THE WASHINGTON POST – My father was a proud Black activist and food lover, a man who would casually quote civil rights leader Medgar Evers and then wave me over to taste a freshly sauteed clam. To my supreme mortification, he picketed my elementary school when I was a first-grader to protest policies he viewed as racially biased. When I was a child, he taught me about Black histories and the complexities of Black culture. Food was often a central feature in those lessons.
However, the connection between Black food and identity that he tried to teach me did not become clear until later in life when I began exploring Black cookbooks. Cookbooks tell stories about how food, culture and history have interacted, and through them I was finally able to draw lines between my father’s food-centric lessons and a broader sense of identity.
From my father, Ahmad-Malik, I learned that Black Americans are descended from diverse peoples who immigrated to America forcibly or by choice. He taught me that Black people settled throughout America, from Louisiana to California, and like all immigrants created multitudes of localised identities as they assimilated, coexisted or rejected aspects of their new homes. There is no monolithic Black American culture. Instead, my father believed, as I do, that multiple Black cultures remain distinct yet woven together by their shared history of exclusion. (For me and my family, lowercase “black” is a colour. I use uppercase “Black” to refer to people and cultures of the African diaspora.)
My dad’s food philosophy often centred on the concept that our family “made do”. He told stories of his grandmother Daisy making cheese by cooking meat scraps into a gelatinous mass. Those tales seemed like gory experiments to my childhood brain. As a kid, I did not understand why we spent so much time and effort cutting up old bread and food scraps to distribute to the chickens we kept. The cycle of using waste to feed animals, which then provided us with nourishment, was not evident to my 10-year-old self.
My concept of a shared “make do” ethos among many Black American communities as a response to scarcity fully solidified only when I read about “the tradition of slaves making dinner from the scraps of the master’s table” in Alexander Smalls’s 2020 book, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from my African American Kitchen. In Todd Richards’s 2018 book Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, I read about how enslaved people cooked undesirable cuts of meat and about the soul food tradition of “utilising what you have instead of wasting food.” Story after story reminded me of my father. They echoed his admonitions to clear my plate to avoid waste, of his eclectic soups made of ingredients on the verge of spoiling, and of composting to further nurture our garden.
For me and my siblings, that garden was the bane of our childhoods. We had to wake up early and go out and get dirty, often in the hot summer sun, to water and weed. Even as adults, we still jokingly complain about those days. Yet it is clear to me now that the garden connected my father to a broader sense of his Black American identity.
At 29, I learned about Alethia Tanner from Toni Tipton-Martin’s 2019 book, Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking. Tanner was enslaved and purchased her own freedom and that of her family in the 1800s by leveraging her gardening skills. From Jubilee I also learned about the hidden gardens of enslaved people, a means of supplementing meager rations. In Bryant Terry’s 2020 book, Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes, I read of Black elders taking solace and pride in their gardens in a manner strikingly similar to my father, as an escape from the trials of a society that did not always welcome them as equals. I began considering those childhood mornings I spent pulling weeds through a new lens.
When he was eight, my father was turned away from a hospital in Vallejo, California, in the midst of a severe asthma attack. The hospital remained segregated and did not serve Black patients at the time. His mother was forced to take him across town to the hospital that accepted Black patients, a dangerously long trip during which my father almost died. Until his death in 2011 from an asthma attack, he never fully trusted our modern medical system.
Over and over again, references to gardens in Black cookbooks brought me back to that horrific story from my father’s childhood. As I pondered those references, the connection between that childhood injustice and our family garden eventually became clear. By producing his own food, my father sought to remain independent of a society that did not always treat him as an equal. He wanted to protect his children from hunger and sickness the best way he knew how – through baskets of collard greens, organic tomatoes and freshly picked green beans. In this way, our garden echoed the foodways of many Black families who, as Tipton-Martin wrote in Jubilee, kept gardens as part of a “tradition that ties self-sufficiency and self-determination together with fresh vegetables”. Recipes such as the Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Collard Green Butter from Soul brought back memories of my father. I could imagine him making something similar with ingredients from our garden. All the while, he would have told us just how nutritious it was, smiling with satisfaction at what he was able to produce with his own hands.
My father also embraced food as a way of showing love and care, something I appreciated but never fully contextualised until my cookbook collection forced me to. Dad celebrated any occasion with food. If you visited, you were fed or badgered until you acquiesced and accepted at least a snack. For grand celebrations he reveled in spending hours to make gumbo. When I did well on a test or just because he felt like it, my father would snag me a cupcake or a biscuit from the local bakery while driving me to school.
Using food as an expression of love and hospitality is something many cultures share, so I never considered this expression in relation to the Black experience. Then I read about the purpose with which Smalls, a chef and former opera singer, prepares food to entertain friends and family. In the pages of Black cookbooks, I recognised what Richards calls “the fellowship around food,” the repeated references to family celebrations and communal gatherings anchored by meals. I read about the historic Black chefs, hosts and hostesses who served food to Black travellers while the hospitality industry remained segregated and safe environments were limited. In this way, cookbooks prompted me to consider the legacy of food beyond its role as a survival mechanism. For people who have so often struggled at the margins, food remains an important means for providing care.
Identities are complex. I am a Black American, and I have only just begun to understand how food connects me to other Black Americans. I cannot speak to an absolute, narrow definition of food identity. But I know I can further inform myself and my understanding of my history and culture by exploring the foodways in Black cookbooks. In those stories, at times, I can almost feel my father’s laughter, his joy as he picks collard greens from our garden.