On Cooking & Vegetables Unleashed

As much as I love writing & sketching, sometimes, honestly, my creative situation is not abundant.

I don’t understand writer’s block — thank God, I’ve never really struggled to get things down on the page. But revising said words is something else.  There are times when I can’t read another word or the writing is…stale. This is usually around the time that I decide that, in my mind, I’m a professional chef…that no one knows about because I rarely unmask my culinary inclinations.

I taught myself to cook in my twenties when I realized that I wasn’t making enough as a rookie reporter to pay for going out to eat pretty much ever. Some of the things I used to eat make me sad to remember — there was the standard meal of Velveeta Shells & Cheese + Frozen Jumbo Shrimp via the Beaumont, Texas 24-hour Wal-Mart (also the site of much of my entertainment, aside from my obsession with Big Brother); a steady diet of Chunky soup for lunch when I lived in a closet-sized studio in Oakland and every burrito & breakfast taco known to mankind when I lived in Austin.

I was first introduced to vegetables as a food group I could get behind when I visited the farmer’s market in Oakland and the Berkeley Bowl a little further north. (For those of you who complain about Whole Foods on a weekend, Berkeley Bowl felt like that at all times multiplied by a thousand).

I would sheepishly pick up lettuce and spinach and occasionally an avocado, but all the other veggies might as well have had stickers with question marks on them. I thought fennel and leeks and artichokes were fresh (as in beautiful) to look at, but they intimidated me as someone who was really not into vegetables that didn’t act as side kicks for food with parents because I couldn’t figure out how to make them taste good by themselves.

Aguacate Con Cosas PHOTO CREDIT Peter Frank Edwards.jpg
Aguacates con cosas – Guacamole Salad from José Andres’ new, lovely & informative Cookbook, Vegetables Unleashed

Over the years I’ve gotten much better about this. I have a small collection of cookbooks, like the Joy of Cooking and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. These help me jazz up Brussel Sprouts and green beans, mostly as guidance for what flavors work together and what flavors don’t. Bittman has a simmered Brussel Sprout recipe with breadcrumbs that is delish, for example.

José Andres’ new Vegetables Unleashed is even better than that — the gorgeous photography and Andres’ trademark wit demonstrate the kind of confidence and creativity that make you feel brave enough to try almost anything in the kitchen. It’s also published under the Anthony Bourdain imprint and we’re nearing the anniversary of Bourdain’s death; I wrote about the CNN-produced book about him here.

It helped me admit to myself that fear of leeks is odd and one of these days I’m going to get over it.) The best thing about the book is that it is written in Andres’ trademark wit underscored by a clear expertise about what you should have in your pantry — I’ve added organic miso that I’m not confident enough to experiment with but I’ll try; but he also recommends Paprika, harissa and some others that you’ll need to go to a gourmet shop to find — how to use the parts of veggies that we often throw away and how to add flair to decidedly unsexy vegetables like, say, corn. For the latter, there’s a delicious Austin Grill Corn Soup that looks like heaven in a bowl.

The Plant Index
I used to be part of the 42 percent, but I’m trying to be better.

I wanted to try a few of these recipes but I ran out of time because life. Aguacates con Cosas is like a guacamole salad that has chopped up tomatillos in it. You can add tortillas or anything else to it to give it a crunch, but it was delightfully textured and delicious. It maybe took me 15-20 minutes to chop up the red onions, lime, tomatillos and smash the avocados. His version has cilantro and pomegranate seeds. I added the former and I inhaled this with chips and then made another batch that I ate with a spoon. For this recipe and others, you should definitely check out the book. It just so happens there looks like there’s an event at Politics and Prose coming up tonight, if you’re in D.C.







Harlem Eat Up, Part Two

Last year, when I was just starting to freelance for the Village Voice (R.I.P.), I was starting to gather notes about Harlem Eat Up, the annual two-day festival of Harlem’s food scene co-founded by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. When I attended in 2018, my intention was to focus on some graduates of the NYC Food Business Pathways program, one of New York’s food incubators for working class and low-income entrepreneurs with a passion for the food business.

