27 Essential Cookbooks by Black Chefs, Authors and Historians
Make room: These titles need a permanent spot on your shelf.
Photo by Jerelle Guy for Jubilee/Courtesy of Clarkson Potter
African American food is American food. Years of enslavement and servitude, followed by a bustling invention and reclamation of soul food and Southern cooking, build on African cooking traditions that date back centuries. Black Americans haven’t just contributed to American food, they are central to it. Their traditions provided the foundation for American agriculture, and American food traditions. African immigrants across the globe have brought their own traditions with them, offering insight into the flavor and spice diversity found across the massive continent. Until very recently, Black food has often been depicted as one-dimensional, but the authors of hundreds of cookbooks spanning generations show the range, intellect and ingenuity of Black chefs and Black culinary traditions across the diaspora.
This is why it’s so important that cookbook shelves include Black perspectives on food and cuisine — and why we must make room for more voices whenever possible. Below is a list of essential cookbooks by Black chefs, cookbook authors and historians across the diaspora. This list by no means exhaustive, but it provides important and timeless reads that remind the world of the limitless genius — and tastiness — of Black cooking.
Few authors have encapsulated Black cooking, history and joy in the way of food historian, writer and Cook’s Country editor-in-chief Toni Tipton-Martin. As the first African American editor of a major American newspaper’s food section, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tipton-Martin’s role in the Black food history cannon is prominent. Jubilee shines light on important but often ignored or underappreciated figures of American food history such as Samuel Fraunces, Freda DeKnight and Chef George Crum. In giving life to their stories, Tipton-Martin undertakes the remarkable task of rightfully placing the source of American food and culinary culture with the Black Americans who invented it. As she offers thoughtful context and history, the author provides tantalizing recipes for dishes like Gumbo Z'herbes, Pork Chops with Rich Lemon Caper Sauce and Coconut Lemon Layer Cake. Who says one can’t learn meaningful history and eat well at the same time?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris is the leading scholar of African foodways in the United States, and has shaped how and why we talk about Black food today. A living testament to the importance of prioritizing Black history and culture, Dr. Harris has traveled around the world to unearth the stories, techniques and recipes that made African food — and subsequently Black food — what it is now. The Africa Cookbook provides more than 200 recipes that span the African continent, and an account of a Black history and culinary past that extends far beyond the enslaved narrative of the Americas.
Abby Fisher is known as one of the nation’s first Black cookbook authors. Born into slavery, the exceptional cook moved from Alabama to San Francisco and lived as a free woman, authoring an impressive collection on more than 150 recipes from her southern upbringing. The book was reprinted in 1995 and used copies are still available online.
Though African Americans played an essential role in developing what we now know as American cooking, many of their efforts and recordings were ignored, and discarded. Thanks to the work of historians and documentarians like Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and Tipton-Martin, we do still have some records from the past. Rufus Estes' Good Things to Eat, is one of those essential records. Authored during the Taft administration by formerly enslaved chef Rufus Estes, Good Things to Eat is the first cookbook to be written and published by an African American chef. A gateway into the world Estes inhabited, his cookbook captures the tastes and flavors of his time, such as Chestnut Stuffing with Truffles, Peanut Soup, Codfish Cones, Corned Stew With Cream, and nearly 600 other recipes. Skilled in French and African cooking techniques, Estes’ prose and instructions provide a lens into the world of a man who was talented, confident, determined to provide his account of what good things to eat should taste like.
New Orleans chef Leah Chase gave the world an immeasurable gift: wonderful, soul renewing food. Leah Chase is the late owner of Dooky Chase, a famed New Orleans restaurant that often hosted the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ernest "Dutch" Morial, the Freedom Riders, and other Civil Rights activists, and her role in American history, activism and food is profound. Though she has passed, her food and stories live on through The Dooky Chase Cookbook, which offers lively stories and Creole recipes near and dear to the cherished restaurateur's heart.
