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Alexander Smalls, a James Beard Award-winning chef and famous opera singer, unites his two favorite things in life—food and music—in his cookbook “Meals, Music, and Muses: My African American Kitchen.” The Southern chef showcases just how influential both food and music have been in his life, infusing this book with recipes, anecdotes from a childhood spent in Low Country, and the genres of music that help influence his cooking.

Southern recipes shine here, like sweet potato muffins, Carolina bourbon barbecue shrimp thrust onto spears and grilled, and roasted prime roast paired with crawfish onion gravy. Each chapter is spearheaded by a genre of music, to not only put you in the mood, but to also highlight how the dish should make you feel. For instance, in the Jazz chapter, you might find recipes for deviled crab cakes with spicy Creole mayonnaise, while in Jukebox Music you’ll be inspired to make buttermilk biscuits. Soon, your kitchen will teem with Southern specialties, accompanied by a constant stream of music Smalls recommends.

To start, get acquainted with Smalls’ recipe for stone-ground grits, a dish that can certainly be eaten anytime of day. Serve it as breakfast, with a side of bacon and eggs, or whip up a candied baked ham for dinner, paired with roasted okra and buttery grits. Homemade grits can often result in a congealed, flavorless failure, so to avoid that, Smalls recommends boiling water with bacon fat before adding in the dry grits, and liberally tossing it with butter, olive oil, and salt. He promises you’ll end up with a wonderfully creamy, buttery heap of grits.

Excerpted MEALS, MUSIC, AND MUSES: Recipes From My African American Kitchen by Alexander Smalls with Veronica Chambers. Copyright © 2020 by Alexander Smalls. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. Photography by Beatriz da Costa.

Like rice and pasta, grits are best when you give flavor to the dish from the start. Mother would, at my father’s request, fry bacon or fatback and add the grease to the boiling water before she cooked grits. As a chef, I cook my grits in protein stock, depending on the toppings, or a seasoned vegetable stock, like pot likker from greens or cabbage. The cooking liquid from boiled root vegetables works nicely as well.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for serving if desired
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1¾ cups stone-ground white grits

  1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the stock, butter, oil, salt, and pepper and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium. While whisking, pour in the grits. Bring to a steady boil and cook for 5 minutes.
  2. Reduce the heat to low, give the grits a good stir, and cover. Simmer until tender, creamy, and thick, about 15 minutes. If the mixture becomes too stiff and dry before the grits are cooked through, add additional stock. When the grits are done, you can add more stock if you prefer a thinner consistency.
  3. Serve immediately, topped with more butter, if desired.