Chef, restaurateur, and TV personality Marcus Samuelsson began working on his latest cookbook, The Rise (Voracious, Nov.), three years ago. A celebration of Black cooking, the book brings together chefs, food writers, and activists to share their stories and recipes, and emphasizes the diversity of the Black American experience. “There wouldn’t be American food without the contributions of Black people,” Samuelsson says. “[This book] is an opportunity to give authorship and recognition.”
The Rise arrives at a moment of racial reckoning in the U.S. more broadly, and in food media specifically. In May, cookbook author and Instagram star Alison Roman was placed on temporary hiatus from her New York Times column after mocking the achievements of Marie Kondo and fellow cookbook author Chrissy Teigen, both women of color. Weeks later, Adam Rapoport resigned from his position as editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit after a 2004 photo of him in brownface surfaced, which in turn opened up a public discussion about pay inequity in the magazine’s test kitchen. Subsequently, four on-screen personalities of color declined to participate in the brand’s popular video series, and the magazine’s only two Black editorial staff members quit.
“This moment is important; the world is watching,” says Samuelsson, who on August 17 was named Bon Appétit’s first brand advisor. “To be able to uplift Black stories of craftsmanship is important. I feel honored and privileged.”
PW asked authors and editors alike: What does it mean to be publishing a cookbook at this moment? Their answers reflect the complexities of representation that people of color face when navigating a white food world.
Past, present, and future
Samuelsson hopes readers use The Rise not only as a cookbook but as a gastronomical Green Book, a reference to a Jim Crow–era guide for Black road-trippers. The annual publication catalogued Black-owned businesses around the country, directing motorists to establishments that served them. “Black storytelling about entrepreneurship always has to be done differently,” he says. His book “features some chefs that you may know and some you’ve never heard of. It doesn’t matter. We’re here as a force in American food, and we rarely have had a chance to write our history and tell our stories.”
Samuelsson’s editor, Michael Szczerban, is attuned to the fact that books like The Rise are being published at a time when readers are hungry for content that celebrates BIPOC creatives and their cuisines. “It’s strange to say these issues are timely when the fact of authorship being taken away from Black cooks in America is basically as old as America,” he says.
As v-p and editorial director at Little, Brown imprint Voracious, Szczerban recognizes his power in the food media ecosystem. “There’s still so much more work to be done to be a part of an equitable food system, which includes media and publishing,” he says. His goals include “significantly increasing BIPOC representation among our authors, and incorporating changes to our editorial process to include new standards for inclusivity.”
Like Samuelsson, Wilson Tang, who owns New York City’s Nom Wah Tea Parlor, among other eateries, celebrates his community’s past and present—his century-old Chinatown restaurant as well as its Chinese immigrant neighbors—in The Nom Wah Cookbook (Ecco, Oct.). Chefs of color need to stick together and “push forward and not back down,” Tang says, citing another fall release, Xi’an Famous Foods by fellow New York City restaurateur Jason Wang (Abrams, Oct.). “We are all Asian American,” Tang says. “We have to keep telling our stories. Conversations about the immigrant experience are necessary, both in the past and the present, in food media.”
Tang’s coauthor, Joshua David Stein, who is white, has considered his position in the industry as recent events have unfolded, asking himself, “How can I be of service? It’s important to me that I don’t enter these spaces uninvited.” For the book, he says, “I talked to so many people in the community. My role was to help Wilson find a container for his stories, not for me to come in and dictate them.”
Hawa Hassan (see q&a), coauthor with Julia Turshen of In Bibi’s Kitchen (Ten Speed, Oct.), is also careful about the opportunities she accepts to promote and represent her work, albeit from a different angle. Her sentiments reinforce those of other authors PW spoke with for this piece. “I’ve had whole conversations about this: don’t involve me because it’s trending right now,” she says. “If you want to do real work together and you want to give me equity in that space, I’m happy to develop things with you. But I don’t want to be at your table because you want to add color.”
