‘Black Power Kitchen’ and the legacy of political cookbooks


Times are hard for today’s food writers. Some people don’t want to read anything negative or challenging in stories about cooking. “Shut up and cook” and “Just give us the recipe” are their alternating refrains.

The worst offense is referring to politics, or of seeming to have even the slightest of political agendas.

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Imagine, then, what a defiant act it would be to publish a cookbook such as “Black Power Kitchen” in this moment. A collaboration between the Ghetto Gastro, a collective founded by Pierre Serrao, Jon Gray and Lester Walker, from the Bronx, and the writer Osayi Endolyn, it is a blatantly political project. Note its design by New Studio: the cover and graphics that hark back to Black Panther Party posters from the 1960s and the album covers they inspired in the rap and hip-hop community 20 years later. Note the title of its first chapter, “Food is a Weapon,” and the recipe for “Amerikkkan apple pie” that plays on the spelling used to indict America’s institutional racism and deconstructs a national classic.

Although the pop-cultural prominence of its creators, their directness of purpose and the timing of its release make “Black Power Kitchen” particularly cutting-edge, there is a long history of cookbooks’ serving as agents — sometimes overt, sometimes subtle — of political change.

In “Cookbook Politics,” Kennan Ferguson notes that most authors and their audiences think of cookbooks as “entirely apolitical works.” Taken as “merely a repository of techniques,” he writes, the cookbook “seems more like a manual than a political text,” and, accordingly, the very idea that it might “operate along lines of power, distinction and community seems counterintuitive at best, provocatively misleading at worst.”

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Cookbooks with a clear political bias that might not qualify as provocative or misleading do exist, such as those generated to raise money for a political party or to get out the vote and support campaigns. Take the pro-Democrat “How to Cook Reagan’s Goose,” a collection of recipes from the party’s better-known politicians — and their wives — from 1984. According to Ferguson, it was a fundraising project that also familiarized the voter base with key players and their policies, and strengthened “party affiliation along domestic lines” (i.e., got female voters involved).

Celia Sack, the owner of Omnivore Books in San Francisco, has seen American cookbooks from all eras pass through her shop. Recently, she sold a suffrage cookbook from 1909. Suffragist associations throughout the country published them and applied the proceeds toward the fight for (White) women’s right to vote. On one hand, they seemingly were “harmless,” filled with recipes to help their female constituents fulfill their domestic obligation to feed their families. On the other, discreetly rallying, they contained literature that would inform and persuade their readers of the Great Cause. “Mainstream suffragists wanted to engage rather than confront,” Laura Kumin writes in “All Stirred Up,” in which she documents the legacy of these publications. “Using the cookbooks, they could talk about the recipes first, and then move on to suffrage later.”

Sack shared a few other examples of cookbooks in this vein, in support of other communities and their respective causes. “Yummy Down” from 1982 was a gay project “with all these jokes in it and funny puns,” put out to benefit AIDS-related work. “Those were seen as subversive at the time,” she added. And she’d just gotten another copy of “Cesar Salads.” Its foreword was written by Cesar Chavez; its mission was to support farmworkers.

You might not think of cookbooks that propose alternative ways of feeding ourselves as countercultural vehicles for political activism, especially not one that’s put out by a major publisher and has sold more than 3 million copies, but when Frances Moore Lappé banged out “Diet for a Small Planet” on her typewriter in 1971, she aimed not just to change the national diet, but also to question the policies and practices that shaped it.

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“I can’t not think of it when you raise the question,” says food scholar Scott Alves Barton when asked which cookbooks he considers plainly political. “Its reason for being is about politics — about being political.” Initially distributed grass-roots-style, as a pamphlet, it was one of the first proponents of the now-hackneyed mantra “think globally, act locally” and opened readers’ eyes to the fact that the choices they made as consumers (eaters and shoppers) would affect their well-being and that of their communities and the populace at large. There is nothing apolitical about that, even if it was more insightful than inciting.

Sack cites another type of cookbook dealing directly with how we eat: the category committed to returning to pre-colonial diets. “I’m starting to see that in so many cookbooks, going back to pre-colonization in Filipino food, in Brazilian, in just so many different cultures,” she says. She has seen it with American cookbooks as well. They show us what regional, Indigenous diets looked like before colonists arrived, co-opted the land and used food — industrialized food, notably — to enforce assimilation. These are collections of recipes for any home cook, but they also allow a people to reclaim their culture, correct false narratives and push back against erasure.

