TO TASTE AFRICAN-American cooking is to taste the world. African, Caribbean, Latin American, southern American, and even New England cooking. So writes John Pinderhughes, author of "Family of the Spirit Cookbook" (Simon and Schuster, 1990, $24.95), a book of recipes and remembrances from African-American kitchens.
Pinderhughes, who is related to former Baltimore City Schools superintendent Alice Pinderhughes, takes a relaxed, familial approach to illustrating a world of different cuisines. Each chapter is devoted to a different relative or dear friend's favorite recipes, plus cooking tips and childhood stories. The author has also photographed each contributor and added his own reminiscences.
Thus, recipes are organized by person, and not by normal categories such as breads, soups, meat dishes. This detracts from easy reading of the book, but it is unimportant if you wish to enjoy "Family of the Spirit" as a book of essays about people.
The recipes are easy to understand, but many are written in the careless tone of family recipes short on accurate measurements, leaving readers to deduce how much "a little" butter should be and which size dish to use when baking a casserole. The clarity of the recipes is dependent on each person, not the author.
The stories about people, told in their own words, are entertaining. Here is Pinderhughes himself, who calls himself by his family nickname, "Bunky," talking about his grandparents: "Greens were always popular with my family. My grandfather from Providence, Rhode Island, was a connoisseur of greens. He would eat them all, wild and cultivated. My grandmother told me how once when they were guests at someone's house, he saw a field of beautiful dandelion greens, excused himself, and immediately set to picking. My grandmother was really embarrassed but did eat some of the resulting greens."
Brenda Goodwin, a friend of Pinderhughes, contributes reminiscences about college days at Morgan State University in the early '70s: "I went to Morgan and, well, college students never seem to have any money, and I was no exception. The food in the cafeteria was so bad that when you got to your room you were still hungry. We would bring things from home that could stay out a long time, things like cheese. Late at night studying, you'd get hungry. Anyway, I would make these cheese sandwiches, and the only way I had of making them hot was to use my iron. So I'd just make them on my iron--put them on some foil and put the iron on high. You have to be inventive, you know."
Inventive is just the word to describe Pinderhughes' warm approach to sharing his family and good food.
Verta Mae Grosvener's Shrimp, Okra and Eggplant Rice
3 tablespoons bacon fat
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 small green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 pound okra, sliced into 1/2 -inch slices
2 cups long-grain rice
1 pound small shrimp
4 cups liquid (chicken stock, seafood stock, or boiled shrimp shells)
Heat two tablespoons of the bacon fat in a large heavy pot. Add the onion, green pepper and garlic. Saute until the onion has wilted. Add the eggplant. Saute for five minutes. Season with the salt, pepper, thyme and red pepper flakes. Stir and add the okra. Saute five minutes more. Add the remaining tablespoon of bacon fat, rice and shrimp. Cook until the shrimp just turn pink. Add the liquid. Stir once. Allow the pot to come to a boil, then lower the heat to very low. Cover and cook for 20 minutes or until the rice is done and all the liquid is absorbed. Serves six to eight.