Dodging stereotypes, pushing boundaries
In I Cook in Color (Running Press, Oct.), Atlanta chef Asha Gomez includes recipes inspired by her many global influences—Italian, Thai, and others. In contrast, her first cookbook, 2016’s My Two Souths, leaned on her South Indian heritage and upbringing. “What’s often expected of me is that I should cook the foods of my ancestral homes—my mother’s kitchen, my grandmothers’ kitchens,” she says. “You’ll ask Nigella Lawson for a chicken tikka masala recipe, but you [won’t think] to ask me for a marinara recipe, which I’ve been making for over 25 years.”
I Cook in Color better reflects her personal, everyday style, Gomez says. “This book is about breaking that stereotype of immigrant chefs, who are expected to stay within certain parameters when it comes to cooking,” she says. Though her agent raised an eyebrow at the concept, she says, her editor and publisher embraced it.
Mely Martínez, author of The Mexican Home Kitchen (Rock Point, Sept.), avoids the word authentic both on her blog, Mexico in My Kitchen, and in her book, a compilation of 85 recipes first published on the web; she opts for traditional instead. Authenticity is a fraught concept, she says; Martínez’s goal is to share Mexican cuisine as it’s cooked at home, particularly with readers whose only exposure to Mexican food might be in restaurants. The author, a Dallas resident who has lived in several Mexican states, highlights the diversity of home cooking across the country. “This is one of the reasons for the blog [and the book]—I wanted to write about our food, so that my son would have these recipes, too.”
The Flavor Equation (Chronicle, Nov.) is blogger and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Nik Sharma’s second cookbook after 2018’s Season; in it, he brings a scientist’s sensibility to the kitchen. “Science isn’t only something that happens in a lab or reserved for people who are working in a chef’s kitchen with access to tools,” he says. “This book is for anybody who’s interested in what’s happening in the kitchen, regardless of their experience in science or food.”
Sharma, who was raised in India and immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult, noticed there was little in the way of cooking science books about South Asian food. “Not that this book is about South Asian food at all, but examples of South Asian technique and ingredients are in this book when relevant,” he says, citing his examination of the hows and whys of paratha making. “The examples that are drilled into us are so Western. An emulsion doesn’t have to be a mayonnaise or aioli. It could be something else, like toum.” He often feels an onus on writers like him to represent their entire communities, but he’s very direct in pushing back on those expectations, whether from those in publishing or his readers.
Leyla Moushabeck is in an atypical position in the industry: she’s cookbook editor at Interlink, which is family- and immigrant-owned and run. Her father, Michel, who immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon and is of Palestinian descent, and her mother, Ruth, who is British, founded the company in 1987 because they’d found few books that represented Arabs or Palestinians “in a positive light, let alone their political perspective,” Moushabeck explains. “From a really young age, it was instilled in us that books were [one of] the strongest weapons that we had to combat the marginalization of our people, of our voices.”
Interlink’s fall releases include Aegean by Marianna Leivaditaki (Sept.) and Parwana by Durkhanai Ayubi (Oct.), which illuminate the cuisines of Crete and Afghanistan respectively, bringing international voices to the U.S. market. Moushabeck also cites a backlist title, The Immigrant Cookbook (2018), which raised awareness for how essential immigrants are to the American restaurant industry and the food world in general. “I think that food can achieve a cultural interaction that’s really enriching,” she says. “But sharing a meal is just a starting point. It’s not going to rebalance the imbalances of our society as a whole. If we don’t consider the cultures and experiences behind the foods that we love, and also who’s given the platform to represent them, then we’re only getting a small portion of the picture.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Below, more on cookbooks.
Just Like Bibi Used to Make: PW talks with Hawa Hassan
With ‘In Bibi’s Kitchen’ (Ten Speed, Oct.), Somali-born home cook Hassan shares the stories and recipes of grandmothers from eight African countries.
Life of Pie: Cookbooks for Fall 2020
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Keep Calm and Carrot On: Cookbooks for Fall 2020
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