Ntozake Shange Makes Me Wanna Be a Foodie

I proudly admit that I hate cooking.  I can make exactly 2 things well, and one of them comes out of a box.  I like to say that my aversion to the kitchen is a feminist indictment of the traditional female role, but I am fully aware that it is actually due to a crippling combination of laziness, lack of interest, and the ease of ordering from GrubHub.

While my laziness and the draw of GrubHub will probably never diminish, I have to say that after reading Ntozake Shange‘s If I can cook/ you know God can… my interest in cooking is at the highest it has ever been (I suppose, though, one can only go up from zero).

Shange  blends together autobiographical narrative, poetry, recipes, and lessons on history and cultural traditions to create a well-plated feast of information and entertainment.

Honestly, I can’t see a more perfect model for writing a cookbook.  I mean, seriously, who sits down and reads a cookbook cover to cover? Right. No one. The market for cookbooks is all about gifting. You buy a book of recipes for that closet foodie husband or your vegan, fructose-free, diabetic hipster best friend, and then the book sits there on their spices shelf unread but admired by passing guests.

So not the case with this book. I, the formerly self-proclaimed anti-kitchen-ite (anti-kitchen-ian?), not only read the book cover to cover –  delighting in the stories that take you to kitchen tables in London, the American South,  Barbados, and  Nicaragua – but have actually returned to the book to hunt down a yam recipe.

So what magic does this book hold that it can draw such a non-foodie anti-gourmand as myself to its pages?  Well, the thing is, it isn’t really a cookbook. There are recipes, yes, but Shange’s main concern is to posit the question What makes people – a people, that is- hungry?

What she does is make the case for why we cook, why we eat, and how important food is to our cultural histories and presents:

“What we want of our world and what we have offered stand in clear opposition. We want nothin’. On the other hand, we continually make somethin’ outa nothin’.

If life offers no possibilities that we can discern, we cook heroin, crack, crank, something just for ourselves, that get us away from everybody, lets us be alone, malnourished and quietly dying over our fires. Cooking is a way of insisting on living, much in the same way that banzo* was a way to refuse life without the flavor of freedom. When we are hungry for life, we search out spices, aromas, and texture to entice and please those around us.”

That food and eating is an aspect of culture worth knowing about, that it affects and informs not just our daily sustenance but the big ideas of our glorious and awful histories, is a worthy argument for me to end my pointless boycott of the kitchen.  That said, given her argument for the importance of eating, I might just stick to that side of the party and choose my friends wisely…

*“banzo” is ‘the will to die’. Shange quotes earlier from Kenneth F. Kiple and Brian Higgins’s essay in The Atlantic Slave Trade about the phenomenon of banzo : “Africans, unlike other peoples, could commit suicide by holding their breath”

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