Before there was Jubilee, there was The Jemima Code. Having spent years accumulating private collections of cookbooks from Black American authors, Tipton-Martin presents one of the most comprehensive historical books of African American culinary traditions. The result is a book that reflects upon more than 150 Black-authored cookbooks, that extends from a house servant’s manual from 1827, to more recent cookbooks by legends like Edna Lewis. The historical text provides a look into the lives and recipes of worlds past, and expresses why they continue to be so important today.
Edna Lewis is one of the most celebrated chefs in American history. Her book, The Taste of Country Cooking, was published in 1976 and re-released in 2006 to celebrate its 30th anniversary. A celebration of the American country that formed her palette, her cookbook offers recipes for all four seasons, like Special Butter Cookies for an early spring dinner, Corn Muffins for a midsummer Sunday breakfast, Guinea Fowl in Casserole for Emancipation Day dinner in the fall, and Braised Muscovy Duck in Natural Sauce for the winter. Lewis’ first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook, was published in 1972 and also provides not-to-be missed recipes, like that illuminate the boundless nature of Southern cooking.
Michael Twitty’s memoir, The Cooking Gene, is a look at an extremely important, often painful, Black history. Tracing his family’s history from pre-enslavement in Africa to postcolonial freedom through food, the author provides an intimate and candid examination of the roots of Southern food, Southern identity, and who gets to claim ownership over both. Importantly, he also looks to the future and offers guidance to today’s chefs.
"There is no chef without a homeland," writes Twitty. "To be a chef today is to center yourself in the traditions of your roots and use them to define your art and speak to any human being about who you are; your plate is your flag." While the recipes are few, those he does provide — like Fish Pepper Sauce, West African brisket and hoecakes — offer insight into the complicated story that is both America’s identity, and Twitty’s.
Drawing on renowned African American chef Joe Randall’s recipes, Randall and Tipton-Martin provide 300 recipes that reflect the range of African American cooking. Highlighting the work of legendary Black chefs, and providing recipes for dishes like Southern Fried Quail, Baked Oysters Wrapped in Country Bacon, and Cornmeal Pizza Crust with Smoked Catfish, Randall and Tipton-Martin impart an incredible tasty reminder: Blackness is limitless.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the world’s largest museum dedicated to African American culture and artwork. Opened in September 2016, the Smithsonian Institute is a bastion of African American past, present and future, and has provided some of the world’s most significant historical data and artifacts related to African Americans. Housed in the five-story building is Sweet Home Cafe, a restaurant dedicated to the rich African and Black American foodways. More than 100 recipes highlight the role played and contributions made by African Americans throughout U.S. history.
Baker and food photographer Jerrelle Guy wears many hats. In addition to shooting the award-winning cookbook Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking, the esteemed baker authored and photographed her own cookbook, Black Girl Baking. Guy offers delightful recipes for both vegan and more traditional baking like Blueberry Drop Biscuits, Unicorn Ice Cream Sandwiches, Baked Buttermilk Beignets and more. Inviting readers into her unique background and relationship with race in the United States, Guy brings readers on a sweet culinary journey, bringing tastes, smells and aromas with her.
If there was a land of vegetables, Bryant Terry would be the likely ruler. The Oakland activist, chef, and MoAD Chef-in-Residence provides seemingly endless ways to season, cream, grill, and roast vegetables in Afro-Vegan, and his newest release Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes. Leaning on international, and West and East African flavors, Terry provides an important reminder for the plant-based world: Veganism wouldn’t exist without Black folks, and our claim in that realm is both essential, and historic.
Though the continent of Africa has been the sources of some of the world’s most significant spices, flavors and cooking traditions, few cookbooks have captured the home cooks who’ve carried these lessons from generation to generation. Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen give voice to the grandmothers, known as bibis, who share food traditions through their tables. Hassan outlines essential pantry staples for East African cooking such as bouillon cubes, fenugreek seeds and adobo seasoning, and includes a list of equipment to help get your recipes just right. Speaking with immigrants and cooks from South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Comoros, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia and Eritrea, she presents the underrepresented history found in dishes like Suugo Suqaar (pasta sauce with beef), Sukama Wiki (greens with tomatoes), and M’tsolola (fish, yuca, green plantain, and coconut milk stew). Disrupting the narrative that African history equates to war and poverty, Hassan both humanizes and envisions an Africa that is described by those who give it its character and soul.
