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  • Writer's pictureMecca Bos

There Are No Rules in Black & Indigenous Cooking

By Mecca Bos

When Sean and I got together, it didn’t take long before we started talking about how we could align our work.

I have been a long time supporter of Sean’s work, which goes way beyond imagining what Indigenous cooking could be and then making a restaurant about it. In my opinion, he is one of the brave individuals who have been called forth to piece Native American culture back together after the long, destructive period of colonialism. This work requires not just bravery, but endurance, tenacity, and a mind for creation and daring.

For myself, I have been concerned with the story and history of Black foodways for roughly the past five years of my journalistic and culinary career. It’s been a winding, and frustrating path as a biracial northerner with no strong ties to the south. This is part of my story: an absent Black father who was himself an adoptee, meaning no touchstones to my Black grandmother’s cooking—very little to reach for as a descendant of an also decimated culture.

This is America.

Thus, our recent Table at the James Beard Foundation in New York City was a special one. It was a culmination of how BIPOC Foodways Alliance started. A reaching back to the “why?”

In many ways, the “why” is easy. The “how” and “what” are more challenging.

What is Indigenous food? What, truly, is Black cooking? And how do those stories converge?

Sean has long contended that his culinary point-of-view is an Indigenous (re)volution. In other words, he’s evolving from the pieces he’s able to slowly gather—snatches of stories from elders, a cookbook or two here or there—what wisdom the land is able to offer. But the “revolution” is him telling the world that there are no rules. Indigenous food can be whatever it wants to be. He’s not trying to cook like it’s 1491.

For my own part, I’ve never felt a very strong connection to Southern cuisine, aside from the glances of genius I’ve tasted in the kitchens of Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton, or the words of poise and sophistication in the books of Edna Lewis or Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor.

Unfortunately, I also fell victim to the lies told about Southern cuisine, or soul food—whatever you want to call it—that it’s a survival cookery built out of scraps and leavings. This narrative is so tied to the food of our people that it’s the first thing that comes to mind about it: that it’s perpetually in need of a facelift, a scrub, a good buff around the crevices. As someone who mostly engaged with this food via media, not home kitchens with the experts at the helm, the brainwashing was real and complete.

It’s difficult to admit: I really didn’t want it.

Photo credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

Recently, I had the great pleasure of engaging in the kitchen with Uche Iroegbu, a friend and wonderful home cook of Nigerian cuisine.

It was here that I had my own epiphany of sorts—a glance at what my people’s cooking could have been had we been left to our own wisdom, ability, awareness.

Photo credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

Fufu is not made from not sweet potato, but yam—packed with nutrition and a palette for the nutty earth of egusi, the fire of tomato stew, and the edible party that is Jollof Rice.

For the Black and Indigenous dinner, Sean and I started by making a list of ingredients that are found in the cuisines of both cultures: tamarind, sorghum, hominy, beans, and othersothers.

From there, it was a “there are no rules” moment.

Too often, those of us who have been on the receiving end of disenfranchisement are tasked with providing answers to finding that which has been deprived. It’s a lot of work. It can be exhausting. It’s a puzzle, to put it lightly.

How liberating, then, to take matters into your own hands and make something wholly fresh and new. Something that is real, and true, because it comes out of us out us, as Langston Hughes famously put it. The resulting menu, highlights from which you can see here, was one of the most satisfying I’ve ever cooked. The standing ovation from our diners was not just validating, but healing.

Photo credit: Sean Chee

I have said many times since then that it’s also the restaurant I wish I could be eating at, right now.

I don’t want a restaurant, but I do want to continue to explore what “could be” in food. What should be in food.

And that’s where our Table series comes in. It’s where the beauty, and possibility, of cooking outside of the restaurant becomes an asset to the entire community.

If you would like to see more explorations like this one, please consider donating to us.

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