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Chef Jeff Collects Soul Food Through The Generations

Chef Jeff Henderson has been on a mission to collect soul food recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation — and the stories that go with them.

And it was quite difficult, says the star of Food Network's The Chef Jeff Project and the best-selling author of Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras. That's because the African-American community, he says, doesn't always write its recipes down.

"I remember asking my grandfather before he passed away for a recipe for his gumbo," Henderson tells NPR's Michele Norris. "And he was like, 'Boy, I don't have no recipe; you better get in this kitchen and watch how I do it.' We just don't document. And it's so important for us to start documenting history so we can tell our own story about many contributions that we make."

Henderson collected more than 130 recipes from across the country for his new book, America I Am: Pass It Down Cookbook.

"This is a book for the people by the people — it's a community cookbook," he says.

The food featured in the book helps tell the story of how the African-American experience influenced American cuisine.

"West African slaves brought okra seeds, and watermelon seeds in their dreadlocks," Henderson says. "And when they came here to America, they played a big role in farming, in cultivation of vegetables here."

The goal of the book, he says, was to connect that history with the kitchen table.

And one of his favorite recipes is gumbo — a dish of rice, sausages, okra, chicken, shrimp — because it played a big part in "bringing the Henderson family together," he says. A nice pairing with the gumbo, he says, are sweet potato biscuits made with butter — a recipe that was in How The Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes And Ways of Preparing Them for the Table by George Washington Carver.

And for dessert, Henderson recommends Southern pecan pie, buttermilk pound cake and red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese.

All of the recipes in the book, Henderson says, serve a greater mission.

"I want people to understand the stories and the connection that African-Americans played in history in this country and food," Henderson says. "I want people to document and save the recipes that came from their family from generation to generation. This book stays in the kitchen. It should never leave the kitchen. It should be the kitchen for hundreds of years."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff