As soon as I saw the illustration of myself, my eyes welled up with tears. I had just received my copy of For the Culture: Phenomenal Black Women and Femmes in Food, and while it was exciting to see my face in print, it was also unfamiliar and jarring. As a journalist, my job is to illuminate stories about other people, so I’m rarely in the position to share my own. Author Klancy Miller had interviewed me two years prior, and I couldn’t remember anything I said. I had only a vague recollection of discussing my work and my hopes and dreams from my desk in my one-bedroom apartment amid the lingering uncertainty of the pandemic. But there I was on the page, my words and thoughts alongside those of so many Black women and femmes I admire in the food world.
I spent the next hour poring over the other interviews with Black women-identifying chefs, writers, bartenders, bakers, and more. Page after page gave me glimpses into the lives of people I look up to in the industry and answered my burning questions about how they got where they are, how they care for themselves, and what they love to cook.
I would later find out that these were the kinds of stories and gems of wisdom Klancy Miller was searching for when she was a young culinary student. “Looking back I wish I’d had more sisterly insights to accompany me on my path,” she writes in the book’s introduction. Miller founded a magazine by the same name, For the Culture, in 2021 because “Black women have shaped cuisine in the United States and in many countries, and our stories about our expertise in food do not receive enough attention or admiration.” In that magazine, much like in this book, Black women are not only the subjects but also the writers and photographers bringing the stories to life. Both show what food media could look like if these voices were highlighted regularly.
That’s one of the paradoxical elements of Black women in food. The work of our ancestors is visible in so much of American cooking, from long-simmered pots of greens and starchy batches of rice to golden fried hushpuppies and mush, and stewed black-eyed peas laced with tomatoes and herbs. All of those foundational dishes would not be possible without the cooking techniques and agricultural labor of enslaved Africans. Meanwhile, fine dining—and the hospitality industry in general—would not be the same without the contributions of the formerly enslaved, whose limited post-Emancipation opportunities often left them no choice but to work in restaurants. And yet, it’s still rare to see Black faces, and Black women in particular, heralded as innovators of cuisine and hospitality today.
For Miller the way forward is to make sure these past and present matriarchs of the food world get the recognition they deserve, starting with the nearly six dozen Black women she spotlights in For the Culture. “There’s no way to include every single phenomenal Black femme that’s made a mark on food,” Miller says. “The book is not meant to be exhaustive, but instead a robust reflection of Black femmes in food.” And that can be powerful. As I've been talking to other Black women who are featured in the book, we've all commented on how we teared up seeing ourselves and our peers in For the Culture’s pages.
“I just think it’s so beautiful,” says Zella Palmer, director and chair of the Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture at Dillard University in New Orleans. “I love that it’s not only people who are working today, but it’s also thinking about the pioneers and showing Black women lifting each other up.” The fact that For the Culture exists speaks to how far the food world has come, adds Jamaican chef and author Michelle Rousseau, who is featured in the book alongside her sister Suzanne. “A book like this shows a shift in the narrative and that there’s space for all of us.” For Sarah Thompson, a former Philadelphia chef who contributed her grandmother’s rice and peas recipe to the book, For the Culture acts as both a time capsule and a mirror. “My grandmother has since passed away, but she really nurtured my love of food and my connection to my identity,” Thompson says. “Being given the opportunity to be in this book really gave me a chance to see myself."
All the interviewees in For the Culture “carry on a rich, sacred tradition that Black women have been at the center of—stewarding the land, educating people about what they cook or imbibe, cooking meals that bring people together and allow our humanity and love to be shared,” writes Miller. And this is just the beginning. As I spent more time with For the Culture, I found myself wanting to learn even more about the women featured and started doing my own research into their careers. That led me to names of Black women in food that aren’t in the book, and their stories of persevering in an industry that sometimes feels as if it doesn’t see us. It made me feel hopeful, knowing that other readers might be inspired to do the same thing, which could then lead to more inclusion and mentorship in the future. And in that way, For the Culture isn’t just a collection of voices and recipes. It’s a dream dinner party, and everyone’s invited.
Get the Recipes
“I wanted to highlight local shrimp and the importance of Black fishermen in New Orleans. There’s such an abundance of seafood from the Gulf Coast.” —Zella Palmer
“When I was first asked to contribute a recipe, I thought about doing something complicated but came back to this simple dish that is the backbone of so much of my life. Rice and peas was a staple in my grandmother’s kitchen in New York. It’s familiar, comforting, and simple.” —Sarah Thompson
“This dish is one of the first salads we ever did for a client, and it has become a signature. It really speaks to our style of cooking: Jamaican ingredients served casually, a sort of green cuisine.” —Michelle Rousseau
“We wanted to create a recipe that shows the abundance and diversity of fruits and vegetables in Jamaica. People don’t think of Caribbean cooking as vegetable forward, but we do because that’s how we eat here.” —Suzanne Rousseau
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