Collards sizzle in a pan on a hot stove before a lid stifles their chorus. Cutting boards, vegetables, and dishes crowd the countertop in a small apartment kitchen. A nearby sweet potato pie exudes the warming aromas of cinnamon, allspice, and bourbon, filling the room with its perfume each time the oven door opens.
“If apple pie is the most American pie, then sweet potato pie is the most Black American pie,” says Bailey Benson, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in food studies.
She pulls the pie from the oven to cool, then dons plastic gloves and reaches for a bag of chicken that has been marinating in a sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce. Her roommate, Serenity Bennett, clicks off the stove dial and removes the pan of collards. The mouth-watering meal is accompanied by sweet potato cubes, couscous, and a spicy margarita — all recipes included in Benson’s cookbook.
“An Afrofuturist’s Guide to Cooking” is her undergraduate thesis project. Benson’s life experiences thus far culminate in pages that connect the reader to not only food, but also a rich history of Black Americans descended from people displaced by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This displacement, known as the Black diaspora, occurred throughout the world, but Benson focuses on the borders of the U.S. for her project.
Benson weaves together art, music, recipes, interviews, and historical documents to tell the story from the Black perspective, using her own life experiences to inform her process.
“It started as a cookbook,” she says, “but now I describe it as an educational celebration of Black joy.”
South by southwest
Benson grew up in Arizona, far from the heartland of southern cooking.
“You are hard-pressed to find collards in Phoenix,” she says with a laugh.
Her grandparents live in Alabama and Georgia, though. When she visited in the summers as a child, she traded her usual muesli breakfasts for grits and ate collards almost daily. These moments connected her to her roots.
“Growing up in a very white space, I didn’t always eat the food associated with my culture,” Benson explains. “I really started to embrace my Southern background and heritage when I moved to Chapel Hill.”
Benson, a Morehead-Cain Scholar, knew that food was going to be her focus when she came to Carolina, but the direction was unknown.
“I thought that I was going to write about Mexican food,” she says.
Her upbringing in Phoenix exposed her to different styles of Mexican cooking, from the Americanized Tex-Mex to regionalized styles across Mexico. Her roots, though, brought her back to Southern Black food and away from Southwestern cuisines.
Benson approached her food journey from a cultural perspective, using food as the vessel. Frequenting Wilson Library, she combed through the journals of Mildred Council, the founder of the Chapel Hill restaurant Mama Dip’s, eventually finding clarity and inspiration for what became her thesis project.
She also took part in the Southern Oral History Program at Carolina. Her research and work there, practicing oral history for members of the Black community, further informed her approach to putting the cookbook together.
For starters, recipes
Afrofuturism often refers to an entertainment genre, and it revolves around a core idea: allowing Black people to rewrite history from their own perspective and using that perspective to navigate a way forward.
“Black Panther” is one of the most recent and well-known Afrofuturistic pieces focused on the Black perspective. Another example is R&B and soul artist Janelle Monáe’s 2018 album, “Dirty Computer,” which she paired with what she calls an “emotion picture” to redefine American identity.
“Using this rewritten history from our perspective allows us to figure out how to move forward,” Benson explains.
Her cookbook takes a chronological approach: reckoning with the past, understanding how the past affects people in the present, and figuring out how to move forward in an effective and inclusive way. Her three chapters — “Heal,” “Love,” “Create” — walk readers through this journey with food, stories, and art.
Along the way, each recipe has a song, and they all come together to make the playlist for the cookbook. When reader’s come across “Big Daddy’s Fish Fry,” Benson’s late grandfather’s recipe, they are guided to “Love’s Holiday” by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Her “Big Daddy” sang it constantly, and never in the right key.
While the playlist adds an extra element of Afrofuturism to the cookbook, Benson’s research revolves around the whole genre, using the journals she found at Wilson Library and the conversations she recorded during her oral history project to create a holistic piece.
“A cookbook doesn’t have to just be recipes. A cookbook can include music, art, interviews, and narratives,” Benson explains.
Food for all
Back in Benson’s kitchen, Serenity Bennett turns up the music a few notches before donning a pair of plastic gloves to help skewer the spicy peanut chicken. From one side of the kitchen to the other, the two are practically back-to-back. Every corner of the cooking space can be reached within two steps.
“I was worried where I was going to get the funding to have a kitchen like I did back in Arizona,” Benson admits. “But then I realized you don’t need any of that extra stuff.”
Her kitchen is simple. No mandolin to slice vegetables, no grill for the skewers, and no sprawling counters. Instead, she has a cutting board, knife, and an oven, all in a kitchenette typical to most college apartments.
In Benson’s cookbook, no fancy gadgets are necessary. She provides alternatives: a four-finger pinch stands in for a few tablespoons, a bowl and fork replace a standing mixer.
“I had to rent equipment as a first-year,” she explains, now wondering if her readers can rent things for free to be able to make a meal.
Her approach to the cookbook makes the recipes and their cultural history more accessible, and she hopes to eventually publish it to help others relearn their past in an inclusive way.
“I want everybody to be able to not only read it and enjoy it, but also cook from it and have a good meal.”