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James Beard Award-Nominated Chef and Author Todd Richards Writes New Cookbook

‘Roots, Heart, Soul’ explores West African diaspora cooking in the Americas


spinner image todd richards against green background with outlines of jalapeno peppers
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Taria Camerino)

In his latest cookbook, Roots, Heart, Soul: The Story, Celebration, and Recipes of Afro Cuisine in America, James Beard Award-nominated chef and restaurateur Todd Richards seeks to tell the full story of West Africa’s influence on American cuisine. “I wanted to tell the backstory of how we got here, where we are now and a pathway to move forward,” Richards says.

spinner image book cover that says todd richards with amy paige condon, roots heart soul the story, celebration, and recipes of afro cuisine in america
Cover photography by Clay Williams; Cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa

Cook With Chef Todd

Richards shared these recipes from Roots, Heart, Soul for AARP members to try:

Hot and Spicy Crawfish Boil

This Jamaican-Louisianan-style crawfish boil, paired with collard green spring rolls and NY Cherry-Ginger Spritz, offers a hat tip to Caribbean, Chinese and Black cultures.

Collard Green Spring Rolls

These crispy, spicy Chinatown-style spring rolls are made with traditional Southern greens.

NY Cherry-Ginger Spritz

The classic New York–inspired spritzer hearkens back to red drink, also known as “red drank,” and has a rich history among West Africans and people of African heritage in the Americas.

Instead of using “soul food” as a description for the cuisine of Black people, Richards uses “Afro cuisine” and its variations to reference the ingredients, techniques and traditions that enslaved people brought from West Africa to the Americas and used over the past five centuries. “Afro cuisine is more about a uniting of people and understanding that our cuisine started in one place, and it has progressed and crosses not only continents but an ocean,” says Richards, the founder of The Soulful Company Restaurant Group in Atlanta.

In the Middle Passage section, the book features a recipe for Jollof Rice. According to Richards, this beloved one-pot dish — long believed to come from both Ghana and Nigeria — melds poblano and serrano peppers, a knob of ginger and a medley of spices. “The fragrant, peppery, one-pot dish dates as far back as the 1300s and is the mother of Cuban paella, New Orleans jambalaya, and Savannah red rice,” Richards writes.

Haitian Oxtail in Beef Broth with Pikliz appears in the Caribbean section of the book. “Throughout the Caribbean and American South, African slaves transformed the tails of oxen or other cattle, the discards of wealthy plantation owners, into a delicacy by slow-braising them in rich, fragrant stews,” he writes. A cabbage and Brussels sprouts pikliz — a Haitian pickled vegetable condiment — is served on the side.

The decadent Whiskey and Vanilla Salted Caramel Cake from the Great Migration section shares how caramel cake is and was revered among Southern bakers: “Traveling north on a train out of Alabama or Georgia counted as a special moment worthy of a slice packed in a lunch basket or box, especially when getting north of the Mason-Dixon Line when Black passengers finally could take better seats,” Richards writes. His version starts with a butter cake and includes a hint of citrus.

Working on the cookbook also gave Richards an opportunity to include some of his own family’s history. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he found that the Dominican recipe for Espaguetis with Salami (Beach Spaghetti) brought back a surge of memories. “That dish for me speaks to my family, because fish and spaghetti is something I grew up with in Chicago, and we always went to the beach to eat it,” he says. “Get two pieces of catfish, some spaghetti, coleslaw, head to the beach, you run around. That dish, to me, is one that just reminds me of childhood.”

It’s that ability to look back while also looking ahead that makes this book a monumental project. Roots, Heart, Soul provides historical context from the slave trade through the Great Migration, but features modern interpretations of dishes suited for today’s palate.

And although the book is filled with beautiful photography, vivid storytelling and expert cooking tips, ultimately Richards knows the most important aspect of any cookbook is how the recipes taste. “The first thing I want [people] to take away is that the food is delicious,” he says. “This food's good, you know. I'm not trying to force anything down anyone's throat except for delicious food.”

 

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