I was busy digging around in American history looking for evidence that black cooks had earned the title of chef when the invitation to the White House arrived in my email. For years, I have been trying to clarify the fuzzy characteristics that epitomize chefdom in order to understand the role black cooks played in creating American cuisine. The First Lady turned that inquiry into a personal awakening.
You may remember from my last post that Michelle Obama called upon chefs from around the country to join her on the South Lawn as she introduced a new initiative in her Let’s Move campaign to help solve the childhood obesity epidemic in a generation. The invitation explained that the Chefs Move to Schools program would pair chefs with schools in their communities to teach kids about food, nutrition, and cooking in a fun and engaging way. And, it required those of us already working with schools to complete a questionnaire and chef’s profile.
The nonprofit organization I founded two years ago to teach cooking, heritage, and nutrition to underprivileged kids definitely qualified for the program, but me, a chef? I might be an excellent cook, but the difference between that and the artistry of a master chef is like comparing Derek Fisher to Kobe Bryant (I’m from Los Angeles; what do you expect?).
Eventually however, qualified sources convinced me that the women of The Jemima Code deserve chefdom. Maybe I do, too. The etymology of the noun chef is French, short for chef de cuisine, says Merriam-Webster. The term dates to 1840 and is defined simply as “a skilled cook who manages the kitchen.” In the 1977 edition of The New Larousse Gastronomique, the internationally-known culinary bible, the chef de cuisine is known as a “director responsible for a cooking team.” Chefdom, I reasoned, does not just mean one who is educated in classic technique at a well-equipped culinary academy — even though that is exactly the interpretation proclaimed by those with the synoptic view that “chefs are professionally trained, cooks are not.”
I filed the documents, packed my chefs whites, and got on the plane to Washington D.C.
The air was hot and sticky on the morning of June 4, filled as much with moisture as excitement, as I stood in line on East Executive Avenue NW waiting to clear the first secret service checkpoint. Friends and I gabbed nervously about work, pausing every now and then to marvel at the mist of nearly 700 chefs, and to take pride in the diversity of the crowd. Once through the second security stop, we received paper chefs hats with a Let’s Move message from First Lady Michelle Obama printed on the rim:
“We are going to need everyone’s time and talent to solve the childhood obesity epidemic and I am calling on our Nation’s chefs to get involved by adopting a school…you have tremendous power as leaders on this issue because of your deep knowledge of food and nutrition and your ability to deliver these messages in a fun and delicious way…”
Next it was off to the South Lawn. The mood was bright with exhilaration and we embraced one another while taking pictures as if we were little children on their first trip to a Disney theme park. Chefs posed everywhere: In front of the White House; beside the Ellipse; at the podium; between the collards and the rhubarb in the vegetable garden. After about an hour we wound our way through the gorgeous grounds, lured to the hilltop by the sound of a small band. We took turns alternating between saving seats and cooling off under the gallery of shade trees. Then an announcer asked us to be seated.
The anticipation was as high and our togues were drenched. In time, the chatter quieted to a hush and we sat on the edge of our seats watching and waiting for a sign of life at the door to the lower level of the White House. And then, she was there. Close enough to touch. Beautiful and poised. Articulate. Mrs. Obama echoed the remarks made earlier in the day at the Share Our Strength breakfast, encouraging the crowd, among other things, to be patient and considerate of cafeteria food service professionals — not just talented and skilled — when we set out to teach cooking and nutrition in schools.
The program concluded when the First Lady retreated to the garden to harvest vegetables with a few children and some of the food industry’s elite, including Marcus Samuelsson, Tom Colicchio, Cat Cora and Rachel Ray. The rest of the group remained in a glow of amazement, inspired by this executive expression of support, energized for the challenges that lay ahead.
And I contemplated a debt owed to generations of African American chefs who paved the way for me with little recognition — women who might have been asked to labor here, but never would have been treated to such an honor. I lingered a few minutes more in this opportunity of a lifetime, then peeled off my sweaty chefs coat — the one with The Jemima Code embroidered near my heart — and settled into my new role.
This Friday when Michelle Obama welcomes top chefs and food professionals from around the globe to the White House to introduce the latest ingredient in her recipe for changing the food habits of America’s kids, the women of The Jemima Code and I will be among the privileged in chefs coats stirring the pot.
Through a partnership with food professionals’ organizations such as Share Our Strength, the National Restaurant Association, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR), and Les Dames d’Escoffier, chefs and cooking teachers will exchange ideas about increasing nutrition awareness as Mrs. Obama launches the Chefs Move to Schools program.