I met the inspiring Jessica Spaulding, who runs the Harlem Chocolate Factory. Spaulding is a Harlem native who expressed some worry about how to keep her business sustainable as money flows to her neighborhood, but doesn’t always find its way to Black entrepreneurs. It was encouraging, then, to see her at the fifth annual Harlem EatUp, which is a true multicultural display of creativity and the expansion of food entrepreneurship as a multi-sensory experience. It’s delightful to sample dishes, cocktails and desserts from local businesses as well as to get the opportunity to learn more about the many gifted chefs and entrepreneurs around us.

Harlem, like the South Bronx, has been reduced in recent years to conversations around gentrification, which is unfortunate. The women I spoke to at Harlem Eat Up, Spaulding included, think that a mix of old and new in Harlem can only be good.

After a few hours in the sun, taking in the sights and familiar faces of proud New Yorkers from last year, it was easy to see what they mean — change is often complicated, but it doesn’t have to be bad. This year it felt like growth had been good not just for Samuelsson and his restaurant, Red Rooster, but also for people who know, love and live in Harlem.


Cardi B urrito
Created by chef Kevin Thai with Dear Mama, the Cardi B-urrito is a delicious breakfast burrito with housemade green chorizo, salsa verde, soft-scrambled eggs, mozzarella, sweet potato hash + Mexican spicy corn chips (or takis). It’s as delicious as it looks.


I miss having a garden so much that sometimes I just take pictures of plants for no reason when they’re all gathered this way.


This Mushroom Orecchiette doesn’t look nearly as delicious as it tastes.
Thanks, Barilla, for sharing the recipe – I’m definitely going to try this one!


I loved this retro display in front of the Red Rooster booth. They had delicious savory tacos, which were really popular this year; in the first ten minutes of walking around the Harlem Stroll and the Ultimate Taster’s test, I had five different tacos. 
Samuelsson & David Burtka.JPG
Chef, Actor and Author of the hosting book, Life is a Party, David Burtka with Chef Marcus Samuelsson 


This gentleman was the mad scientist & this contraption was very cool

Three Ways to Help Alleviate Hunger

I do a lot of talking to my students and others these days about the importance of being specific in writing and in life. One of the things that’s hardest for me to be specific about, both in terms of cultivating self-compassion around the trauma it brings up to write about it, but also the ways that our society stigmatizes black female experiences of poverty, is hunger — in the physical sense, but also in the emotional and mental sense.

I always say that fall is my favorite season. I love the delicious feeling of the air cooling in New York City, the way the leaves transform from green to marigold. I break out my new boots, my favorite sweaters & my best turkey chili slow-cooker recipe.

But autumn also brings a familiar, old ache in my body, somewhere between my heart and my stomach. My heart longs for what I imagine families or couples or people who belong to broader fabrics are preparing for, but that’s not the whole story of this ache.

Some of the story is that Thanksgiving calls to mind my great-grandmother Patty Randolph, who was Cherokee in South Carolina long before I was even an idea in anyone’s concept of the future, though I’m not certain if she was listed on anybody’s official tribal rolls because of our connection to blackness. (It is, apparently, another inheritance of mine to be a perpetual outsider and I may forever belong to the tribe of misfits.)

Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have inherited her high cheekbones and the scarlet blood that runs hot right beneath the undertones of my skin. I carry her imprint on my face, in my eyes, in my flesh, the same way my mother did.

What I know, what I have learned is that Native Americans have a different view of what harvest looks like, of what the Thanksgiving meal looks like, or should. Still, tradition and ritual are the arms we wrap around the narratives we prefer to inform our legacies in the world. Put another way, at the end of my life, I imagine I’ll look back on moments and highlights and collect the holidays at tables with chosen and/or biological family as those defining moments in which I became more whole. When I found another part of myself that fell away from me when I was young.

To say these parts fell away, too, is a bit passive, even; but to say they were stripped is too harsh. Like I said, the specificity of it is hard.

It’s one thing to tell people that when you were a child you sometimes didn’t eat for days, or that you were homeless sometimes, but what I’ve found is that you can never really explain to another person what it means not to be able to eat three meals a day because there just isn’t food in the house. It’s one thing to say that the UN estimates that 820 million people in the world suffer from chronic undernourishment.