Black history is often discussed as an ancient account of events. Celebrity chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson reminds readers that Black history is happening here and now, and tuning in can lead to understanding, healing, and some delicious eating. Authored with food writer Osayi Endolyn with recipes from Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook, The Rise includes recipes from across the diaspora inspired by Black chefs and innovators of the current moment. "Black food is American food," Samuelsson writes, and his recipes for Classic Croissants, Country-Style Spare Ribs With Pickled Green Slaw, and Pork and Beans With Piri Piri Sauce reinforce this truth.
Carla Hall has spent a lifetime studying, eating and loving good food, so it’s no surprise that her cookbook exemplifies that love through each and every delightful recipe. Leaning on her Nashville roots, Hall provides an intricate look at the flavors and values of Southern soul food, and paints a vivid picture of the cuisine’s possibilities. With easy-to-follow recipes ranging from appetizers Like Olive Oil Deviled Eggs and Baked Blooming Onion with Gruyere Cheese to hearty, family-style meals like Molasses Baked Chicken Wings, Dirty Rice, and Fried Chicken with Spaghetti, Hall reminds readers that old traditions can be simple, tasty and an opportunity to learn.
There are many ways to experience the world’s eternal city; one of the most ubiquitous is through its food. Editor Kristina Gill, along with Italy-based food and travel photographer Katie Parla, offer an intricate look into the gastronomic habits of Rome. Taking readers through a historical view of the nearly 3,000-year-old city, and bringing them up to the present moment, Gill and her co-author show the depths of culinary tradition that exist within an ancient city, and the importance of remembering and carrying customs into new generations. Italian delights such as Amatriciana Estiva (summer amatriciana), Triglie Con Cipolle, Pinoli, E Uvetta (mullet with onions, pine nuts, and raisins) and Sorbetto Di Pesche E Vino (peach and wine sorbet) demonstrate the vast Italian culinary cannon, while highlight the ingredients and flavors of Italian cuisine. Gill’s presence in the book’s creation is essential. For too long, Black Americans have been told who and what they should be interested in and can talk about; Gill, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, reminds readers that Blackness is everywhere.
More people live alone than ever before — 35.7 million — to be exact, so cooking a meal that serves four to six isn’t always ideal. Klancy Miller, author and founder of For the Culture Magazine, brings fun to solo cooking through fun and fresh recipes like a Tahitian Noodle Soup, a Frittata Soufflé For One, and a Goji Berry Fruit Salad. Yes, your self-care Saturday just got elevated.
Owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ in Oakland, CA, Tanya Holland’s book captures the ingenuity and flavor of Oakland kitchens. Through recipes like BBQ Braised Smoked Tofu With Roasted Eggplant, Black-Bottom Maple Pecan Bars, and Creole Meatloaf, Holland, like so many of her peers, challenges the narrative of what constitutes as Black food, and invites readers into the storied culinary histories of the Black Bay area.
An ode to the convergence of African and Asian cooking traditions, Alexander Smalls and JJ Johnson make a strong case for the essential recognition of Afro-Asian-American cooking as a cuisine. Both stalwarts of the vibrant and historic Harlem community ("Harlem is the kind of place that calls you from your home and teaches you how to dream," they recount from Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer) the chefs bring heaven and Harlem together through their analysis of the impact of African, Asian and American cooking on global cuisines. Providing global context for the recipes they share, flavor profiles shown through recipes like Green Apple Curry, Moqueca Brazilian Fish Stew, and Curry Crusted Cod With Hominy Stew exhibit the possibilities of Afro-Asian flavors in the kitchen — and that the dreams birthed in Harlem can indeed come true.
