A Surprise in the Mail

Most days the mail is full of well…you know…junk! But a few days ago I received a wonderful surprise from my sister! A signed copy of a book that had been on my Amazon wish list. Adrian Miller’s new addition to the wonderful world of culinary history focused on African-American cooks and chefs, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet. Not only is it signed by Mr. Miller, but also by former President Obama’s chef, Charlie Redden, as well as the Sr. Master Sgt. Wanda Joell, who appears in the book in a photograph taken when she was 11-years old, visiting the White House.

Many of us know that the world is small, and the whole concept of “six degrees of separation” is very real. My sister, Barbara, happens to be friends with Mr. Miller’s parents. I am also blessed with a signed copy of his first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine. Although I haven’t cracked the cover on his latest one (much), I am truly looking forward to it. One thing we are all very clear about is the under representation of printed material on all the African-American (Black) cooks and chefs that have created amazing food throughout our country’s history. The under representation is astonishing and continues to perpetuate the lies surrounding our contributions to this country’s development.

I am looking forward to delving into this amazing book, just thumbing through has sparked my curiosity so much. I do encourage everyone to pick-up a copy, definitely ask your local library to add it to their collection if they haven’t already. Also, share it with a young person you know who may be interested in cooking. Inspiration comes in many forms, and this is truly an inspiring endeavor.

Tea Cakes & More

Cookbook Project

Tea Party Plans & Tea Cakes

First a bit about the books:  American Cookery is set up like many historic and modern cookbooks with related recipes together. That is grouped by main ingredient (meat/beef/pork/lamb/chicken or type of dish pies/cakes/bread)

The Historical Cook of the American Negro however is designed along a category system based on months of the year. Each month features in calendar order, a variety of recipe selections to go along with a significant historical person, location, or events. It is, “a culinary approach to Negro history.”* I love it!

 The Tea Party – What type shall it be?

To create the tea tables with all their bits, I’ve got to start with what type of tea party shall I create? After some thought I’ll host an At Home Tea for 6-8 people. But not an everyday tea party. That’s all rather boring isn’t it?

Thumbing through the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro I found a perfect starting point, on a date not to far from now, April 13, Honoring Pioneer Principals with “Afternoon Tea.” Education and Educators were important in both periods and are  very much underappreciated today. Using this as my starting point I’ll put together two different tea tables that have more in common than one would think.

1796 – American Cookery – New Nation Tea Table reflective of the Upper Class in New York.

1958 – The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro – 20th century table reflective of the Black elite culture of the women members of the NCNW

Okay…now, the menu…

The menu listed on April 13 has two recipes, one for Old Fashioned Tea Cakes and another for Spiced Tea. The rest is up for grabs.

In their respective historical periods, both tea tables would have begun with a simple cake or two. A plain and a fancy. Plain is a tea cake, tea biscuit or pound cake. Cakes that are deceiving in their simple looks. When done well, they are a luscious compliments to a finely brewed cup of tea. When they’re off, the tea is used to wet them enough to make swallowing easy. A fancy cake in either period for tea leans towards a fruit studded cake. Chocolate cake is not the list. It clashes with tea more often than not, a bit too heavy.

In the plain cake category American Cookery has receipts for Tea Cakes, Tea Biscuit, A Plain cake, Another Plain Cake, Loaf Cakes Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 4, A Pound Cake, Another (called) Pound Cake, and several more options.

The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro offers Old Fashioned Tea Cakes, and several variations of pound cake, Arkansas Rice Pound Cake, Pound (Heartford Specialty), Pound (Philadelphia Specialty).

Yum…Choices! But I think I’ll begin the baking with a family memory that is not my own.

Tea Cakes

I grew up hearing about tea cakes. Not just anyone’s tea cakes, but my paternal great-grand mother’s tea cakes. How she always had a tin of them on hand when my siblings went to visit. She died before I got to enjoy her tea cakes, and no one had written down the recipe. But as a pastry, they’ve always been a mystery to me. Something I’ve known about but actually have never made. I was watching a video recently and the tennis star, Venus Williams was talking about her love of her mother’s tea cakes, but how her oldest sister did them better. Tea cakes are alive and well for many, how about for you?

