It took 2 1/2 years for word to reach enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. That day, June 19, 1865, became known as Juneteenth. Even though it would be another six months before the 13th Amendment would be ratified (therefore outlawing slavery), Juneteenth was a symbolic day, a day of celebration on the path to freedom. But 155 years later, this day remains elusive to white Americans, regarded as an unofficial holiday for Black folks in a smattering of states.
It pains me to say this, but I know with certainty that I was well into my 20s until I learned the significance of Juneteenth. In 1992, I lived in South Africa to better understand the legacy of apartheid, but I was ignorant of this historic day for Black people in my own backyard.
Food would school me and, among other things, put Juneteenth on my radar. Learning to cook professionally was undoubtedly my gateway to learning the cuisines of the world. But more importantly, working in kitchens and reading cookbooks and food history books introduced me to the foodways of this country — how and why ingredients landed when they did and how they shaped agriculture, eating habits, rituals and the evolution of a distinctively American cuisine.
Food would show me that Black cookery is American cookery and an American story.
More than 20 years later, I continue my education through the work of African-American food writers.
Here's a sampler of the books that are on my bookshelves, to which I regularly return and reread, in my quest to deepen my understanding.
“Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
Author: Adrian Miller
Notes: A culinary historian, Miller traveled to 150 soul food restaurants around the country to document “the reasons soul food developed the way that it did and why its current reputation (unhealthy and undesirable) is unfair.” He also does a deep dive into the iconic elements of a soul food dinner, such as fried chicken and greens. I learn something new every time I go back to it. Winner of a 2014 James Beard Foundation book award.
More info: Miller is also the author of “The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas” and the forthcoming “Black Smoke,” about Black barbecue culture. adrianemiller.com.
“Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking.”
Author: Toni Tipton-Martin
Notes: In 1991, Tipton-Martin joined The Cleveland Plain Dealer as the first Black food editor of a major daily newspaper. Jubilee is the second of her books based on her massive collection of rare Black cookbooks. In “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African Cookbooks,” Tipton-Martin curates more than 150 of these historic works dating to 1827, and in “Jubilee,” she digs into the recipes of these unsung authors, always with a backstory or a tale of kitchen adaptation. It is magnificent and will be forever evergreen. Winner of a 2019 James Beard Foundation book award.
More info: In addition to “The Jemima Code,” which began as a traveling pop-up exhibit, Tipton-Martin has co-authored several other titles. tonitiptonmartin.com.
“High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.”
Author: Jessica B. Harris
Notes: This book could serve as a textbook on the history of the forced migration of Africans to the Americas through the lens of food. It is a deep dive while remaining accessible, a riveting and often emotionally difficult read. (My copy has notes in the margins throughout.) In the intro, she writes: Despite being taken from their homeland and forced into slavery, "we have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other.” Winner of a 2012 IACP book award.
More info: Harris is the author of 12 cookbooks and a memoir. Her most recent work is “Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play.” africooks.com.
“Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.”
Author: Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor
Notes: First published in 1970, this memoir-cookbook is a collection of stories growing up in South Carolina lowcountry and of her European sojourns, peppered with recipes from near and far. She weaves her personal experiences as a Black woman with commentary on the universality of food. The reader gets a taste on the first page: “White folks act like they invented food and like there is some weird mystique surround it — something that only Julia (Child) and Jim (Beard) can get to. There is no mystique. Food is food. Everybody eats!” Smart-Grosvenor died in 2016 at age 79.
More info: the author of several titles, including “Vertamae Cooks in the American Family Kitchen,” Smart-Grosvenor was a longtime contributor to National Public Radio.
“A Date with a Dish.”
Author: Freda DeKnight
Notes: As the first food editor of Ebony magazine, DeKnight compiled an exhaustive collection of recipes that covers the basics of everyday cooking as well as menu planning and entertaining. It reads like a cross between “Betty Crocker” and “Joy of Cooking,” and DeKnight is speaking directly to Black homemakers. In her intro, she writes: “It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads. Like other Americans living in various sections of the country they have naturally shown a desire to become versatile in the preparation of any dish, whether it is Spanish, Italian, French, Balinese or East Indian in origin.” First published in 1948, “Date with a Dish” was seminal and remains an important contribution to 20th-century American cookery.
More info: In 2014, Dover Publications republished a version of the 1962 edition of “The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish,” which is readily available online.
“Vegan Soul Kitchen.”
Author: Bryant Terry
Notes: In his first book that is now 11 years old, Terry weaves personal stories and family heritage into this plant-based recipe collection. His recipes are both approachable and creative, which include recommended tunes, such as “Back Water Blues” by Irma Thomas for the Gumbo Z and “Cry Me a River” by Dinah Washington for the caramelized red onion relish.
More info: Terry's subsequent books are “Afro-Vegan” and “Vegetable Kingdom,” which launched earlier this year. He wears another hat as chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Learn more at bryant-terry.com.
"If I Can Cook/You Know God Can”
Author: Ntozake Shange
Notes: Best known for her play “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow Is enuf,” Shange, who died in 2018, was also a poet. Like “Vibration Cooking,” (Smart-Grosvenor wrote the foreword), “If I Can Cook” weaves tales of growing up and travel dispatches with poetry and yes, recipes (there are 34), many of which are written in poetic verse.
In the intro, she writes “these perusals of history, literature, vernacular, culture, and philosophy, ’long with absolutely fabulous receipts, are meant to open our hearts and minds to what it means for Black folks in the Western Hemisphere to be full.” To her, a roux is “not just some butter and flour or oil and flour. A roux is the embodiment of the soul of a family.” In a 1998 interview, she told me that gumbo (made with okra, of course) was the one food she could not live without. With this collection, I’d venture to say she cooked up a delicious literary gumbo.
More info: Shange’s books are readily available online.
On my nightstand
“The General's Cook,” by Ramin Ganeshram, a historical novel based on Hercules, the Black chef who cooked for George Washington. A longtime journalist, Ganeshram is the author of several cookbooks.
“Notes from a Young Black Chef” by Kwame Onwuachi, a coming-of-age memoir of extreme highs and lows, from Nigeria and the Bronx to Washington, D.C., where Onwuachi runs his restaurant, Kith and Kin.
“Meals, Music and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen,” by Alexander Smalls and Veronica Chambers, a mashup of stories and recipes from this Harlem-based chef and opera singer. Smalls is the author of another personal favorite, “Grace the Table: Stories and Recipes from my Southern Revival.” His writing partner, Veronica Chambers, is a prolific writer and has teamed up with other chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson and Eric Ripert.