If I Can Cook/ You Know God Can

by Ntozake Shange
Foreword by Vertamae Grosvenor
(Beacon Press, hard)

Sultry, vibrant, bitterly honest, spiritually redemptive: These words describe the work of Ntozake Shange. The author of poetry, novels, and plays, this diva of African-American letters now adds a cookbook to her oeuvre. A what? That's right, a cookbook titled If I Can Cook/You Know God Can.

A cookbook from Shange will not surprise her longtime fans. In a 1995 visit to Austin, the author mentioned her current project, "writing some thoughts about food," and confessed to having put a small bed in her kitchen so she could stay close to the source of her work while resting between writing spells. It must have worked, because it's clear in her book that Shange takes a great deal of pleasure in the preparation, presentation, and savoring of well-prepared food. There's no line drawn in her kitchen between good food and food good for you. Recipes for Pig's Tails by Instinct, French-fried Chitlins, Chicken-fried Steak, and Aporreado de Tasajo (Salt-dried Beef Stew) appear with Company's Coming Wheatmeat, Good Salad, and Organic Brown Rice. A handful of fruit-based desserts reflect her travels to island nations. More amazing than the name implies, Mixed Fruit in Syrup features oranges, cantaloupe, sugar cane, and guavas, softened in a molten sauce of dark brown sugar, water, and cinnamon sticks and cooled "significantly before serving." This ain't your canned fruit cocktail.

Shange has written her recipes in the jocular tone of an elder teaching you how to make a favorite recipe just so. But If I Can Cook/You Know God Can is much more than a cookbook. It is also "Perusals of history, literature, vernacular, culture, and philosophy." Preceding the recipes are short essays -- cravings in a sense -- by Shange to understand or recognize herself in the history and culture of other African-origin people of the world. Not that she's a lost soul. On the contrary, travels to Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, or places undeniably products of the African Diaspora launch Shange's thoughts on being and identity. Where did black folks end up? How did they cope with relocation? The most obvious answer to Shange is at the table, where hearts, minds, and bellies come together and are made full.

In an early chapter, Shange recounts a New Year's Eve in New York, far from immediate family, with an insatiable desire to recreate for her daughter the family holidays she remembered. Holidays with family packed into a house with pig tails, sweet potatoes, collards, rice and beans, smoked turkey wings, okra, tomatoes, corn on the cob, and corn bread on the stove. Unable to find suitable provisions, she took her daughter on a near scavenger hunt, as the New Year drew closer and shops in the city were closing.

"All this so a five-year-old colored child, whose mother was obsessed with the cohesion of her childhood, could pass this on to a little girl, who was falling asleep at the dill pickle barrel. I'll never forget how quickly my child fell asleep, so that I alone tended the greens, pig's tails, and corn bread. Though I ate alone that New Year's Eve, I knew a calm I must attribute to the satisfaction of my ancestors. I tried to feed us."

Readers of If I Can Cook/You Know God Can will have a hard time deciding where to keep their book: in the kitchen for quick reference or near the bed for late-night reading. Maybe keeping a bed in the kitchen isn't such a crazy idea after all. -- Belinda Acosta

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