Both books have recipes for tea cakes so that is where I shall begin. Tea cakes aren’t flat cookies nor are they a highly risen cake. Their texture, as far as I can tell should be a soft cake like cookie. I’ve been told they can be delicious or they can be bricks. They can be glazed or iced, topped with sugar or left plain.  I have always wanted to have been able to enjoy my great-grandmother’s. And I must admit to be truly surprised that I’ve never made them. I have looked at countless recipes over the years intrigued. So here we go…off to discover the world of tea cakes.

We’ll start with the receipt found in American Cookery, it’s a bit more challenging as many 18th century receipts are. As we move into the 20th century, recipes will continue to evolve, but more often than not the measurements are given for all of the ingredients. The 18th century leaves a lot up to personal taste and what you happen to have on hand. Here is a copy of the original  wording from Amelia Simmons.

Tea Cakes.  One pound sugar, half pound butter, two pound flour, three eggs, one gill yeast, a little cinnamon and orange peel; bake fifteen minutes.

American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, 2nd edition, 1796.

That’s pretty straight forward. When adapting a receipt that has no instructions there is much to consider. First, are we creaming the butter, adding the sugar, then eggs, flour, yeast, cinnamon and orange peel or are we rubbing the butter into the rest of the ingredients, then adding the eggs to pull it all together.  Does it matter? Well… we’ll soon find out.

Do you make tea cakes? Did someone in your family make them? Please feel free to share your thoughts, memories, recipes, whatever, I’d love to hear from you!









Women’s History Month

Cookbook Project

Honoring Two Women and Two Cookbooks during Women’s History Month

There are so many women whose history I wanted to explore this month, not to mention cookbooks, but they’re always a challenge.  Although I’m beginning this project today, it will be with me for a while, and I’m so looking forward to every minute. I’ve chosen to look at two cookbooks, reflective of the women in the two time periods most special to me, the 18th and 20th centuries. The first is American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796. It is America’s first cookbook. One that I use a lot but still have so much to learn from. The second is the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, published in 1958 by the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW). It has been a part of my collection for years, and although it was compiled and edited by Sue Bailey Thurman, it came to my thoughts again because of Dorothy Height, who was president of the NCNW for 40 years. In February Mrs. Height became the 15th person to be honored with a Black Heritage Forever stamp.

Both of these cookbooks hold significant places in history and in my life. They are special for different reasons, and come from two very different historic spheres. But they share the same purpose. First and foremost, they’re cookbooks. Books with pages full of delicious recipes which are meant to be made and enjoyed. Most of my historic cooking is based in the 18th century, and American Cookery is full of very important receipts of the time. The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro takes me back to the years I was learning to cook, and many social events where dishes similar to those included were served. Both books contain a full range of recipes to complete numerous meals, but I’ve decided to narrow down how I use them, and create from them two expressions of one of my favorite repasts, Afternoon Tea.

In 1796, Tea was a social gathering of family and friends which happened in homes of the upper class, almost daily in the late afternoon around 4:00 or 5:00. In 1958, Tea time was still a social gathering, but then, and in the early years of my life (I was born in 1958), it was a special occasion rather than a daily event, and happened in homes, churches, and other appropriate locations. In both cases the tables were set with an array for cakes, cookies, and nibbles depending upon the size of the expected group. Both books reflect times of major social changes within our country. In both centuries however tea time was when women alone or with men came together to enjoy each other’s company and the civilities of life.

So, before we can ‘hot the pot,’ we’ve got a bit of reading, and baking to do. Tea tables are a reflection of our very best, so along with gathering ingredients I do believe the linens need to be ironed, and the silver does need polishing. Any volunteers?


Blueberry Buttermilk Chess Pie – Really?

I’ll just start with a disclaimer, Chess pie, traditional vanilla Chess pie, is my favorite pie. My second favorite pie is Lemon Chess pie. They are similar, but there is one key difference, the crust. Not the bottom crust, it’s a one pastry pie, but the top crust. The crust the pie itself makes.  In the world of food one cannot help but pull ideas from historic recipes as the base for creating something new, the next ‘in’ thing. In the case of the Blueberry Buttermilk Chess pie recipe I saw from Bon Appetite, (www.bonappetit.com/recipe/blueberrybuttermilkchesspie) two pies were blended to create this new variation (version?) can’t decide…..Chess and Buttermilk. Yes, these are two delicious pies but very different.

