First well mix the chicken in dry flour…Chili pepper chopped fine if added is nice when liked.
Voila! Gumbo is served. That’s one of 160 recipes that appeared in a slim 72-page volume, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” issued in 1881.
It was one of the first published cookbooks by an African-American author — and one of the first to feature African-American recipes. It was a milestone. Not least because of its title.
Mrs. Fisher. Not “Aunt Abby” — which is probably what Abby Fisher was known as, when she was a slave in Mobile, Alabama. Published 18 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking” was itself a small act of emancipation.
“What Mrs. Fisher Knows…” was one of the first cookbooks to feature printed recipes for what is now called soul food: gumbo, corn bead, “jumberlie” (jambalaya), sweet potato pie. It was one of the first attempts to record, systematize and teach African-American cooking, passed down by word of mouth for centuries.
“When it gets to a professional level, it has to be consistent,” said chef Jesse Jones of Maplewood. “When people have a dish, they want it to taste like it tasted before.”
He himself has a cookbook: “Pow! My Life in 40 Feasts,” published in 2017. But he’s also a teacher who has been sharing the joy of cooking — especially African-American and African cooking — to large classes all over the U.S., from South Orange to Maplewood to Bloomingdale to upstate New York to New Orleans.
“Introduction to Africa,” “Haitian Cooking,” “Introduction to Southern Cooking,” “Gullah cooking” (distinctive to coastal Georgia, Florida, South Carolina) are some of the courses that, in the past, have attracted full classrooms of 30 people — about the maximum for a hands-on kitchen experience, he says. Of course, that was before COVID. Now, any teaching he does is on video or online. Not quite the same thing, he says.
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“People want to get in there, they want hands on,” he said. “They want to go right to the matter and see what’s up.”
His live classes have always been lively, he says — not least because he brings cultural context to his slicing and dicing. Not to mention a touch of showmanship.
“I tell stories through food,” he said. “I get in there, get my menu out, I tell stories, I’m singing. We have fun. It kind of takes you right back to your grandmother’s table, the food I make.”
What goes on in Jesse’s classroom has been going on, increasingly, in other spaces, too: culinary schools, church basements, TV studios, cyberspace.
Celebrity chefs like Carla Hall, Joe Randall, Ron Duprat and David Rose have been appearing on morning shows, writing cookbooks, and generally familiarizing large audiences with the cuisine of Africa and the African diaspora. Foodies, meanwhile, have been educating their palates at the growing number of restaurants that feature these dishes.
“People are getting hip and aware of these great foods,” says Rose, originally from Englewood (his family is from Jamaica), a familiar face on Food Network. “These foods have always been great, but they haven’t always been at the forefront at restaurants. Now the right people are coming forward and shedding light on it.”
Chef Naimah Rutling prepares Jolof rice
Chef Naimah Rutling of Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, N.J. takes us through her step-by-step recipe for Jolof rice
Joe Lamberti, Asbury Park Press
One reason classes in pan-African cooking were getting more popular — and they were, before COVID turned the world upside-down — is this idea of connection. Rediscovering the past.
It might be your grandmother’s past — the past of candied yams, mac & cheese, potato salad, and all the other treats on the syllabus of Jesse’s “Southern Cooking” class. Or it might be the past of Ghanaian Jollof Rice or Caribbean cow foot stew with potatoes, which Chef Jesse teaches in other courses.
“People want to go back to their roots,” Jones said.
The idea that African-American, or African, cooking would be studied as an art — with measurements and ingredient lists like any other cuisine — doesn’t seem radical now. But back in 1881, when “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking” came out, it was quite a novelty.
At the time, white superstition had it that African Americans were not only “naturally” great cooks — hence the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben stereotypes — but that it was all instinct. Somehow, magically, these chefs just knew.
“Her kitchen generally looked as if it had been arranged by a hurricane blowing through it,” says Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing about the family cook in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “Yet, if one would have patience to wait her own good time, up would come her dinner in perfect order, and in a style of preparation with which an epicure could find no fault.”
Such talent was born of necessity, of course. Enslaved people, given the worst of everything, had to become culinary wizards to make the stuff taste good.
“Back in the day, they had no other choice,” Jesse said. “Whatever was thrown out, they had to make do with.”
Black celebrity chefs were a phenomenon, even back then. “Hercules” Posey, George Washington’s chef, was the toast of Philadelphia. “A celebrated artiste,” wrote Martha Washington’s grandson, G.W.P. Custis, “As highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.”
After the Civil War, traditions that had been passed down orally began to be passed down in books. Even before Mrs. Fisher, in 1866, there was Malinda Russell’s “Domestic Cook Book,” written by a former slave. In 1911, there was “Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus.” A master chef with the Pullman company, Rufus Estes had whipped up gourmet meals for presidents and celebrities — generally while rattling along at 60 miles per hour on cross-country trains.