In a different sort of pushback, the Taiwanese American journalist Clarissa Wei has spent the past year-plus there writing and producing her forthcoming cookbook in Taiwan; the undertaking has coincided with the rise in tension between the self-governed island and mainland China, the country that seeks a “reunification” (i.e., re-annexation) with the island. “There’s this conflation that Taiwan is part of China; Taiwanese food is Chinese food, and so people just don’t distinguish the difference as much. Even here in Taiwan, people don’t even think about it,” Wei says. “Made in Taiwan” seeks to address and correct that conflation from a culinary perspective. This, on its own, is a political act — because it claims Taiwanese identity as a separate entity and at a time when China is fighting so hard to eradicate any remaining trace of that identity or claims to it.

“The politics of Taiwanese identity are so convoluted,” she says. “What I’ve seen is that outsiders just don’t really want to wrap their head around it because it’s too heavy, and food is one of the last things they want to have these political statements in.” For that reason, it wasn’t something she initially thought to cover in her book. But after doing the research, she says, “We really cannot talk about Taiwanese food in a holistic way without acknowledging these biases, not acknowledging how it came about.”

When it arrives next year, “Made in Taiwan” will be the type of politicized cookbook Barton refers to as a quiet fire; what makes it incendiary is simply that it exists. It operates more through reeducation than indoctrination, by providing information that fills in narrative blanks and revising whitewashed records.

Barton draws on an older — if surprising — title to demonstrate this quietude. Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party and one of the defendants in the infamous “Chicago Eight” trial, wrote a cookbook (of all things) in 1988 about barbecue (see same). Where we might have expected a book espousing the ideals and goals of a movement that coincided with a tendency to shun pork, a food foisted upon enslaved people by their masters, he gave us (pork-heavy) “Barbeque’n with Bobby,” a book you could say was, in Barton’s words, “unabashedly a Black family cookbook” that celebrates “an iconic food … from a Black place, for a Black community.” But although its pervasive theme is one of communal gathering, he manages “to talk about transfer foods that come from Africa” and deconstruct the etymology of the word barbecue. “So that’s very political,” Barton says before noting that the author was questioning “who gets to own that word” and “have the last word about that method of cookery.”

Thirty-three years later, Bryant Terry’s collaborative “Black Food” expands on that discourse. “You get a reflection of the diaspora and not solely [through] the lens of the United States,” Barton says. “It’s an argument that needs to keep being made because there are people who still look at Africa as a country and look at, let’s say, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba as one cuisine and don’t realize that that might also have a Black aspect and in terms of erasure and correction working to explicate what does it mean to be Black.”

As for cookbooks that hit you over the head with countercultural opinions, look no further than Bridgeport, Conn., where “The Political Palate” series was self-published by the Bloodroot Collective, whose HQ has been at their feminist restaurant-cum-bookshop in that town since 1977. That’s when Selma Miriam and Noel Furie left their families, came out as lesbians and founded a community-building hub for like-minded second-wave feminists. “The Perennial Political Palate,” printed in 1988, was the third of their vegetarian cookbooks, and it was the one that most forcefully laid out the history, purpose and structural underpinnings of their endeavor. It also featured poems and quotes from well-known voices of the movement and women they admired. “We just felt that we had to have our politics there,” Miriam says. “It’s who we are.”

The notion of a feminist cookbook might not seem all that radical now, but how many cookbooks can you think of that even mention politics, let alone use the word “political” in their titles? “Black Power Kitchen” does plenty of the former. And although it’s spearheaded by three Black men from New York City, two of them who worked at illustrious fine-dining restaurants as opposed to White women from Connecticut with no professional culinary training, Ghetto Gastro’s cookbook has more in common with Bloodroot’s than you might expect. It is not self-published, and, at $40, it’s a more polished, slickly produced cookbook that represents a luxury, interdisciplinary brand, but it, too, expresses “who we are,” as Miriam puts it, and tells “a bigger story about their people in the Bronx, and collectively the experiences of Black folks in the U.S. and globally,” Endolyn says in an email interview. Most of the recipes also are plant-based, and again, for political reasons. Finally, theirs also is the work of a collective and features input from cultural figures from a range of genres.

“Food is always only a reflection of who voluntarily or involuntarily has been displaced,” Endolyn says. “That means food content is inherently political by virtue of what you have access to, the systemic choices that affect that access, and what the dominant narratives have been about what your food culture means.”

This may not be what some readers want from food writing. More likely than not, those who don’t opted out of reading this very article in search of some recipes. Although that might be disheartening for writers committed to the uphill battle of cooking and not shutting up, the above precedents — the authors and their books — and the buzz around “Black Power Kitchen” should encourage them. Even when times are hard.

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