Three Foodie Friends Attempt to Bring African Cuisine to the Mainstream
About a week ago, I attended an event hosted by the Museum of African Diaspora, also known as MoAD, in which food was the key theme. Found in 2005, MoAD exists to “connect all people through the culture, history and art of the African diaspora”. So in a modern museum, located in San Francisco, California, MoAD hosts a variety of events designed to showcase art and culture through the lens of Africa and the African Diaspora.
As MoAD’s Chef-in-Residence, Bryant Terry “creates programming that celebrates the intersection of food, farming, health, activism, art, culture and the African Diaspora”. Eco-chef, food justice activist and author, Terry became involved in food issues 15years ago and is a champion of engaging and empowering people to cook their heritage foods as a way to improve their health and wellbeing. Therefore, it was only fitting that Terry would host “Food From Across Africa” showcasing The Groundnut.
Walk into any bookstore (online or traditional) and you’re bound to find cookbooks for French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisine. On occasion, you may find an African recipe thrown into a “world cuisine” cookbook or two in an attempt by the author, no doubt, to capture foods from around the world. However, it’s not often that you encounter an African cookbook featuring sub-Saharan African food particularly food from East and West Africa. And this is what Duval Timothy, Folayemi Brown and Jacob Todd seek to address with The Groundnut cookbook – a cookbook with recipes inspired by classic dishes from East and West Africa but re-imagined in a Western European home; a book that provides cooking templates and invites readers to prepare dishes using ingredients and spices from the Eastern and Western parts of Africa.
A cookbook that covers African cuisine is certainly asking for trouble because Africa is a vast continent comprising over 50 countries with 3,000 distinct ethnic groups, 2,000 languages and a myriad of menus. So condensing these into a book on “African” cuisine is a valiant attempt. However, with roots in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Tanzania and Swaziland, the three authors are off to a good start.
So how did it all begin? The three friends had been pursuing their respective careers as an artist (Timothy), a sports physiotherapist (Brown) and a researcher (Todd) when they made the collective decision to throw an event, for friends and family, specializing in the food of their youth. Recognizing the marginalization of African food in mainstream European cuisine and realizing that their friends were unfamiliar with their native foods, the three friends created a dining experience – rocking a warm, homely vibe – for 32 friends and family where everyone was encouraged to partake in dishes that they had cooked. The evening was a success!
Duly encouraged, they began selling tickets to future events and telling friends and acquaintances to spread the word and invite anyone with adventurous tastes and a willingness to try something new. The events turned out to be fun and immersive experiences requiring weeks of preparation beforehand (sometimes even a month) in order to achieve the ideal ambience – a combination of the right mix of location, menu, furniture and logistics.
The initiative gained momentum and the friends considered writing a book – a compilation of the recipes they’d made so far – when a friend suggested that they write an actual cookbook. This they did and subsequently signed with Penguin in a reputed six-figure deal. The cookbook got published in the UK and was recently published in the US, leading to a reception which included a discussion and book signing– the event which I had the opportunity to attend.
Hearing the Collective’s story was inspiring yet sobering. Inspiring because it’s an example of how a little idea, a small seed can become a sweeping movement that gives sight to the unseen, voice to the unheard, promotes understanding and fosters communication. Sobering because the delights of African cuisine have long been ignored or dismissed.
The time feels right for African food to take its place in the global kitchen. So thanks to Timothy, Brown and Todd for igniting the conversation. And thanks to MoAD and Bryant Terry for amplifying the discussion.