Celebrating Black History Month Through Food

By Monica Bettson, The Stop’s Community Chef

February is Black History Month, and in The Stop’s Drop-in meal program, we’re celebrating by exploring the rich and diverse cooking of the African diaspora. Personally, I’m using February as a month to explore these vibrant cuisines, and I hope to take that sense of exploration with me throughout the year.

Growing our understanding of these cuisines’ historical roots and contemporary expressions shouldn’t be relegated to just one month of the year. We live in a city where learning about people through food is something you can do every day—by visiting a neighborhood grocery store and buying a new ingredient, eating a meal at a small family restaurant, or taking out a new cookbook at the library.

With that in mind, here’s two inspiring cookbooks written by Black women to help you delve into the world of Southern and Caribbean cooking: a seasonal Southern classic from the 1970s and a modern Caribbean vegetable-based one from 2018. Enjoy!

The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis grew up in the 1920s in Freetown, Virginia—a small community settled by freed slaves. She had a long career as a chef in New York City, and began writing cookbooks in the 1970s. In the 80s, she founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Cooking, now known as the Southern Foodways Alliance. The Taste of Country Cooking returns to her childhood, which was full of seasonal, home-cooked food, and she describes her families’ preserving, butchering and baking in evocative, vivid detail:

“Honey was another one of nature’s contributions to spring. On warm spring mornings, my father would bring in a big pan of honey that he had located in the hollow of an oak tree. He would break into the comb and gather the honey, filling his pan with the delicious, clear, dark amber nectar. We chewed on the wax for days and enjoyed the honey on hot biscuits throughout the spring.”

A Taste of Country Cooking is Lewis’ ode to her grandparents’ generation’s way of cooking, a style of cooking that’s often caricatured and misrepresented. Historical cookbooks about Black Southern cooking are difficult to find—not because the food lacked sophistication or the recipes existed in a simplistic, verbal handing-down—but because Black chefs and cooks of the 18th and 19th century were prevented from profiting from their own talents.

Edna Lewis is a gifted food writer, and her childhood memories are captivating. This book is so much more than a collection of recipes, it’s a peek into the vivid, sophisticated, and flavourful food of Southern Black families of the 1920s, food that Lewis hoped to revive. In a New York Times interview, Lewis said that “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavours of the past.”

In The Stop’s Drop-in, we’ve enjoyed quite a few of Edna Lewis’ recipes, including Spoon Bread (a rich cornmeal bread full of buttermilk), savory tomato gravy, preserves and pickles, and thanks to a donation of chicken tenders (an expensive cut that we don’t often get to work with)—pan-fried chicken!

Provisions by Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau

“The story of Caribbean food cannot be told without telling the story of Caribbean women,” write sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau. Born in Jamaica, these sisters are chefs, restaurant owners, and stars of cooking and travel show 2 Sisters and a Meal. Their newest cookbook, Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking, takes inspiration from their great-grandmothers and incorporates their influence into thoroughly modern, vegetable-based recipes. West Indian cooking has a history of adapting and absorbing new cuisines, due to slavery, migrant labour, and immigration, and this book includes new presentations of traditional foods.

“We hope this work will celebrate all the women who have gone before us, who have been forgotten, unseen, and unknown. We hope that through this book we can inspire you to explore your personal histories and pay homage to the legacy of generations of women. We believe that there is no better way to honor those who have fed, nurtured and raised us than by cooking the foods that our grandmothers used to cook, but doing it our way, with our interpretation of their recipes. We hope that we have done them justice.”

Interspersed between the recipes, Provisions tells the story of the Rousseaus’ great-grandmothers, one of whom was a business owner, entrepreneur, and creator of the very popular “Briggs Crisp Crust Patties” in Kingston—an amazing feat for a single mother in colonial Jamaica in the early 1920s.

This book helped me learn about ingredients like dasheen, cassava, and plantain, and gave me a window into the detail, craftsmanship, and pride of cooking in West Indian kitchens. In The Stop’s Drop-in, we’re looking forward to trying cheese and plantain patties, crispy trini-style channa, coconut basmati rice, and curried okra and green banana.

Taste Monica’s cooking yourself!

On March 7, Monica will serve up a delicious fundraising feast in our Green Barn. The meal will feature local and seasonal dishes—plus loads of fun fermentations like pickles, krauts, harissa, and sourdough. All proceeds will go The Stop and programs like our Drop-in meals. Seats are limited, so snag your spot today!