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Q &A WITH
Chef Jeff Henderson Editor of
America I AM Pass It Down Cookbook Q. The America I AM Pass It Down Cookbook was inspired by the America I AM exhibit, debuting at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC in February. How did the exhibit influence your work on this project? A. It challenged me to document African American food traditions in the rich and informative way that the exhibit does. It truly highlighted the importance of preserving our cooking technique and food stories for the next generations. The collection is a documentation of history from a food perspective and we can’t fully discuss history, especially that of African Americans, without including food. It is a cookbook that represents the spirit of everyday people. Q. How is the cookbook more than just a cookbook? What makes this exploration unique? A. While people will find over 130 mouthwatering dishes in this book, what they will also find are some of the backstories that led to the creation of these dishes. In this respect, it is as much a community memoir as it is an American cookbook. Our contributors’ stories serve as a testament to how food has shaped African American life and continues to nourish our bodies and our souls today. In addition, the ten essays presented in the Pass It Down Cookbook inform and educate readers, showing the enormous impact African Americans have had through their food. Q. What would America be without southern cuisine? A. It’s hard to imagine this nation without southern cuisine or soul food. It has become an indelible part of American cuisine that continues to stir the American melting pot and nourish the heart and soul of this nation every day. Without southern cuisine there would be no more eating grandma’s signature fried chicken at Sunday dinners. No more steaming plates of chitterlings and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. No more family reunions with passionate contests between relatives to see who created the spiciest or most savory barbecued ribs. No more getting your soul filled with soul food. Q. What are the most widespread misconceptions people have about soul food? A. Probably that we use the most undesirable parts of animals. At one time that was true— hog maws, some of the fattier parts of beef, the darker meats of chicken—because that is all we were given or could afford, as is discussed in the cookbook—but this is no longer the case. I have tasted delicious soul food dishes that were not high in fat and sodium. Now we have access to meats like pork and beef that are raised so the meat will
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be healthier. For example, at Smithfield Foods they produce a 98 percent lean pork tenderloin. People just have to be re-educated about how to prepare healthier southern cuisine. Q. Pass It Down recipes are described as “soul-filled” because they include a wide range of cuisines. Why did you decide to broaden the recipe base? A. African Americans have evolved over 400 years in this country and so has our palate. We are a world-traveled people today, so we have experienced Mediterranean, Italian, French, Asian, and every other type of cuisine. Being an innovative people, it is only natural that we have taken food from other cultures and added a little southern soulful twist to them. Including recipes beyond just the traditional soul food was necessary to speak to the diversity of the African American experience—and our taste buds. Q. What role did the transatlantic slave trade play in shaping the way Americans eat? A. Essayist Joanne Morris reminds us in “Stirring the Melting Pot” that certain iconic foods were brought to this country through the transatlantic slave trade. Centuries later, we still find some in pantries and on kitchen tables across the country, from sesame seeds and black-eyed peas to peanuts. Originally brought to Africa from Brazil by Portuguese slave traders, the popular peanut was introduced to the colonies through the slave trade. Another food item in American cuisine enhanced by African influence is one we don’t readily associate with either Africa or America—rice. African rice farmers—of which a significant number were women—from areas such as Angola and Senegambia were often targeted by slave traders because of their expertise. Today, rice not only remains an American food staple, but the United States is the fourth largest exporter of rice in the world. Q. Enslaved African Americans wielded influence in the kitchen in unusual ways. What might readers be surprised to know? A. What most surprised me was the extent to which African Americans, particularly during slavery, were heavily relied upon in the White House kitchen, which food historian Adrian Miller discusses in “Presidential Cooks: Speaking Truth to Power.” Though blacks were largely looked upon as inferior during slavery, past presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson favored their black slaves’ cooking and trusted them to create nourishing and flavorful meals for them and their families. Q. The cookbook features a variety of essays. How did they add to what you hoped to accomplish with the project? A. They really rounded out the cookbook very nicely because they touched on many different aspects of the African American food imprint. For example, in “Ironic Authority: African American Images in Food Advertising,” Michele Washington takes on the smiling fictions of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben; in “Presidential Cooks,” Adrian Miller explores the impact both enslaved and free blacks wielded in the White House Tel: 646-484-4963 Fax: 646-484-4956 http://www.smileybooks.com
