When the world heard the announcement about the sudden passing of poet, novelist, playwright and performer Ntozake Shange last October, it truly mourned. Known for her most famous work, the play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Shange was a pioneer whose work drew on her experiences as a Black woman in America.
Before her passing, she wrote “If I Can Cook/You Know God Can: African American Food Memories, Mediations and Recipes,” a collector’s gem that is rich in historical insights with recipes that connect the culinary past to the present.
Author Michael Twitty writes, “This book is the first one I recommend to all cooks to understand the soul of our food…It’s as indispensable as hot sauce.” Jessica B. Harris shares, “It is a rich, dense gumbo of food memories, history, recipes and the special kind of magic that only Shange can create.”
Born Paulette Williams, Shange herself attempted suicide several times after separating from her first husband. Reaffirming her strength, she took the African name Ntozake Shange that means “she who comes with her own things” and she “who walks like a lion.” The success to follow would garner national and worldwide attention, including the movie adaption of “For Color Girls,” by Tyler Perry in 2010.
With a foreword by Vertamae Grosvenor, “If I Can Cook/You Know God Can,” is a powerful memoir and cookbook written in Shange’s true literary style. The stories shared as recipes are weaved in and out tell the tales of her travels throughout the African Diaspora that savor black cuisine and culture. Don’t expect the typical recipe which lists out the ingredients and directions. Instead, open your mind as she walks you through recipes such as Texas shredded beef barbecue and chicken fried steak as if you are listening to it all unfold on Audible. For instance, her directions for the recipe Collards Greens to Bring You Money starts off by saying, “Wash 2 large bunches of greens carefully ‘cause even to this day in winter critters can hide up in those great green leaves that’re goin’ta taste so very good. If you are the anal type, go ahead and wash the greens with suds (a small squirt of dish detergent) and warm water.”
With just 113 pages, Shange’s gives you a seat at her kitchen table to nibble on knowledge and great food. One of my favorite chapters in the book is, “Brazil: More African than Africans.” She recalls her time living and working in both the Northern and Southern part and the cultural interactions she would have with her students. The beautiful history lesson includes music and of course food. The recipes to follow transport you to the South American country and create a taste for Brazilian rice, chicken vtapa (Shange’s variation of the Afro-Brazilian dish vatapá that is made with shrimp) and Zaki’s favorite feijoada (Brazil’s national dish).
More than a cookbook, “If I Can Cook,” is an extension of Shange’s work as a storyteller that will leave readers to thinking, laughing and hungry. Gone too soon, I would have loved to learn more about her time in the kitchen as a child and adult. Poet and activist Sonia Sanchez remembers Shange stirring her pots as she whipped up “magic.” That is one of the best memories of all.
“If I Can Cook/You Know God Can: African American Food Memories, Meditations and Recipes,” is available on Amazon.
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