Marcus Samuelsson Celebrates Black Cooks, the Soul of American Food | CUESA

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February 25, 2021

Marcus Samuelsson Celebrates Black Cooks, the Soul of American Food

Underregonized and erased for too long, the significant contributions of Black cooks encompass a rich world of creativity, innovation, and traditions, with global and regional influences far and wide. Chef and TV star Marcus Samuelsson brings these contributions center stage in The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, a joyful and diverse celebration of Black food culture.

Through inspiring stories and delicious recipes, The Rise pays homage to Black culinary legacies and leaders⁠—chefs, writers, and activists like Shakirah Simley, Toni Tipton-Martin, Stephen Satterfield, Michael Twitty, and many more⁠—as well as techniques and ingredients of the African diaspora. In this excerpt, he shares his own story, and digs in to why Black food is so vital to American food⁠ and the American experience.

Black Food Is American Food

Black food is not just one thing. It’s not a rigidly defined geography or a static set of tastes. It is an energy. A force. An engine.

In fact, Black cooking is the engine of what we commonly understand to be American food. And if you want to understand the culture and history of the United States, you need to understand Black cooks and Black food. This book is an invitation to that conversation—an invitation to open doors to history, highlight Black excellence today, and imagine a future where everyone has a seat at the table and a spot in the kitchen.

Today, Black creators in literature, music, sports, fashion, film, and the arts are finally being properly recognized. It’s time we understood the contributions of Black cooks on the same level; as powerful and multidimensional forces shaping our culture.

Yet many readers may still think that Black food starts and stops with dishes like fried chicken and grits—a certain idea of “soul food” stuck in time. There’s much to learn by studying these dishes, but they reflect just one of the many facets of Black cooking. Just as our country is now familiar with recognizing and exploring the regional differences in Italian or French or Chinese food, this book asserts that the food of Black cooks has its own unique richness to explore.

Think about music. What if we stopped studying Black music after the rise of bebop? We’d miss out on hip hop, Afrobeat, reggae, funk, and many other unique sounds and statements about our world. When we think Black food is just one thing, we hear one song and think it represents the entire record library. Black food is constantly engaging with its roots, adapting to new circumstances, and integrating other ideas. It is anything but monolithic.

This book is an invitation to a listening party that everyone is welcome to join—a celebration to discover the breadth, depth, and diversity of Black cooks.

You’ll learn about ingredients and recipes that acknowledge this cuisine’s journey from its origins in Africa to the Americas and beyond. That’s because Black cooking—like all food—is local and personal, with ingredients, techniques, and traditions evolving across geography and time. And you’ll meet extraordinary Black cooks and other experts whose stories reveal their personal histories and individual tastes, suggesting the wide range of family stories, cultures, and creative dimensions reflected in Black cooking today.

This work is particularly relevant right now, at a moment when we have rarely needed to learn about and understand each other more urgently. This is a historic time in which we have the power to make meaningful change. We have the opportunity to wake up to the brilliance and beauty around us, as well as to the systemic problems that create issues of justice, access, and representation around race.

What Does It Mean to Be a Black Cook?

I remember teaching a cooking class after I had moved to New York twenty years ago. I was going off about how I was inspired by Swedish food, Japanese food, and so on. A student asked me: “What about African food?”

That question made me look inward and question the assumptions I had made about what was valuable in my professional life. The energy and creative force of Black creators is why I had been drawn to the United States. But I had to ask myself: What does it mean for me to be a Black cook? I realized I had so much more to learn on the way to answering that question for myself.

After that, my work turned in a new direction. I did not have to chase French food and Michelin stars. I could also learn about cacao beans and benne seeds.

I was born in a hut in Ethiopia, adopted by parents in Sweden, trained as a chef in Europe, and chose to work in Harlem. Being an immigrant and being adopted means being uprooted. For me it also gave me a different perspective on the United States. I saw the hope that many immigrants have: that whatever is missing or broken where you are, that you can come here to find or fix it.

As a Black kid growing up in Scandinavia, Black culture coming out of the US was a lifeline. Music was the first way for me to do that—Marvin Gaye, Prince, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix. I learned about Harlem from James Baldwin books, movies, the writings of Malcolm X, and Amateur Night at the Apollo.

I was in search of my home, and ultimately, I found it here, Uptown. Once I started to live and cook in New York, I was shocked at how little the story of Black cooking was being told. I lived in Harlem and studied for ten years before I opened my restaurant Red Rooster. I realized that many great Black stories were rarely written down and printed; they were told to me by community elders in conversation. And while there is an oeuvre of Black-authored cookbooks spanning more than two centuries, so much great Black food was not written down and documented in that way; it was orally shared, or you had to be there. Unless you were practically a specialist in digging up these gems, Black foodways had been scrubbed from history.

I wanted to acknowledge the authorship of those who came before and the contributions of the next generations of Black chefs.

I always return to the stories behind our food. It’s not a straight line, because the influences are truly global. We can’t separate West Africans and their descendants from their foundational contributions to this country and we can’t separate their influence on cooking from Southern food, though many have tried. We can’t separate the Great Migration from the way it changed how the US developed, and so we must understand that where Black people went, their food cultures followed.

As a naturalized American citizen, this is my country, too. Black history is part of my story. I’ve been the beneficiary of all that Black America has accomplished. The opportunities I’ve enjoyed, the access I’ve received, are thanks to so many who came before me. In some ways, my experiences make me an outlier. I must acknowledge I can only do this work in this country. Even as an immigrant, I benefit from the work and sacrifices of the Black American generations who preceded me. I wouldn’t be here without the efforts of the courageous young folks who led the Civil Rights Movement. My parents didn’t slog through the indignities of Jim Crow. Unlike many in my generation, I didn’t have to watch my father come back from Vietnam scarred, or live through him not coming back at all. It’s important for me to acknowledge that while I share Blackness with my fellow coworkers, we experience our identities in different ways.

So: What does it mean to be a Black cook in this country? Every person in this book might answer that question differently. There is no one answer, nor should there be. But until we engage with that question, and recognize the roots and range of Black foodways, we won’t understand who we are as a country.

Excerpted from THE RISE by Marcus Samuelsson with Osayi Endolyn. Recipes with Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook. Copyright © 2020 by Marcus Samuelsson. Photographs by Angie Mosier. Used with permission of Voracious, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Recipes

Roasted Carrots withy Ayib and Awaze Vinaigrette

Berbere Spice Brown Butter

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to growing thriving communities through the power and joy of local food. Learn More »