Column: Food as a window to other cultures

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 2/20/2021 10:20:15 PM
Modified: 2/20/2021 10:20:12 PM

The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, a book by Marcus Samuelsson, was a Christmas present from my husband. It was a thoughtful choice, given how much I enjoy cooking and reading cookbooks. Yet the gift was a gamble. My kitchen routines are pretty firmly established.

While The Rise is still new to me, I’ve read nearly all of the essays. They alone make the book worthwhile. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and adopted by parents in Sweden; he trained as a chef in Europe. In search of his true home, he says, he immigrated to the U.S. and to Harlem, where he became a restaurateur and a well-known expert on Black cuisine. The purpose of the book, according to Samuelsson, was to explore and explain what it means to be a Black cook in America. Food is, he says, “part of the movement for racial justice. ... Feeding each other, learning about our food and who makes it, is part of what will help us heal. ... Black Food Matters.”

Trying some of the recipes will be next, even though many are foreign in terms of ingredients and thus a bit intimidating. But, by cooking the food of these creative Black chefs, I am hopeful that I will open a window to their larger culture. Ultimately, I envision the possibility that after I experiment with the recipes at home, I will host a post-COVID-19 dinner party for friends, where a subject of conversation will be the food we are sharing and its history.

It may not be easy for me to venture this far into unfamiliar territory. While I am now a good cook, both with recipes and without, I was raised in the Midwest at a time when the food there was plain, simple, and often, too sweet. Kids drank Kool-Aid and our mothers served a dozen variations of squiggly Jell-O settled on top of iceberg lettuce and called it salad. The coffee actually was so weak that you could see the bottom of the cup as you took a sip.

I still see my grandmother standing over a hot stove making a typical noon dinner in that farming community where we lived. I guess she was happy, but in a cotton housedress protected with a clean apron, she appeared merely dedicated. The fare would have been a piece of meat — thin steak, pork chops, a slice of ham — fried in a cast iron pan, while potatoes boiled on another burner and green beans became so limp you could tie them in a knot. Adventure, if there was any, came with the dessert, possibly a cherry pie baked with fruit from the tree beside their house.

By contrast, the food of Marcus Samuelsson is complex, intense, colorful and exciting. Energy radiates from the pages of his book. In one photo, fresh crabs are ready to be made into crab curry with yams and mustard greens. In another, Samuelsson himself mans the stove. He wears a stunning red shirt with a black and gray patterned apron, as he spoons a thick sauce over plump marinated pork chops browning in a copper pan, one of five items already in progress on other burners. Often he cooks in an orange hat. Many of the other featured chefs wear bright aprons and exude pleasure in their kitchens or wherever the camera has captured them.

The essays and recipes are enriched by photographs of vivid murals, memorials and commemorative statues, which provide history and inspiration. Included are Faith Ringgold’s Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines; the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.; and a series of brightly colored scenes painted on buildings in downtown Detroit.

Though my fingers are crossed, I’m ready to cook. Studying the recipes, I see starting points within my reach. Perhaps Zaza’s doro wat rigatoni, which Samuelsson lovingly describes as his young son’s favorite food. Doro wat is a spicy Ethiopian chicken stew with ingredients I know, including chicken legs, onions, fresh ginger and fresh garlic. I’ll figure out the fenugreek. I can also make the butternut squash he serves with it, and even the ayib, an Ethiopian fresh cheese calling for things I always have on hand: buttermilk, salt and lemon juice. Gumbo would be fun to try too, and so would the lamb wat with cauliflower cheese sauce. For recipes calling for less familiar ingredients, the book lists mail-order sources for nearly everything.

So really, why not? In a later chapter celebrating migration, Samuelsson offers added encouragement. “Our hearts and minds should always be open to somewhere new, more equitable, more beautiful, and more delicious. Let’s migrate toward a new American food story that recognizes all of us.”

Because I believe this and because, like Marcus Samuelsson, I can cook, I am optimistic. Maybe you will join me.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at

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