kitchen; in “Taking Back the Table,” the cookbook’s co-editor, Ramin Ganeshram, reveals how food and the sting of segregation became a catalyst for her father’s activism; L.A.-based food bloggers the Duo Dishes offer classic dishes and new culinary adventures; in “Cooking with Kids,” Chef Scott Alves Barton talks about the importance of beginning a child’s kitchen education early; and Desmonette Hazly discusses the free cooking workshop she started in L.A. and how culinary arts can be a vehicle for social change. Q. The cookbook presents many powerful images, including boycotts of “whites only” lunch counters and images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Why did you include these images? A. Because it’s important to understand the politics behind food. Many protests were staged over the food counters of the South. Many underground meetings of our great civil rights leaders were held in the basements of people’s houses, and fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese were offered as we sat down to discuss how we could move forward as a people in this country. The irony of using black people as cooking icons to sell food products while we were fighting discrimination offers an important perspective on the nation’s food history. These stories are important to recognize if we are to truly understand American culture. Q. What were some of your biggest surprises as you gathered recipes for the cookbook? A. One of the things that I learned is that everybody cooks differently. I learned that there is no “rule” to cooking. I thought that the way I made gumbo—the way I learned from my granddaddy—is how gumbo is supposed to be made. But when people make oyster gumbo, some people don’t put stewed tomatoes in it and some people do. People fry catfish in different ways: some people fry it with straight cornmeal, no flour, and some with both. I was so inspired I started thinking about different ways to broaden the Pass It Down Cookbook to include different aspects of the food world. Q. African Americans who have helped shaped the way the nation eats are featured in the cookbook. Who do you most admire? A. I really respect Edna Lewis, who is definitely the godmother of southern cuisine in our community and showed that in her seminal book The Taste of Country Cooking. She was a great cook who strived to use fresh ingredients and believed in educating people about food. This is a tradition that I hope to continue. Q. In what ways have African American home cooks shaped the nation’s culinary legacy? A. They have played a major role because African Americans first cooked in the kitchens of America’s families. I believe that most dishes that are in restaurants today were originally home-cooked dishes that were elevated and taken to the next level. Tel: 646-484-4963 Fax: 646-484-4956 http://www.smileybooks.com
Q. Home cooking is fast becoming a lost art as more and more people eat out every day, or aren’t learning to cook from their parents. What does home cooking contribute to our lives? A. Home cooking benefits you in many different ways: for one, you’re handling the food, you’re touching the food, you’re putting love in the food and it’s something that you’re creating for yourself. Food tastes different when you prepare it at home where it’s freshly made versus when you buy it at a restaurant where it is likely to be heavily processed or contain high sodium because food isn’t cooked to order in most places. But you can cook to order when you take the time to create dishes for yourself and your loved ones. And what’s most important is that food is love, and it helps bring people together, especially when it is served. Q. Why did you decide to feature a special section on cooking with kids? A. I think it’s important that we teach our young people self-help skills that they can utilize later in life—and cooking for one’s self and others is a valuable skill. Teaching children how to cook also provides an opportunity to educate kids about ingredients and how to eat healthy, which is extremely important given the high rates of childhood diabetes in this country. Q. What favorite family food memories have influenced your cooking the most? A. My memories of food always go back to two people in my life: my grandparents Charles and Esther. Granddaddy in particular was an amazing cook who prepared all the family meals. Though Granddaddy never wrote down recipes, he had no problem letting folks come in the kitchen to see what was going down. It was in his kitchen and at the dining room table that I learned about southern cooking and developed a love for the cuisine. Q. Young chefs and their recipes are highlighted in the book. What impresses you most about the next generation? A. I saw myself in the young chefs who submitted recipes for the cookbook. I saw ambition, I saw passion, I saw a desire to elevate African Americans’ standing in the professional food world, and I saw creativity, which was most impressive. I’m really proud of the young chefs and I think this section is going to be an inspiration to young people who are considering careers in the food and hospitality industry. Q. You are a strong supporter of people growing their own food, especially in urban communities. Why is this important to you? A. Often, it is the only way people can truly have access to quality food and fresh fruits and vegetables. In the essay on community gardens, for example, Chaz Kyser highlights how Ama Shambulia and others who operate West End Community Gardens in Birmingham, Alabama are feeding their community. The garden is sorely needed because like many Tel: 646-484-4963 Fax: 646-484-4956 http://www.smileybooks.com
urban areas, West End is largely devoid of the type of services and businesses that make a community viable, such as grocery stores with fresh and inexpensive food. I visited the West End Community Gardens and was very impressed, especially with the various types of vegetables they produced. The food ranges from arugula to yams and a variety of field peas, peppers, and tomatoes. It is especially known for its 12-foot-tall okra plants. Q. The last chapter in the cookbook invites and allows readers to write down their favorite family recipes. Why do you feel itâ€™s important for African Americans to record their recipes? A. Because they comprise a living history and we need to know and to continue to record our history. I think itâ€™s important for the elders to make sure the next generations learn and understand the importance of cooking, the importance of eating well. And itâ€™s our responsibility to be the people to document the African American food imprint.
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Published on Jul 1, 2011
The smells in the kitchen, the unforgettable flavors—these powerful memories of food, family, and tradition are intertwined and have travele...