It’s not the first time this has happened to Chess pie. A couple of years ago I saw in a popular free parents magazine a recipe for Chocolate Chess pie. A variation of a historic chocolate tart. Needless to say I didn’t go there. I love me some deep, dark luscious chocolate, but please note: chocolate in pastry/dessert form is not on my list. (except for an occasional scope of “Really Good Chocolate” ice cream from the Blue Pig, http://www.thebluepigicecream.com) but I digress. I looked at the recipe for a couple of weeks before actually making it. The photo looked interesting, but something about it just didn’t sit well. Then came the need for buttermilk in another recipe, and the remaining half bottle was there so off I went.

Going in the plan is always to do what the recipe says, but the burnt fluting on the pie in the photo accompanying the recipe was a real turnoff. The creator prebaked the crust, then baked the pie for an additional 50-60 minutes without putting on a protective edge, resulting in a beautiful black edge. Nice touch, but not a nice taste. Forgo prebaking, and butter the bottom of your pie plate, also keep the crust fairly thin which is the tradition with this pie. Elegance. Chess pie is very rich so one rarely serves large portions although consuming repeated portions is quite common.  Other than that, the pie went into to the oven as requested. The one error I did make was perhaps cooking it about 10 minutes to long. She did request removing it while the center still jiggled a bit. But it looked beautiful. But it was not a Chess pie. Or was it?

What makes a Chess pie or what makes a pie ‘chess’? The addition of corn meal in a Chess pie recipe results in a top crust. It’s the only recipe I know for a pie that does that. When you use an acid like lemon, the crust forms, but it isn’t crunchy like a vanilla one. And if you beat the pie with an electric mixer and not by hand, it won’t form the crunchy crust at all. It will be a smooth brown top, like the lemon one. A recipe created before electricity, well worth the effort in my opinion, even when you’re making more than one at a time.  With the Blueberry pie, the corn meal did help the berries create a crust, one that could replace the smooth brown one, okay…but it was the custard center that smacked of wrongness to me. It was a nice pie, and several people in my life really enjoyed it, but for me it missed the mark. Why?

Studying the recipe while enjoying what I’ll now call the Blueberry Buttermilk Custard pie, the proportion of eggs to sugar plus the weight of the amount of buttermilk made it a firmer center, a milk laced custard not the custard of any Chess pie I’ve ever eaten. That’s the thing, they are custard pies. In most custard pies the milk or cream is what you notice (I notice) first. But in Chess pie, it is the eggs, sugar, butter mix that is center stage. Most traditional Chess pie recipes have only about a quarter of a cup of milk or so. Not very much at all. The resulting custard is rich, not creamy, but luscious. The better the eggs and butter, the more luscious it is. But then there is that crust.

The Blueberry pie is a nice idea. I think I’ll tinder with the recipe a bit, could be a touch sweeter, and perhaps a little vanilla in the custard would work too. However, my printout will get a new title, I’ll enjoy having a recipe for a Blueberry Buttermilk Custard pie, but Chess pie it is not.


The Struggle is Real…

The concept was perfect, an African food festival, a weekend event honoring African food and fashion in Brooklyn. The entire thing coming into play at a time when we are hungry for anything that affirms positive aspects within Black culture. For many of us, our links to Africa are framed in negativity. To be dark skinned was to “look like a slave.” To have nappy hair was to “look like a savage.” Then there is the whole dialogue around “soul” food, because art, music, and other aspects of culture were missing. These common quotes  and ideas spoken to Black children by Black adults have too long clouded our eyes to anything beautiful in our heritage. It all just gets to be a bit much. The richness of our African heritage has been hidden by a pogrom that kept the system of slavery in place in this country for way too long. Assisted by an educational system that introduces slavery to children early in their elementary school years, adding to their burdens without helping them to see the positive contributions made by the enslaved to the development of this country. It does little to foster curiosity about the Motherland. Instead we are feed European ideals, art, music, fashions, and food. Yet, we hunger, more often silently, for a connection, some link to tastes that excited our palates and our souls.

