Food for thought: Colorful cookbook lifts lid on creative process
Cookbooks typically don’t explore the deep connection between art and music and their effect on food. Even though a chef’s surrounding social environment influences every ingredient that makes it onto the plate, cookbooks tend to offer tips on braising temperature, knife care and nutrition, rather than insight into a chef’s psyche.
Marcus Samuelsson’s new book, “The Red Rooster Cookbook,” is not your typical cookbook experience.
The Food Network star’s cookbook reads more like creative nonfiction than an encyclopedia of recipes. Samuelsson sets out to show how culture impacts food through the history, sights and sounds of America’s storied neighborhood of Harlem. Through Samuelsson’s personal experiences and his love of jazz comes a thoughtful examination of life that takes you well beyond the confines of your kitchen.
“Right now in Harlem, times are changing. An entire neighborhood awakes and wonders about the new thing coming, about the legends closing, about the who and what, despite it all, still remains.”
Samuelsson writes about the legendary soul food joints and jazz clubs shuttered to make way for Red Lobster and Chase Bank locations. He writes about an entire neighborhood fragrant with spices and smells coming from Southern, Jamaican and African restaurants. He leads you deep into a vibrant community seeking balance between its historic past and a fast-changing present, and before you realize, you’ve been seduced by his world and forgotten completely that you’re reading a cookbook.
The first recipe, a relatively simple ginger beer and vodka cocktail, doesn’t appear until page 46. Before we learn how to mix the speakeasy inspired “Yes, Chef,” though, Samuelsson first offers up a music playlist featuring Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones.
As the cookbook ventures on, the food and music pairings become more prominent and more meaningful than you might imagine.
We learn about poor families working together during the Great Migration, throwing wild parties with local musicians, and serving home-cooked Southern staples like candied yams, collard greens and slow-cooked neck bones to raise rent money.
Samuelsson shows us Harlem’s jazz culture. We dive into late night jazz clubs, the Paris Blues, where the chicken and black-eyed peas are complimentary, and Showmans, a serious club where the real musicians hang out.
We also meet Marjorie Eliot, a local jazz pianist who invites her neighbors into her living room every Sunday afternoon to listen to her and other musicians play. It’s here where Samuelsson sprinkles in ideas for Sunday family dinner: hot gumbo with tripe and rice, spring pea pasta, Brussels sprouts with bacon dip, and roasted turnips dduk (sliced Korean rice cakes).
Samuelsson is a tour guide for our senses, giving us a taste of his melting pot. Whether we are drooling over his recipe for chicken fat challah with cracklings, or listening to his Sunday jazz playlist, Samuelsson generously welcomes us in, giving us unique insight into his creative process and America life.
The colorful history of Harlem told through “The Red Rooster Cookbook” is exceptional, but not all that unusual. Neighborhoods all across America are filled with the lively characters we meet in this book, like Muscle Dan, Fats Waller and John the Revelator.
We could also add Samuelsson to that list. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and inspired by the American South, Samuelsson took all his life experiences, literally combined them in a pot, and became one of America’s great chefs.
“Harlem is a slow seduction. What is ugly keeps bumping into the beautiful.”
Through life we find our creative energy. Samuelsson’s muse are the streets and people of Harlem. “The Red Rooster Cookbook” shows us that community is everything. Your family, friends, and neighbors profoundly affect your life on a daily basis. We all cook, sing and write. We celebrate our achievements together and console each other during times of sadness. This is true in Harlem, just as it is true all across America. It’s food for thought.