Alexander Smalls is a restauranteur, author and award-winning opera singer. The gregarious, charming chef fused his love and music and provisions in his cookbook dedicated to music, meals and muses. Sectioned by the fundamentals of African American music — jazz, spirituals, gospel, opera, divas, jukebox music and serenades — Smalls takes us throughout an edible concert, singing soprano tunes with lights desserts like doughnuts and Icebox Lemon Pie, giving us some alto with his Sweet Potato Biscuits and Angel Yeast Rolls, taking us to the tenor end with his Carolina Hoppin’ John and Stone-Ground Grits, and dropping bass notes with his Seared Grouper With Spicy Gumbo Sauce, Bourbon Praline Candied Baked Ham, and Free-Range Duck With Creole Sauce. It’s a cookbook for the music lover in all of us.
In Jenné Claiborne’s cookbook, veganism — and vegetables — get a shakeup. No longer is soul food solely for meat and dairy consumers. In Claiborne’s world, sizzling bacon can be made with tempeh, sweet potato pancakes can be dairy-free. And the beloved Louisiana etouffee? She’s got oyster mushrooms for that. Perfect for the on-the-fence vegan who’s afraid of giving up Southern cuisine, or the longtime vegan looking to add more flavor to their kitchen, Sweet Potato Soul brings life, soul and sweetness to the vegan community.
Afro-Latino bread enthusiast Bryan Ford brings his love of dough to the pages. Beginning with an explainer on New World Sourdough, Ford had no idea how timely his cookbook would be for the pandemic world in which it was released. Leaning into his Honduran roots and upbringing in New Orleans, the innovative baker provides recipes and techniques for making pan Gallego (bread of Galicia), Pan Rustico (country bread), and Pan De Coco (Honduran coconut bread).
Bold, colorful, and convivial, Lazarus Lynch has brought his artistic genius to the world of food. With a Guyanese mother and father from Alabama, Lynch watched his dad lead a popular soul food restaurant — Baby Sister’s Soul Food — in Queens, New York, leading him to seek out Southern and Caribbean food everywhere. His cookbook builds on his Instagram persona, Son of a Southern Chef, and communicates the love and respect he has for his family’s roots. Come for the pops of color, bomb outfits, and absolutely laid hairstyle, stay for his mom’s Saltfish, Shrimp and Crazy Cream Cheddar Grits, and Dulce De Leche Banana Pudding.
"Born, bred, and buttered in Harlem," Melba Wilson’s tagline extends to her glorious cookbook. As the owner of Melba’s in South Harlem, Wilson’s work could easily stand on its own through her Eggnog Waffles and Fried Chicken, and Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs that brings in lines of patrons to her restaurant each and every day. Instead, the restaurateur was gracious enough to share her comfort food techniques and key recipes in this cookbook. Through 100 hundred recipes, including Finger Lickin' Ribs, Banana 'Nilla Pudding, and yes, even her insanely good Eggnog Waffles, Melba’s brings the comforts of Southern cooking to your bookshelf.
Sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau celebrate the diversity found within Caribbean cooking by focusing on the roots: vegetables. Using traditional island spices and ingredients, the Jamaica-based sisters bring in the traditions largely built by Caribbean women, weave in lessons from their father (who was a restaurateur), and bring their own modern twists and tastes to life. Take a trip to the islands at your own dinner table through mouth-watering recipes like Cassava Pancakes with Sorrel Syrup, Coconut Corn Fritters, and Roast Provisions with Haitian Pikliz.
The world of hand-crafted cocktails is almost invariably white. Thanks to disruptors like Shannon Mustipher, the image of the classic bartender is changing. A Brooklyn-based bartender, Mustipher transports readers to a tropical paradise, and gives readers the tools they need to imbibe tasty tiki treats like the white rum and honey infused Canchanchara, the pineapple-based Jungle Bird, and the fruity Good Fortune.
Blogger Jocelyn Delk Adams brought her sweets outside of the online world and into the shelves of cookbook enthusiasts around the country. Grandbaby Cakes recounts Delk’s memories of her grandmother, affectionately known as "Big Mama," and brings the recipes and lessons she learned as a child to the baking table. Merging Southern traditions and Midwestern flavors, Grandbaby Cakes offer something sweet for everyone.