“The recipes given in the following pages represent the labor of years,” he wrote. “Their worth has been demonstrated, not experimentally, but by actual tests … in many instances, [under] not too favorable conditions.”
For African-American students, cooking can be a way to honor this past. It’s a spiritual experience, a way to connect with ancestors, to break bread — figuratively speaking — with generations long gone. For other people, it’s about diet and nutrition. Many forms of African cuisine, largely plant-based, are notably healthy (southern American cuisine can be another matter).
And for still others, it’s just a joyful hobby: new skills, new flavors, new things to do in that most marvelous room in the house, the kitchen.
“People are really into cooking, and they love watching anything on Food Network,” said Abigail Hitchcock, chef-owner of Abigail’s Kitchen in lower Manhattan.
Originally a restaurant that offered cooking classes, Abigail’s Kitchen has morphed into purely a culinary school. They teach cuisines from all over the world: everything from French to Italian to Greek to Asian. But in recent years, Egyptian cuisine, Moroccan cuisine and soul food have found honored places on the menu. Now, of course, the courses are online.
“What is important in cooking is that you teach good technique,” Hitchcock said. “We show that.”
And with delicious examples, naturally. Chicken tagine with apricots, couscous with pistachio and rosewater, carrot and beet salads, are all part of their Moroccan menu. Ful medames (stewed fava beans with spices) apricot pudding, Egyptian spinach are part of their Egyptian course.
“I think the interest is increasing,” Hitchcock said. “People are more and more interested in working with spices.”
Given the uptick in restaurants serving these cuisines, it’s not surprising that many cooking schools are starting to work them into the curriculum.
Cathedral Kitchen in Camden offers a 17-week program called “Culinary Arts,” a sort of food-prep 101 for students who want to train for work in food service (the school, a nonprofit, is suspended for the time being). Soul food, Caribbean food and some African recipes comes into it, says instructor Naimah Rutling — “Chef Nai” to her students.
“I do potato greens,” she said. “It’s a West African green, cooks up like spinach, really soft, really flavorful. People put meats in it — chicken, beef, seafood. I do jerk chicken marinades and curries.”
And she teaches Southern American cooking: hard cider-braised turkey neck, purple “smashed” horseradish potatoes, sautéed collard greens.
“I teach from history,” said Chef Nai, a Philadelphia resident. “We go back to slave days. The passion for the food means you have to have the passion for the history as well.”
Which brings us to a delicate subject. Soul food, as the name suggests, is a deeply personal — even spiritual — tradition for many. It conjures up home, family, childhood, ancestors long gone.
It is also — in many cases, and as traditionally prepared — not so good for you.
The chefs of past generations can’t be blamed: it took a lot of salt and lard to turn scraps from the big house into appetizing meals. And food snobs who turn up their noses at down-home cooking might do well to consider how much butter is used in their beloved French recipes.
“When the enslaved people were given scraps, in their ingenuity and creativity they created a meal to make it flavorful,” said Deitra Dennis, a registered nurse in Atlanta who teaches classes in food of the African diaspora for Full Circle Health Coaching LLC.
She’s one of many nutritionists and chefs who basing their cooking classes on African — and African-American -— food culture.
“For me, this is about being able to connect people to heritage,” Dennis said. “It gives a sense of pride to know the innovation, the forethought, of the ancestors.”
It is also, for Dennis, a way to demonstrate that African-based cooking is — or ought to be — healthy.
One six-week class she used to teach for the food and nutrition nonprofit Oldways, “A Taste of African Heritage,” was devoted to different food groups. Lesson one is herbs and spices. Lesson two is greens: collards, callaloo, kale. Lesson three is whole grains. Lesson four is beans and rice. Lesson five is tubers and mashes. Lesson six is other veggies and fruits.
“I wanted to have the cooking classes, but I wanted a little bit more,” Dennis said. “I wanted people to have tools.”
Soul food lovers, she believes, should be able to have their sweet potato pie and eat it, too. She teaches her students about the ways of West African ancestors, who prepared healthy meals with some of the same ingredients familiar from Southern cooking. And she teaches healthy variations on favorite down-home dishes.
“When you tell somebody they can’t have the food that’s traditional to them, it’s not just that you’re taking their foods away from them — you’re taking heritage,” Dennis said. “We can show you how to appreciate your culture in a healthy way. I see it as a solution to help heal our community. Our community is greatly impacted by diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease. This is the solution. Why not have something that can connect with your heritage while reclaiming your health?”
Caribbean or Congo, North Africa or South Carolina, pan-African food is having its moment. And that moment, as Chef Jesse points out, is connected to a larger moment.
“All cuisine matters,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want a place at the table.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jimbeckerman1