In our rush to create, as young people of all generations are want to do, we often leap out alone without the foundation of community, particularly that of our elders. Those folks who have been around the block, and know a thing or two about how stuff should be done. We step out without the wisdom of years of experience, finding ourselves reinventing a wheel, instead of pushing a well built one along. Unfortunately that’s what today’s adventure turned into. As I sat in a restaurant a few blocks from the Fest, hot, hungry, and just plain tired, I noticed the VIP event badge still on my wrist. I removed it while I also struggled to put my thoughts, hopes, and aspirations into some type of positive workable framework to gel with the fresh memories running through my head.  I just felt beat up. I wanted, needed, craved success. I longed for the tastes that never arrived, for the music I didn’t hear, for the conversations sparked with laughter that never happened. My struggle was unfortunately too real, and shared by too many. I learned this as a deep masculine voice spoke to me, touching me with tenderness, saying he could tell I hurt by the way I removed the band, and slowly wound it up, laying it before me with so much care. His awareness was profound. I looked up into understanding eyes, and listened as he shared with me his disappointment, and that of the women surrounding us, sitting at too many tables, almost completely filling up the restaurant. His friend joined the conversation and we spoke of our sorrow, our need, our shattered dream. Crazy, we’d all just left a food festival, and we were all hungry and it wasn’t just for food.

But the reality is so complicated. Earlier in the afternoon I’d spoken to the idea guy behind the event. He was young, energetic, and trying so hard to be upbeat even as he put out fire, after fire, after fire. All he had wanted was to do something special for us. To be an African creating an event for the Africans in America, an event honoring our shared culture before people of European descent stepped in and create one for us. To bring the seven principals of Kwanzaa’s Nguzo Saba to life. But desire without support on such a large scale can be hard if not impossible to pull off. But the buck has to stop somewhere and he was being honorable, trying to do what he could to remain faithful to his dream. But what of the others? What of the chefs that were not on point and not honorable enough to simply cancel when they were late, way too late for the fans who kept accepting the “they’ll be here soon” announcements. Their lack of respect and responsibility was appalling, truly not acceptable. Their inability to honor their commitment or to say they couldn’t, even at the last minute was simply just not right. The concept of “CP” time is bullshit. You’re a professional, if you plan a meal to start at 2:00, then it should start at 2:00, or you cancel so people can at least respect you for respecting them and their time, especially at the price point that was paid.

As for the rest, well, inexperience in today’s world of instant critique gone viral will make it hard for the next go around. Rethinking, re-branding, and scaling back are options that exist because these things happen.  As for me, I’m whipping out the books, searching the pages, and cooking my way through the bags of groceries that came home with me. I’ll cover my table with the results, fill my airspace with the music, invite some friends over to feast with me and share the whole deal with laughter to sooth my soul. But I will also ask the Divine to bless the brother who tried, while I pray that Day 2 doesn’t bleed his soul dry, because Day 1 left some heavy scars which will take a while to heal. #nycafricanfoodfestival


Yum….my first blog post

My first blog post, wow. A bit intimidating, much worse than looking at a few lines of ingredients in an manuscript cookbook for a cake and trying to figure out what the end results will be. Because then I can see the steps. The items used point the way. There are variations, but really not that many. Here, well, things are going live and I’m barely able to understand what’s happening, and why I can’t work on it in the back ground until it’s prefect before letting the entire Internet world actually see it. I mean, where’s the trash can!

But stepping out makes it easier. Putting it out there means that yes, I can do this, I’m committed! Somewhere along the line it will become easy as pie. Which is much easier than cake, and way easier than cakes. (Those are cookies by the way, when there’s an ‘s’ at the end, not multiple risen cakes. A teaching moment we’ll get to later.) But for now, here’s my blog. A place where my love of history, food, culture, art, people, and all those other things I tend to geek out about will come shinning into the public spotlight. One step on the path to creating the life I want to live. One tiny step towards major expansion. Thank you for joining me on my journey. I’m sure it is going to be a very interesting one, and to be totally honest about it…I’m excited as hell!