An industry-wide reckoning last summer led to growing publisher interest in books about the African diaspora and its foodways. But Black authors, editors, and booksellers have long been doing the work.
The past year has seen the release of Rice: A Savor the South Cookbook, by food historian Michael Twitty, Gullah Geechee cookbook 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 Bake It, a baking cookbook by Great American Baking Show winner Vallery Lomas was released, and October brought Bryant Terry’s book, Black Food, from his new imprint with Ten Speed Press, 4 Color Books. Terry aims to use the imprint to make space for other BIPOC chefs, writers, artists, and activists to publish nonfiction work.
It may seem like a boon, but this steady stream of published cookbooks written by Black authors is really a course correction. Until recently, Black cookbook authors have been largely overlooked by major publishers: During a discussion of Malinda Russell, now regarded as the first Black cookbook author, Jemima Code author Toni Tipton-Martin said of the way white institutions treat Black contributions, “We function within a system that knows how to continue to exist the way it always did, by promoting the few [Black people] and continuing the marginalization.”
That underrepresentation reflects a lack of diversity within the publishing industry that runs deeper than Tipton-Martin names, extending to those deciding which texts to publish in the first place and editing them. Between 1950 and 2018, 95 percent 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 op-ed by Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek. Although it’s possible to publish a book through other avenues, having the financial backing and support of a major publisher helps to ensure that books land in front of a larger audience. Unsurprisingly, by 2020, the same data shows that only 10 percent of the books on the New York Times best-seller list were authored by people of color.
Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor seemed to shift perceptions of people in positions of power, or so they publicly claimed. Throughout the summer, many industries came under fire for their histories of racism and exclusivity, food media and publishing included; many book publishers have since pledged to both diversify their staff and publish more BIPOC authors.
While publishers may now say they’re committed to highlighting the influence of the African diaspora and its foodways, Black folks have long championed and celebrated its food literature. And as the momentum surrounding these books continues to grow, those who have already been doing 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 Grub, which was co-authored by his friend and colleague Anna Lappé, he thought he would “just walk into a fantastic deal for Vegan Soul Kitchen,” his second book, which was ultimately published in 2009.
“My agent and I shopped it around to about a dozen publishers and 10 of them said flat-out no,” Terry says. Typically, the response to his proposal was incredulousness about whether or not Black vegans really even existed, and skepticism that there would be enough interest among Black folks for the book to sell — this despite the fact that, according to Terry, “African Americans are the fastest-growing population of vegans in the United States.”
Without Black employees among the decision-making ranks of major houses, publishers may struggle to recognize the insights and perspectives that Black authors have to contribute. “We’re not only clear about what the zeitgeist of the moment is,” Terry says of Black cookbook authors, “we have an idea of what the emerging zeitgeist is going to be.”
Terry’s new imprint, 4 Color Books, will demonstrate what it means to stay abreast of the zeitgeist. Imprints operate as a distinct brand within a larger publishing organization, and 4 Color Books draws inspiration from the model of independent hip-hop labels like Def Jam and Tommy Boy, which had the financial backing of major labels and distributors but, as Terry puts it, “understood the internal logic of hip-hop and their audience.” At 4 Color, BIPOC creators will have creative control to implement their vision with the support of a publishing team, including editors and food stylists, that trusts the author’s understanding of their audience, all while having the resources of the largest global publisher, Penguin Random House.
Black folks are playing a prominent role not just in publishing, but also in getting those published works in the hands of readers. “[Black food literature] is getting a lot of attention now but really has such deep and important roots,” says Danielle Davenport, who launched online bookstore BEM Books & More with her sister Gabrielle Davenport in January 2021. BEM specifically highlights Black-authored cookbooks from around the diaspora, as well as Black-authored literature with significant food references, like Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi.
Food and literature have always been touchstones for the Davenport sisters. “We’re big fans of bookstores and what they represent and how they operate in their communities,” says Gabrielle Davenport. Although there are Black bookstores across the country and bookstores that focus solely on food literature, the sisters hadn’t come across a store that was both Black and food-focused. They plan to open a physical store in Brooklyn by the end of 2022 where they will continue to shine a light on more current works, but also on older and lesser-known texts. “There’s a list of books that are out of print or aren’t carried by the distributor that we work with that we hope to carry in the brick-and-mortar space as we excavate the physical copies that do exist,” says Gabrielle Davenport.
Bookstores like BEM, whose customers are actively interested in engaging with Black food literature, are vital to the cultural preservation of diasporic food contributions. “There’s a lot of juicy conversation to be had about how [historical texts] functioned then and how we might think about them now,” says Danielle Davenport.
Ozoz Sokoh, a Nigerian culinary anthropologist and historian, also recognizes the value of curating and celebrating these works. Sokoh, who now lives in Canada, was born and raised in Nigeria for the better part of her childhood. After moving abroad, she says she began to “realize the strong connections that existed between Indigenous West African food culture and its diaspora.” Last summer she was given a copy of The Jemima Code, a seminal tome on African-American cookbooks written by Tipton-Martin, and when she began to look through the extended bibliography, she realized what a 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 West African and diasporic food contributions.” Feast Afrique includes a digital library where Sokoh has compiled over 240 books, including those referenced in The Jemima Code.
Sokoh, who was surprised to discover that an archive like Feast Afrique did not already exist, felt this was a way that she could use food literature to bring Black folks across the diaspora together. “I realized that if I, who had a strong interest in food, was coming to these realizations so late, then those with a cursory interest in food would be hard-pressed to come across this information,” she says. “I really wanted to put it all together in a space where everyone — Nigerians, Brazilians, Black people — could access it and see the connections and hopefully to bring a sense of shared history and shared experiences.”
As the appetite for cookbooks and food literature from 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’s invaluable to have Black people curating and stewarding that content. “Our sense of preservation and culture has always been important,” says Sokoh. “Three-hundred years ago we weren’t allowed to read and write or document and still our culture, history, and recipes were sustained by word-of-mouth. It’s important that we tell our own stories and are in control of our own stories.”
As Terry’s earlier experiences in publishing highlight, Black editors, literary scouts, and publicists provide necessary cultural competency when it comes to the work of Black authors. At BEM, the Davenport sisters feel there are nuances in the works they come across that they as Black women are more attuned to. “There are certain things I feel sure that we’re picking up on that perhaps a non-Black person, who’s interested in the work and the food, may miss,” says Danielle Davenport. “Having context and personal experience with what you’re putting forth 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, long-lasting change within the cookbook publishing industry. But regardless of what’s to come, Black folks working in the food space will undoubtedly continue to celebrate the contributions to the culinary world that have already been made, and the countless ones to come.
Nicole Rufus is a food writer, recipe developer, and grad student in Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt living and working in Brooklyn, New York.
Camilla Sucre is a Caribbean American artist from Trinidad, born in New York and raised in Baltimore.