Black History Month is a fantastic time of year for me. It provides a clear opportunity to reset my priorities and affirm the cultural intention in my work, and offers me a chance to share Black culture with folks who may not consider its value daily. One of the most potent tenets of the holiday that makes it applicable all year long, is to examine the interconnectivity of Black culture with the rest of the world. In America, we see how integral Black life has been in informing so much of the American experiment. The most exciting prism to view this phenomenon through is food.
There is something romantic about the way Black folks cook. The sensed memories of intergenerational recipes are such that these recollections are often more potent than the dishes themselves. The emotions around our food memories are often more palatable than the reality of our lives, and so I’m thinking about the chasm between the tropes that Dr. Badia Ahad-Legardy calls Afro-nostalgia that makes us feel good and the reality of why we need them. Said another way, Black food is as much about the stories as it is about the food, and those stories are complicated but ultimately delicious.
This idea is beautifully explored by Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, two writers, theorists, and professors of African-American studies. They give us the language of fugitivity as an insight into the creation of Black culture and the application of it as a mode of processing Black life and its application. It occurs to me that much of fugitivity's power is in its requirement of naming the circumstances of the traditions we uplift and preserve — not just the recipes but the context in which they were born to give more profound reverence for the conditions that affect their construction. I love that idea because in honoring the Black past we become deputized to also reclaim and move forward those traditions into our modern lives. In this we give new life and potential healing through the act of cooking and eating.
Black food is about placemaking, and the Black table is a panacea for the daily emotional labor of navigating through the world. In the Black food world, food is a place where we can control the narrative of our lives. It is a marker of the agency. This is not to say that food is always a sanctuary, but whether we’re talking about lack or abundance, the plate is often a fair barometer for how Black life is measured. Very often, celebratory foods like fried chicken and intricate and dense desserts get conflated with the totality of our foodways because it’s the more straightforward, more comforting narrative to sell. We’ve allowed these celebration foods to overshadow the fullness of our cuisine because the world is most interested in Black joy and can’t seem to stomach Black pain. If we were to have a real conversation around what constitutes our foodways, we’d also have to confront trauma, food security, racial equity, and the dismantling of culture through lost history.
I’m a chef because the kitchen is one of the few spaces I get to feel free. My whites, my knives, and the stove are in an insulated bubble that I invite people into. I get to use history, a curated palette of ingredients, and a set of techniques to create art that offers something tangible to another person. All of the cooks and creators you’re going to meet this month through the What is Black Food? series are also using their kitchens to communicate their humanity and their distinctive Blackness through their work.
Our Place is a company I'm so proud to be in community with. They've given me this space to talk with you about my culture and this exchange of ideas is at the core of what they do. You see their thoughtfully crafted tools online and bring them into your home, and you get to discover your kitchen in a new way and perhaps engage with a culture you're unfamiliar with. I hope that this Black History Month you think about the Black table and decide to find your entry point into the vastness of Black food. Here are a ton of resources that I hope you check out to make your food world more delicious.