It’s another to explain that if you live at a shelter as a kid with your single mom, you eat when meal times are. If you miss the meal times because the train was late or your mom’s appointment with her social worker ran later than she expected, you might just have juice because meal time is now over. Also, meal time can mean a cold sandwich on a cold day andan ice cold drink.

James Baldwin said it was expensive to be poor. This is what he meant.

I experienced hunger like this: drinking water and sleeping and listening to music and reading books to quiet my thoughts and fantasies and longing for food, wondering about when the next food pantry day would be at the nearest church. Those were the days, between checks or public assistance or money Western Union-ed from my brother, that made the real difference.

Beggars, they say, couldn’t be choosers. I was always grateful, truly. Thankful.

When other people donated food, though, we got whatever was second or third best – canned creamed corn, or canned peaches, or green beans. Mixed vegetables. Canned pork in a silver can with a pig drawn crudely on it. Corn Flakes. It was not for us. It was for some hungry desperate family of two and we happened to be the receptacles, like garbage, which is exactly how I felt for many years.

I can’t even tell you how often I was hungry in this desperate way as a kid – probably two, three times a month from the timeI was five until I went to boarding school on scholarship when I was 15. If we didn’t have money to travel to see our family for Thanksgiving, we went to a Catholic church, a soup kitchen, a Salvation Army with people who only had it slightly worse than we did, since sometimes we were actually living in an apartment when we had our Thanksgiving meals with other homeless people – but sometimes we didn’t.

I mention all of this because the reason I’m a proud member of the Junior Board at the New York Common Pantry is not necessarily because I like the way it sounds, or because I am affluent enough to remain on the board without stressing out a little bit about it, honestly. I volunteer and evangelize onbehalf of the New York Common Pantry because hunger and poverty are like so many other problems in our world — it’s much easier to see and talk in generic terms about what other people should be doing on other continents. But here, in the U.S., in your state, perhaps in your very building, on your block, maybe in your family, there may be someone who can’t afford to buy groceries for Thanksgiving. Maybe there’s a single mom with a little girl nerd like yours truly, and they are living a story just like mine, but they are too proud, too ashamed, too close to the ache to say anything.

The best thing about growing into a different narrative, or many different narratives, is that I can write my story in the service of action. I can do my small part to make sure others don’t go hungry. if you’re reading this, the same is true for you. If it is, here are some ways you can help alleviate food insecurity for some of the 1.4 million New Yorkers who rely on emergency food assistance every year:

  • The Junior Board is holding its third annual fundraiser, Friendsgiving, on November 8th. Tickets are $100 for a meal at the New York Common Pantry headquarters.

nycp invite 0918_3

  • You can also enter to win baskets that include high quality experiences like tickets to performances at Carnegie Hall or the One World Observatory or Gospel Brunch at RedRooster. (Thank you very much to the generous sponsors/donors who have donated to us, especially the ones who responded to my awkward emails — I hate asking for money but I will definitely do it if it means more people have food in the city I love, so thank you for bearing with meand even more important, thank you for your generosity!) Whether you want to attend the dinner (it will be delish!) or just want to give a donation, please list my name in the “In honor of” section: https://ycp.ejoinme.org/MyPages/JuniorBoardFriendsgiving2018/tabid/1003286/Default.aspx
  • From now through November 9th, the New York Common Pantry is hosting a food drive. You can shop and send food items to the New York Common Pantry that are most needed directly online from this link: https://yougivegoods.com/shop?drive=7972
  • You can arrange to have items from your company or organization’s food drive picked up by November 14th by filling out the Google Link here: http://nycommonpantry.org/2018-thanksgiving-food-drive/

Finally, if you will be in New York this Thanksgiving, or if you have been in the past, and you know of valuable ways to commemorate the third (?) Thursday in November, I’d love to hear them. I’d love to volunteer on Thanksgiving morning or make a new tradition — possibly involving my slow cooker to serve others — but maybe something else I haven’t yet imagined.