Matthew Raiford’s New Cookbook Celebrates Black Resistance Through Existence

The chef boldly declares that the longevity and popularity of Southern cuisine is rooted in its dynamism; it’s never static, never boring: “Does anyone understand that southern cuisine is the only cuisine that has grown and matured?” he asks. “Everyone wants to be part of history and be known for having the best cuisine in the South. There is no one way to make these dishes. It is the whole experience, not just an experience.

One of my favorite ways to use a cookbook is to mentally build the pantry of the chef who writes it. Bress ‘n’ Nyam is rooted in the constructions of the South – a very particular South and sense of place. It’s Gullah Geechee, but it’s not about reproducing a specific canon of dishes. Raiford’s travels and experiences from California to Italy (where he once represented the United States at Slow Food International’s Global Gathering) have had an impact on how he interprets home cooking. His vision allows him to see the global in the peculiarities of his childhood. He brings his girlfriend’s love for produce and fresh vegetables to his quiche and giardiniera. He marries the Ethiopian Berber spice, jerk seasoning, feta, bottarga, mole, ice cream and compote with things he can reach in a short walk to the henhouse, orchard, brackish water surrounding Gilliard. , or his garden, a modern rival for Jefferson’s Experimental Field at Monticello.

As the chef, Raiford offers all the things you might imagine of Lowcountry Georgia, prepared through the lens of Matthew’s constant search for twists: muscadines turned into jelly and compote; peanuts boiled in a potlikker or served over chicken and purple ribbon cane syrup; oysters roasted under burlap soaked in salted water or nestled next to the fried turkey; a fresh grilled pork from Ossabaw Island; the flavor of wild sumac, blueberries, pomegranates; mustard greens served on its signature CheFarmer oatmeal. The classics are there too, with excellent angles: sweet potato pie iced with evaporated milk, fried mullet, fried chicken, perloo shrimp and red rice. Better yet, a tribute to the beverage culture of the Deep South juke joint, drawing on local moonshine and gins with fruity, salty and tangy elements like toffee, ginger and hibiscus.

The book is all the more surprising as Raiford did his best to get out of this bubble that others consider “southerner” or “soul food”. For many black chefs in the 1980s, the stereotypical assumption that they would trust restaurant favorites was out of place. “In culinary school, I tried to distance myself from southern cuisine,” says Raiford. “No one allowed me to do what I wanted to do because they had a narrow vision: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, everything has to be fried or with bacon. But in addition to the need for variety and cuisine beyond expectations, there is the concern to promote balance and healthier practices. “I use a little steak seasoning to prepare my greens because there were so many people who love their greens without the meat. You’re looking for that umami, that smoke – not necessarily the meat. “

In his work, Chef Raiford broadens the notion of health. For him, health means maintaining healing practices that go back centuries: harvesting and using plants like mullein, sumac, thistle and wild thyme. “Good health is eating in balance, knowing the vitamins and nutrients, and knowing that certain wild herbs and spices that we grow and buy have health benefits,” he tells me. “It’s also knowing the quality of the food you eat and the soil. Good things in the soil and good things outside – you need to know what types of nutrients are in the soil to know what’s going on in your body.

Bress ‘n’ Nyam tackles so many issues in what could have been just a collection of recipes meant to entertain and celebrate. It’s a microcosm of a black chef’s hard work toward a holistic view of his resurrected family farm. Old luminaries are being honored in new ways. Here we have the opportunity to really see the big picture – this concern to preserve family and local traditions, to support black businesses like farms and distilleries, to eat well and healthy and with joy, and keeping the people of color in ancestral lands is a braid of Power. This is the conversation we need to celebrate and expand, not just long. This cookbook is here to tell us that the time for that conversation is now.

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Alan Adams

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