Last year saw the release of Rice: A Savor the South cookbook, by food historian Michael Twitty, cookbook Gullah Geechee Bress ‘n’ Nyam by Matthew Raiford, and Everyone’s table by Chef Gregory Gourdet, co-authored by JJ Goode. In September, Life is what you make of it, a cookbook by Great American pastry fair winner Vallery Lomas was released, and October brought Bryant Terry’s book, Black food, from its new imprint with Ten Speed ââPress, 4 Color Books. Terry aims to use the imprint to make room for other BIPOC conductors, writers, artists and activists to publish non-fiction work.
It might seem like a godsend, but this constant stream of published cookbooks written by black authors is truly a course correction. Until recently, black cookbook authors were largely ignored by major publishers: In a discussion of Malinda Russell, now considered the first black cookbook author, Jemima code Author Toni Tipton-Martin said of the way white institutions deal with black contributions: âWe operate within a system that knows how to continue to exist as it always has, promoting the few. [Black people] and further marginalization.
This under-representation reflects a lack of diversity within the publishing industry that goes beyond the Tipton-Martin names, extending to those who decide which texts to publish in the first place and edit them. Between 1950 and 2018, 95% of the books published by major publishing houses, like Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, were written by white authors, according to a New York Times editorial by Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek. While it is possible to publish a book in other ways, having the financial backing and backing of a major publisher helps ensure that the books land in front of a larger audience. Unsurprisingly, by 2020, the same data shows that only 10 percent of books on the New York Times bestseller list were written by people of color.
The Black Lives Matter protests last summer in response to the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders appeared to change perceptions of those in positions of power, at least that’s what they have said publicly. Throughout the summer, many industries came under fire for their stories of racism and exclusivity, food media and publishing included; many book publishers have since pledged to diversify their staff and publish more BIPOC authors.
While editors can now say they are determined to highlight the influence of the African diaspora and its eating habits, blacks have long championed and celebrated its culinary literature. And as the momentum surrounding these books continues to build, those who have already done the work are facing a pivotal moment.
As a cookbook author himself, Terry knows exactly how difficult it can be for black cookbook authors to get their work published. After the critical success of his first book, 2006’s Worm, which was co-written by his friend and colleague Anna LappÃ©, he thought he “would just have done a fantastic deal for Vegan soul cuisineÂ», His second book, which was finally published in 2009.
“My agent and I went through a dozen publishers and 10 of them said categorically no,” said Terry. Typically, the response to his proposal was disbelief that black vegans existed or not, and skepticism that there would be enough interest among blacks for the book to sell – this despite the fact that, according to Terry, âAfrican Americans are the fastest growing vegan population in the United States.
Without black employees among the decision makers of the big houses, editors can struggle to recognize the ideas and perspectives that black authors must bring. âWe don’t just know what’s going on right now,â Terry said of black cookbook writers, âwe have an idea of ââwhat the emerging zeitgeist will be like. “
Terry’s new imprint, 4 Color Books, will demonstrate what it means to stay up to date with the times. Imprints operates as a separate brand within a larger publishing organization, and 4 Color Books is modeled after independent hip-hop labels like Def Jam and Tommy Boy, which were financially supported by major labels and distributors but, as Terry says, âunderstood the inner logic of hip-hop and its audience. At 4 Color, the creators of BIPOC will have the creative control to implement their vision with the support of an editing team, comprising editors and food stylists, who trust the author’s understanding of his. audience, while having the resources of the world’s largest publisher, Penguin Random Loger.
Blacks play a leading role not only in publishing, but also in putting these published works into the hands of readers. “[Black food literature] attracts a lot of attention now, but really has such deep and important roots, âsaid Danielle Davenport, who launched the BEM online bookstore with her sister Gabrielle Davenport in January 2020. BEM specifically highlights cookbooks from ‘black authors from across the diaspora, as well as literature by black authors with important dietary references, such as Parable of the sower by Octavia Butler and gingerbread by HÃ©lÃ¨ne Oyeyemi.
Food and literature have always been touchstones for the Davenport sisters. âWe’re big fans of bookstores and what they stand for and how they work in their communities,â says Gabrielle Davenport. While there are black bookstores across the country and bookstores that focus solely on culinary literature, the sisters had not come across a store that was both black and food focused. They plan to open a physical store in Brooklyn by the end of this year where they will continue to highlight more current works, but also older and lesser-known texts. âThere is a list of out-of-print or non-out-of-print books offered by the distributor we work with that we hope to transport into physical space while we dig through the physical copies that exist,â Gabrielle Davenport explains. .
Bookstores like BEM, whose customers are actively interested in engaging in black cuisine literature, are essential to the cultural preservation of diaspora diaspora food contributions. âThere’s a lot of juicy talk to be had about how [historical texts] worked then and how we might think about it now, âsays Danielle Davenport.
Nigerian anthropologist and culinary historian Ozoz Sokoh also recognizes the value of conserving and celebrating these works. Sokoh, who now lives in Canada, was born and raised in Nigeria for most of her childhood. After moving abroad, she says she began to “realize the close links that existed between the indigenous food culture of West Africa and its diaspora”. Last summer she received a copy of The Jemima code, a seminal work on African American cookbooks written by Tipton-Martin, and when she began browsing the extensive bibliography, she realized the wealth of resources it contained.
In October 2020, Sokoh launched Feast Afrique, an online archive, which she describes as “a collection of thoughts, words and ideas relevant to the food contributions of West Africa and the Diaspora.” . Feast Africa includes a digital library where Sokoh has compiled over 240 books, including those referenced in The Jemima code.
Sokoh, who was surprised to find that an archive like Feast Afrique did not already exist, saw it as a way for her to use culinary literature to bring black people in the diaspora together. âI realized that if I, who was very interested in food, came to these achievements so late, then those with a superficial interest in food would have a hard time finding this information,â she says. âI really wanted to bring it all together in a space where everyone – Nigerians, Brazilians, Blacks – could access it and see the connections and hopefully bring a sense of shared history and shared experiences.â
As the appetite for cookbooks and culinary literature by black authors continues to grow, curators and archivists like Sokoh, bookstores like BEM and publishing entities like 4 Color Books will be increasingly important. . It is invaluable to have black people organizing and managing this content. âOur sense of preservation and culture has always been important,â says Sokoh. âThree hundred years ago we weren’t allowed to read, write or document, yet our culture, history and recipes were supported by word of mouth. It is important that we tell our own stories and that we have control over our own stories.
As Terry’s previous experiences in publishing highlight, black publishers, literary scouts, and publicists provide the necessary cultural skills when it comes to the work of black authors. At BEM, the Davenport sisters feel that there are nuances in the works they encounter that they are more sensitive to as black women. âThere are some things that I’m sure we notice that a non-black person who is interested in work and food may miss,â says Danielle Davenport. âHaving context and personal experience with what you offer is invaluable. “
One can only hope that after neglecting the culinary contributions of the African diaspora for so long, the current wave of black authored cookbooks represents a marked and lasting change within the publishing industry of cookbooks. But no matter what happens, Blacks working in the food space will no doubt continue to celebrate the contributions to the culinary world that have already been made, and the countless to come.
Nicole Rufus is a food writer, recipe creator, and graduate student in food studies at NYU Steinhardt, who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Camille Sucre is a Caribbean-American artist from Trinidad, born in New York and raised in Baltimore.