The history of African American cuisine is, in fact, the history of American food. Many of your favorite ingredients and dishes actually have African roots. Simply look to the past and you’ll discover that enslaved Africans worked the lands and in the kitchens throughout the colonies, and their hundreds of years of labor greatly contributed to the American culinary landscape more than most realize. Without African American cooks, farmers, and fishermen, the American table would be missing gumbo, fresh-shucked oysters, rice, sweet potatoes, watermelon, sugar cane, bourbon, and so much more. Brilliant minds of enslaved cooks blended European, African, and Native American cuisines, offering something new, and lasting, to the American culinary arena.
It’s hard to deny the shift that is happening across the U.S. and the world. We are starting to visibly acknowledge the deep wounds from centuries of oppression and racism, and beginning the hard work of healing them. The resources available to help everyone take on the practice of anti-racism are in abundance—and that also includes reading cookbooks and food history titles. This list is a cross section of modern experiences and Black culinary history. It’s hardly exhaustive, but it’s a foundation for a more comprehensive collection of written work about a complicated and rich subject, written by gifted, passionate authors who span the 20th and 21st centuries.
As a professional chef for 15 years, I’ve always found inspiration from culinary luminaries like Edna Lewis and Dr. Jessica Harris, as well as new ideas from my contemporaries, in a range of cookbooks and other food-focused literature. The books below are essential reading for both the home and professional cook alike, filled with writers, chefs, and journalists who offer insight into the vastness of American cookery through the lens of African foodways, traditions, techniques, and the transatlantic slave experience. Each title should find a home on your bookshelf—and each dish a place on your table. Here’s where you should begin.
Dr. Harris is an American culinary historian, college professor, cookbook author, and journalist. In “High on the Hog,” she tells the story of the significant historical contributions of enslaved cooks, blended with her own history and experiences. Dr. Harris is a master storyteller; this work is the result of years of scholarship and research, and it’s an engaging education on African American cuisine. Buy Now
Michael Twitty is a culinary historian and luminary, and his book “The Cooking Gene” is an opus. This book, which landed Michael two 2018 James Beard awards, one for Best Food Writing and one for Book of the Year, is a memoir that highlights the intersection of Southern American cuisine and American culture. On these pages, Twitty generously shares the exploration of his roots and complex ancestry. Buy Now
Rafia Zafar is a professor of English, African and African American studies, and American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She penned “Recipes for Respect,” a collection of essays and in-depth examination that challenges our thinking on the influence African American cooking traditions have on American food culture. Buy Now
“Cooking Solo” is a collection of recipes perfectly suited for the single and hungry. Each recipe sets you up for a win and a delicious home-cooked meal. Many dishes have 10 or fewer ingredients and are scaled down to serve just one or two people. It’s a celebration of eating well, even when it’s only for one, especially when you can add a rustic strawberry shortcake to your Sunday night dinner—all for yourself. Buy Now
A must-read memoir by chef Kwame Onwuachi, the mind behind the acclaimed D.C.-based, Afro-Caribbean restaurant, Kith and Kin, this book is required reading for future chefs. Buy Now
Historian Adrian Miller gives us the goods on soul food. This book isn’t just an ode to fried chicken and greens: It also gives this African-American food tradition its proper due as a vital part of American food history. Through his research and recipes, Adrian opens readers up to the complexity and beauty of soul food, giving them a deeper understanding of traditional Southern dishes like banana pudding, spoonbread, and catfish. Buy Now
Miss Lewis, a chef, teacher, and one of my culinary heroes, shares the recipes of her youth spent in a Virginia farming community founded by her grandfather and his friends after emancipation. Her book is filled with personal anecdotes, cooking insights, notes on important Southern ingredients, and personally developed techniques for maximizing flavor. Buy Now
