Boldly, the chef explains that Mediterranean cuisine’s popularity and longevity is due to its dynamism. It’s never static and never boring. He asks. “Everyone wants to be part of the story and be known for having the best southern cuisine. There is no way to prepare any of these dishes. It is the entirety of the experience, not just one experience. “
One of my favorite ways of using a cookbook is to mentally build the pantry of the chef who writes it. Bress ‘n’ Nyam is rooted in southern constructs – a very special south and local feeling. It’s Gullah Geechee, but it’s not about replicating any particular canon of dishes. Raiford’s travels and experiences from California to Italy (where he once represented the United States at the Slow Food International Global Gathering) have influenced how he interprets the food from home. His vision enables him to see the global in his childhood. He brings his nana’s love of produce and fresh vegetables to his quiche and giardiniera. He marries Ethiopian berbere spice, jerk spice, feta, bottarga, mole, ice cream and compote with things he can get on a short walk to the chicken coop, orchard, brackish water around Gilliard or his garden, a modern day rival to Jefferson’s experimental field in Monticello.
As a chef, Raiford offers everything you could guess about Lowcountry Georgia, prepared through the lens of Matthew’s constant search for twists: muscadines become jelly and compote; Peanuts cooked in potlikker or served over chicken and purple cane syrup; Oysters roasted under burlap soaked in salt water or hidden next to roast turkey; a freshly grilled Ossabaw Island pork; the smell of wild sumac, blueberries, pomegranates; Mustard greens served over its signature CheFarmer grains. The classics are also available with excellent angles: sweet potato tart glazed with condensed milk, fried mullet, fried chicken, prawn perloo and red rice. Even better is a tribute to the drinking culture of the Deep South Juke Joint, which relies on moonlight and local gins with fruity, salty and hot elements such as butterscotch, ginger and hibiscus.
The book is all the more surprising given that Raiford has done his best to get out of the bubble that others see as “Mediterranean”Or “spiritual food”. Many black chefs believed that they would be relying on the diner favourites. This was the case for many of them in the 1980s. Raiford says that he tried to avoid Mediterranean food in cookery school. “No one allowed me to do the things I wanted because they had a narrow view: fried chickens, macaroni and cheddar, cabbage vegetables, all must be fried or with bacon. You need to be able to cook in a variety of ways and it should not only meet your expectations but also promote balance and healthy eating habits. “I used a little steak seasoning to make my greens because there were so many people who like their greens without meat. You are looking for umami, smokiness, not necessarily meat.
Chef Raiford uses the term “health” in his work. Health is about using ancient healing methods such as thistle, sumac and wild thyme. He says that good health is eating well, knowing what vitamins and nutrients are available and that some wild herbs and spices we grow or buy can have health benefits. “It’s also about knowing the quality of the food and the soil. You need to know the types of nutrients in the soil in order to understand what is happening inside your body.
Bress ‘n’ Nyam addresses so many issues in a collection recipes that are meant to be enjoyed. It is a microcosm that shows the hard work of a black chef to create a holistic vision for his family farm. The old lights are remembered in a new light. We can now see the whole picture. This includes the desire to preserve family and local traditions, support black businesses like distilleries and farms, to eat well and live with joy, and love those of color who live on ancestral lands. This is the conversation we should have and it shouldn’t be a one-sided discussion. This cookbook is designed to let us know that this is the right time for that conversation.
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