There’s nothing like cooking a good meal to bring people together. What better way than with the recipes in the late Ntozake Shange’s If I Can Cook/You Know God Can? Shange’s eclectic tribute to Black cuisine and culture is one of the first two books in our new Celebrating Black Women Writers series. This season, we launched this series to reissue and repackage timeless titles “to share essential voices with a new generation of readers in a celebration of Blackness, Black womanhood, Black women, and all the contributions they bring to the page,” as our editorial assistant Maya Fernandez said. Eleven of us got together to prepare some of the meals for a potluck lunch at the office. And reader, let me tell you: It was delicious! Here are comments from some of our staff about their experiences with Shange’s recipes.
“I recognized Southern cooking, especially in the collard greens, of course, but also in the buttermilk biscuits I made. It reminded me of the years I’ve lived in Atlanta, South Carolina, even Virginia. And almost all the dishes blended well with each other, so you could let them melt into each other. And maybe that’s part of the cultural message.”
—Helene Atwan, Director
“Even with the simple recipe I chose—Good Salad—making it reminded me of my mom’s imperative to prepare a salad as part of a spread when we had company over or were making Sunday dinner. The salad had a lot of the same veggies in it. What it calls to the front of my mind is that the African diaspora is more than immigrants from the continent but also Caribbean immigrants who can also trace their roots back to the continent their ancestors were taken from. I feel a connection to diaspora communities most closely when I make and eat traditionally Black dishes.
Most of the dishes called for spices that made the food smell and taste very fragrant, which is another very familiar aspect for me with the food I ate growing up and still make today.
I know historically slaves were given scraps and leftovers to eat, and they were able to take what was considered unappetizing and turn it into something delicious and comforting. The colors and smells of the food were warm and inviting, something that I think is indicative of various Black cultures. We tend to welcome with food before we welcome with anything else. Everyone has a belly and everyone needs to eat.”
—Perpetua Charles, Associate Publicist
“For the potluck, I chose to cook Ntozake’s recipe for sweet potatoes. One of my favorite aspects of the book is how Ntozake weaves narrative into the instructions. Starting with tips for growing and cultivating sweet potatoes, Ntozake then gives the reader a basic understanding of how to easily cook them. But the best part of the recipe is her anecdote at the end that reveals how she once went on a movie date she where her mate swapped popcorn for sweet potatoes.
As I attempted her recipe, I decided to incorporate my own knowledge of cooking sweet potatoes and utilized a recipe that was passed down to me from the women in my family. I mashed the sweet potatoes into a cinnamony brown sugar treat whose origins can be traced to the antebellum south, then escaping to Canada, before travelling back down to Boston, Massachusetts, and finally finding its way to a conference room in an independent publishing house. Simply smelling the finished product reminded me of Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations at my mother’s house surrounded by boisterous conversation, laughter, and squealing kids.
The beauty of If I Can Cook/You Know God Can is that Ntozake welcomes the reader into her kitchen and encourages them to embrace the flavors of the Black diaspora. And with her guidance, I brought my own familial traditions to the plate. The combination allowed me to connect to Ntozake’s personal celebration, and I enjoyed sharing my take on her recipe with my coworkers.”
—Maya Fernandez, Editorial Assistant
“Ntozake’s book reminded me that food is more than just food. There’s history and celebration and connection with others. It’s helped me understand more the significance of different foods in Black cuisine. I really enjoyed her conversational style, especially in the way she described the recipes. It brought me back to when I would sit at each of my grandmothers’ kitchen tables helping them make food—with one side of my family of Eastern European descent and the other Palestinian and Italian. It’s made me remember the food traditions we had and how I want to revive them, learn more about them, and pass them on as a way for my son to connect to his history. And having the book in my house and next to cookbooks in the kitchen, I’ll be reminded that when I make food from other cultures, I can take some time to learn about some of its significance and pass that on to my son as well.”
—Alyssa Hassan, Associate Director of Marketing