Her idea is simple really. Because chefs have a unique ability to deliver health messages in fun and creative ways, Chefs Move to Schools was created to challenge culinary experts to adopt a school and work with teachers, parents, school nutrition professionals and administrators to help educate kids about food and nutrition, according to the website, www.letsmove.gov.
Chefs Move will be operated by the Agriculture Department and will pair chefs with interested schools in their communities so they can create healthy meals while teaching young people about nutrition and making balanced and healthy choices. The White House assembly will include culinarians who want to join the campaign, as well as those who are already empowering children toward healthy, productive futures. Like me.
When I the built The SANDE Youth Project in 2008 after 25 years of using written words to teach readers about cooking and nutrition, I returned to the same foundation of oral tradition that my ancestors used to impart proficiency, morals, self-esteem and respect for the community to their children and the children of their employers. This illustration from Marion Flexner’s 1941 cookbook, Dixie Dishes, was published to keep black women in their place by contrasting the child-like housewife to a massive cook towering above. For me it simply proves that African American cooks have always been skilled culinary educators, whether credited for their knowledge or not. And that truth informs both my hands-on and written work.
Both SANDE and the women of The Jemima Code communicate important life skills and the tenets of healthy eating while making tasty recipes. Both teach by including the student in the process. And, both rely on age-old wisdom. The difference is that elementary school-age kids at SANDE learn from high school and college students.
The pilot program expands the Healthy Families Initiative at the University of Texas Elementary School through a community partnership with UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. The kaleidoscope of student-led gardening, heritage, and nutritious-cooking activities nourish and empower underprivileged families the way that Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign returns responsibility for the health of children to the community. It is a unique approach, also instilling 10 Core Values in the areas of Spirit, Attitude, Nutrition, Deeds, and Emotions (SANDE).
At SANDE, we hope to give kids a head start on healthy futures, at the kitchen table, one meal at a time. Students follow their food from seed to plate. They learn the importance of kitchen organization and safety. Develop the taste for food that is fresh and preservative- and additive-free. Discover that it is the raw egg that makes their favorite cookie dough unsafe to eat before baking. And, they gain literacy from reading recipes and writing their own cookbook while manipulating fractions and solving questions of chemistry. The kids are not, however, learning how to cook diet food.
After two hours pounding chicken breasts, grinding and toasting their own homemade bread crumbs, and shredding Parmesan cheese for chicken Parmesan, tasting a dozen green leaf varieties before assembling salad, and churning their own homemade ice cream, a group of giddy 10-year-olds hurries excitedly to set the table for lunch. One of the boys who came to class thinking that cooking was girly described the SANDE experience best when he stated:
“Man, I can’t believe I made this.”
A few bites later, he added, “I can’t believe this tastes so good.”
When lunch was over, he exclaimed: “I can’t believe I made this and that it tastes so good!”
Now that is what I’m talking about.
As encouragement to keep them cooking, I shared this tidbit from Aunt Julia and Aunt Leola, authors of Aunt Julia’s Cookbook, the Standard Oil Company of Pennsylvania’s 24-page collection of simple Carolina Low-Country recipes. The message seems especially fitting today.
“For Happy Eating Use These Recipes.”
Yesterday, the First Lady announced an ambitious initiative designed to “eliminate childhood obesity in a generation.” Her nationwide campaign, entitled “Let’s Move,” was kicked off with a presidential memorandum that established a plan to evaluate and coordinate public and private services, and to improve health information so that parents can make better decisions about their children’s diets.
In a news conference announcing a multi-agency task force, Michelle Obama explained that our children aren’t responsible for the epidemic that confronts this country — 1 in 3 children is considered obese, while this country spends $150 billion each year treating obesity-related illnesses. Michelle also explained to reporters that the idea for the program came to her as a response to advice from Sasha and Malia’s pediatrician, who suggested that she “…might want to do things a little bit differently.” After all, Michelle Obama reminded viewers, it is parents who are responsible for making healthier food choices available and appealing to youngsters, and who can and should encourage kids to spend less screen time, and more time engaged in physical activity — preferably outdoors.
I wasn’t surprised at all by the First Lady’s commonsense approach to today’s confusing health messages, food labeling chaos and the dearth of wholesome, fresh food in some urban communities — what she called, “food deserts.” Michelle descends from a legacy of women who made survival in difficult times an art form.
We are all busy. Food portions are huge. Chemicals and artificial ingredients are hidden from view. And, yes, sugar is everywhere. But that does not mean we have to live as victims. With inspiration from our foremothers, we can choose dietary balance and moderation without resorting to packaged, artificial foods for convenience.
