks prove to us that those professionals believe this food is theirs — it is their intellectual property, even though they prepared it at work and history has portrayed that as “white people food.” It has been misunderstood as not somehow representative of their food.
The example that I give is that we honor celebrity chefs today for the food they prepare at work. We don’t tend to anoint them with celebrity status for home cooking. A lot of what people are known for is their restaurant food or their cookbook food, and so all I’ve asked is that we apply that same standard to African Americans.
So much of how we think about African American cooking through history is enslaved cooking or service cooking. Why is it important for you to talk about the joy?
As a food writer, I have had the privilege of listening to modern chefs and food professionals talking nostalgically about their introduction to cooking, maybe about how much they loved the aromas in their grandmother’s kitchen, or about the loveliness that we all as food people understand exists in the kneading of bread, or creating a nice, warm comforting meal. That story line didn’t match the story line that has historically been created for African Americans — at least in the written record.
Plenty of people have had an appreciation for black home cooking, whether they were African American themselves or whether they were the families that had a black cook in their home. They’ve understood, or have felt themselves, the passion I’m describing, but it just hasn’t been conveyed in the written word.
Among all these cookbook writers, was there one you connected with or loved more than the others?
Oh, that’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child! But there’s Freda DeKnight, who was the food editor at Ebony magazine. I think my allegiance to her is obviously the connection as a food editor, but also as a woman who was clearly aware of the environment in which she was publishing. She saw the ways in which African Americans were being excluded from the conversation, and she set out intentionally to tell the story of the black middle class.
How did you turn often antique recipes into ones a modern cook could reproduce in their kitchen?
We gave a lot of thought to the best way to translate those recipes, knowing there were often missing measurement amounts or ingredients that were no longer available. But we reproduced the original recipes, too, because I wanted people to have a flavor of what those kitchens were like.
I tested over 500 recipes and chose those that either resonated with me personally or because they could amplify the story in a different way. So anyone who comes to this looking for a through line — like, what is African American-ness? — might be disappointed, because what I’m showing is the huge diversity within the canon.
We have had so many experiences within the American experiment. I’m hoping people understand that we are all free from the burden of expectations, and that we can create our own identities based on what is interesting and delicious to us. That’s not a new cultural practice. All hyphenated American cooking styles, whether it’s Italian-American or German-American or Jewish-American — everyone has had that flexibility, and we haven’t.
Tell me about your Thanksgiving. The holiday is one where we often cook family recipes or things that say something about our identities. Is that the case for you?
Thanksgiving is a bit of a moving target right now, because some of my children and my niece — the Gen Xers in the family — are becoming vegan. It began with my mother, who, as a pescatarian, she always wanted to make salmon on the side. And as a food person, I was just like, “You can’t mix those aromas in the kitchen!” We have all this savory, traditional Thanksgiving food — all those warm, fall flavors — and she wanted to insert fish. So that began the transition for us of how to embrace the diversity of our experiences.
One of the things that’s always been important to me was to engage my children in the kitchen, like the ancestors did, and so I’ve found activities that engaged them beyond stemming the green beans or the collard greens. I’ve created several family traditions that we carry on.
Well, I have what has become the tradition of the pie class, where everyone gets to make their own pie filling. Each kid sets up in a different part of the kitchen and makes whatever their favorite flavor is. I have an apple-pie-lover, and two cherry pie boys. My niece wants lemon tart. My brother and husband wanted Key lime. My mother wanted pecan. It’s a lot of pie — and a lot of leftovers. So we’ve adapted it over the years. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve also engaged them in the hot roll-making. I make the hot-roll dough and then they shape the dough.
Tell me a little more about those rolls.
The hot rolls are an absolute staple at our table. Were I to arrive at a holiday dinner without them, I would not be allowed through the door. The no-knead dough is so forgiving. In looking through these books, you learn that African Americans were incredible bakers, and their books are filled with desserts and hot rolls. Hot rolls seem to be the mark of an excellent cook.
They also make incredible sandwiches the next day. The first thing people want to do in the morning is to start toasting that bread or start wrapping them around slices of ham or turkey. I double or triple the recipe.
What’s your next project?
A couple of things, but I’m working on my memoir right now, looking back at my food career: the obstacles, the barriers, the joys. And I’m looking at how similar my experiences have been when compared with my ancestors, despite what people might see as my success and accomplishments. A lot of it is what it was like to exist in the food world at a time when there was no diversity. We weren’t looking at the culture of food as generously as we are today. There was just less curiosity, there were no food-studies majors.
You clearly love cookbooks. How many do you own now?
I think there are only two that I don’t have in first edition, and what we know from book dealers is that if those two do become available, it’s just going to be astronomical. After years and years of being a food editor, I can’t even tell you how many cookbooks I have. It’s in the thousands.
I’ve always kept them in different places around the house, but right now, we’re restoring a 1902 rowhouse in Baltimore, and it will be the first time they’ve all been in one place. The parlor is set off with pocket doors, and we’re going to house them there, so there will be an actual cookbook library. And then I’m debating what to do with that. It will be our home, but we’re thinking through how we might be able to make that accessible to the public.
Since you’re renovating, I have to ask — what are you doing to the kitchen?
That’s going to be a really interesting adjustment. These homes were created for service: There’s a back stairs, and all the buzzers and bells are still in place. I’m thinking about retaining that concept. It’s contrary to what I’ve experienced, which is the open kitchen, that flowing connection to the family room that you have in new construction. During construction, I’ve taped over the bells and buttons that I want to stay in place. I haven’t yet threatened the lives of the contractors — but I might!
I think it’s going to create some new conversation for me, for friends and colleagues that gather in this house. It will be an extension of the work that I’m doing.
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