My grandmother Nannie was a sturdy woman of Choctaw descent who cooked marvelously, but she passed on without leaving me a single morsel of her culinary wisdom. Unfortunately, the stereotyped image of African American women like Nannie in history and recipe books is completely opposite of my own personal experiences with creative, generous, hard-working women who did more toward the creation southern cuisine than simply kill the chickens and stir the pots.
The very women who taught me how to make flaky pie crust, to develop self-confidence in my children, and to pursue a career outside of the home have been characterized by demoralizing portraits of lowly, surly servants toiling away in southern kitchens. The emotional, spiritual, and physical strength behind their accomplishments has been ignored.
Those pioneering women in early America worked under stone-age conditions in the plantation kitchen house, and yet they were creative and expressive. They honed their kitchen skills the way culinary students do today: by observation and apprenticeship. The culinary arts were in most cases the only way they could express creativity, independence, and maintain their self-esteem. Cooking also increased their understanding of math, chemistry, and science, which they passed along to their kids.
I have dedicated my career to researching, writing, and speaking to audiences about this complex history, dishing up wisdom and recipes from previously undiscovered cookbooks to shed new light on the meaning of classic African-American cuisine. I also formed a foundation dedicated to promoting the connection between cultural heritage and good health.
My hope is that future generations will recognize and embrace the black cook as the loving and inspirational woman who cooked our meals from scratch, sewed our clothes, salved our wounds, nurtured our spirits, and generally elevated our character.
In today’s hectic times of fractured families, chemical additives, poor nutrition, and extreme childhood obesity this important role model can take us beyond our current notions of hurry-up cooking, pre-packaged mixes, and fast food and encourage us all to restore a little warmth to our kitchens of granite and steel.