Just consider the focus, and imagination of slave cooks, unable to read or write, as they performed multiple tasks at one time, and demonstrated remarkable feats of recall, memorizing dozens of English recipes as they prepared meals in Big House and cabin kitchens. In a patriarchal system that didn’t even offer slave women control over their own sexuality, choosing a particular food, and a particular means of preparation, contributed to their sense of self-esteem because it offered them a small element of control. These women managed to maintain vestiges of their African cultural past while preparing meals for the master’s family and their own without the constant eye of the “missus” looking over their shoulders.
We can live with minimal exposure to the world’s apple, too.
The traditional view of a slavewoman’s responsibility for preparing and serving meals in her master’s hot cookshop mirrored her image as a lowly servant charged with the most onerous and arduous tasks of the household. But, the role of food and cooking took on immense cultural and ideological significance when she returned to the privacy of her home in the slave community.
Lizzie Farmer of McAlester, Oklahoma, remembers family cooking with some fondness; it was a time for women “to spend the day together,” trying out new skills and preparing fresh, seasonal foods:
“Young mistress taught me how to knit, spin, weave, crochet, sew and embroider,” Farmer told an interviewer for the Works Progress Administration. “In the cullud quarters, we cooked on a fireplace in big iron pots. Our bread was baked in iron skillets with lids and we would set the skillet on de fire and put coals of fire on de lid. When we want to cook our vegetables we would put a big piece of hog jowl in de pot. We’d put in a lot of snap beans and when dey was about half done we’d put in a mess of cabbage and when it was about half done we’d put in some squash and when it was about half done we’d put in some okra. Then when it was done we would take it out a layer at a time.”
Like French chefs who recalled their “old ways” when dealing with unfamiliar foodstuffs and working with “inferior substitutes” following wartime, slave cooks, applied “African grammar – methods of cooking and spicing from remembered recipes, and ancestral tastes to the grains, fruits, vegetables, meats of the New World,” says historian Charles Joyner. They demonstrated technical knowledge and skill, took their time, and followed directions with discipline and order.
Food rations varied little from plantation to plantation – cornmeal, pork fat, molasses, and sometimes coffee, depending upon the master, making food collecting a necessity slave women turned into a luxury to maintain cultural continuity with Africa. All across the south, black cooks enlivened the family’s monotonous diet, before and after their work day by hunting, fishing, crabbing, oystering, clamming, foraging for wild nuts, fruit and vegetables, and gardening in small plots.
They evaluated the quality of ingredients at their disposal and determined their flavor profiles. They considered how one food might work with another according to taste, aroma, and appearance. They understood the importance of food safety and maintaining freshness, and identified the proper way to store and hold various ingredients. And, they relied upon rudimentary tools such as mortars and pestles to pound out “sarakas” flat rice cakes.
Mom Hester Hunter, of South Carolina, explains that cooks balanced work and home with advance preparation and organization. In her WPA interview, she said: “De peoples sho cook dey dinner for Sunday on Saturday in dat day en time.”
Slave women also applied classic techniques (like those taught in today’s culinary academies) to common ingredients. They supplemented meager stocks and broths with fresh meat scraps. They braised meat bones and aromatic vegetables into stews; roasted wild game; stewed wild leaves and greens; thickened meal into mush; preserved seasonal fruits into jelly, substituted sweet potatoes for rice, cured ham. They coped with the differences between “tenderness and putrefaction;” understood timing, frying, poaching, sautéing, galantines, fermentation, custards, and forcemeats.
Michelle Obama’s new initiative doesn’t tell us exactly how to improve our health and slow the pace toward obesity, but even casual observers can see some clues in our ancestry: Simple, fresh ingredients. Plucked from the garden. Made from scratch. Following standard techniques. Spiced with cultural seasonings. Portion control.
What were some of your mother’s food rules? “Clean your plate; eat your vegetables?” Click Comments below to share them with us.
In Her Kitchen
Collard Greens and Turkey
- 3 ½ quarts water
- 1 smoked turkey leg
- 1 onion, chopped, about 1 cup
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 pounds (2 bunches) collard greens, chopped
- Salt, pepper
- Bring water, turkey, onion and garlic to boil in a large kettle, then reduce the heat and simmer 20 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the greens. Cut off and discard about 4 inches of the stem. Stack 5 or 6 leaves, roll up, and slice greens into 1-inch strips. Roughly chop, chopping stems more than the green tops. Add greens to the turkey broth, cover, and cook over medium heat about 2 hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Number of servings: 8
In Her Kitchen