Chef and professional opera singer Alexander Smalls makes space for both of his passions in “Meals, Music, and Muses.” The collection of recipes is a musical celebration of dishes from the South. Each chapter is named for a genre of music, and features recipes like black-eyed pea salad, Carolina bourbon barbecue shrimp, and bourbon chocolate praline truffles. Buy Now
“The Jemima Code” is an anthology of more than 150 Black cookbooks from a rare house servant’s manual in 1827 to modern classics by authors such as Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor. Buy Now
Mashama Bailey and John Morisano are co-owners of The Grey restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, and their book tells the story of an unlikely partnership between a Black woman chef and an Italian businessman. The Grey was forged by a shared passion for food, and the two highlight how finding common ground put them on the path to building something unique and delicious—together. Buy Now
Doris Witt examines the complicated connections between food, race, and gender in America. She examines the story of Aunt Jemima and the function of soul food in the post-Civil War period through the civil rights movement and into the present day. Buy Now
Bryant Terry, a food justice activist and author, penned “Vegetable Kingdom,” a cookbook showcasing the vibrant, decadent world of vegan cooking, while also breaking down the fundamentals of plant-based cooking. “Vegetable Kingdom” offers tips on how to build your pantry, your toolkit, and even a music playlist featuring everything from jazz to hip hop. Terry makes dishes like tempura green beans and warm butter bean salad with roasted bell peppers and umami powder accessible and simple for cooks on every level. Buy Now
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen was a hugely successful pop-up restaurant in the U.K. created by Zoe Adjonyoh. In response to COVID-19, the restaurant now provides meal kits and hot meals for those most vulnerable in the community. But if you’re not local to the U.K,, the next best thing is Zoe’s eponymous cookbook, which centers on traditional Ghanaian recipes and reimagines them for the modern kitchen. Thumb through the pages for Ghanaian homemade favorites with a modern twist, like yam and plantain peanut curry and an avocado chocolate mousse, which are simple to cook once you understand the basic principles and ingredients that can be adapted easily to what is already in your cupboard or fridge. Buy Now
Brown Sugar Kitchen is a soul-food institution and a gathering spot for the West Oakland community. And now the restaurant also has an accompanying cookbook, the “Brown Sugar Kitchen” cookbook, which features Louisiana-inspired soul food recipes like cornmeal waffles and apple cider syrup, smoked pork hash, and peach and nectarine cobbler. Buy Now
“Sweet Potato Soul” taps into the long-employed African tradition of using fresh, local ingredients creatively. Chef Jenné devises new flavors that celebrate the plant-based roots of Southern cuisine in dishes like coconut collard salad and fried cauliflower chicken. Buy Now
Engaging with “Black Girl Baking” is like reading the diary of a friend with an incredible talent for baking and an affinity for culture. Her recipes are tied to her life and her memories that were shaped by her Southern-born father and her Guam-born mother, but especially by her grandmother, Big Ma, her guiding hand in the kitchen. Buy Now
Although Govind Armstrong’s L.A.-based restaurant Table 8 is now shuttered, the chef’s genius culinary mind can be retrieved in his first cookbook, “Small Bites, Big Nights.” Here, you’ll find a menu of sophisticated dishes that will satisfy any palate, along with cocktails to pair with each dish. Nourish your tribe with luxurious dishes like rare tuna crostini with white bean puree and tapenade, grilled endive with serrano mam, grilled chicken thighs with wood-roasted gazpacho and avocado salsa, and panna cotta with raspberry coulis. Buy Now
Marcia Chatelain’s “Franchise” unpacks the history of how fast food became one of the greatest sources of Black wealth in America. This book is a little bit of food and a little bit of business—but all worthy of your time. Buy Now
“Jubilee” is both a manual of and a love letter to African-American cooking. It’s a reminder that African-American cooks are both technicians and storytellers, a 300-page tome of historical documentation and recipes, peppered with a chorus of voices from two centuries of Black cooks. Dive into recipes like salmon croquettes, Nigerian black-eyed pea fritters (I’ve made these over and over again!), pound cake, and okra gumbo. Buy Now