ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And now we're going to spend some time with Chef Jeff. You might be familiar with the name from his Food Network show, "The Chef Jeff Project." Jeff Henderson is also a best-selling author and a motivational speaker. The award-winning chef first learned to cook while doing time in prison.

His latest book is called "America I AM Pass It Down Cookbook," but it's as much a history book as a collection of recipes. The food and the family stories featured in the book explain how the history of African-Americans, from slave traditions to Sunday suppers, influence the way America eats today.

Mr. JEFF HENDERSON (Chef): West African slaves brought okra seeds and watermelon seeds, you know, in their dreadlocks. And when they came here to America, they played a big role in farming, in cultivation of vegetables here.

NORRIS: Though his name is on the cover, Chef Jeff said he wanted the cookbook to feel like something a community pulled together.

Mr. HENDERSON: This is a book for the people by the people. It's a community cookbook. And it was interesting how we found these folks. You know, we did a call through social media, and we asked people to turn in recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. And this is how we came up with over 130 soul food recipes. Now, a lot...

NORRIS: You know, because not everybody gives up their recipes.

Mr. HENDERSON: That's true.

NORRIS: You know, that's not easy to actually, you know, put a callout for recipes.

Mr. HENDERSON: You know, that's the challenge we had in the African-American community because I remember asking my grandfather, before he passed away, for the recipe for his gumbo. And he was like, boy, I don't have no recipe. You better get in this kitchen and watch how I do it, you know?

And we just don't document. And it's so important for us to start documenting history so we can tell our own story about, you know, many contributions that we make.

NORRIS: You know, I'd love to put together a meal, if we can, from the cookbook. I had a little idea so just, you know, follow me on this.

Mr. HENDERSON: OK.

NORRIS: I'd love to serve up a recipe and the story behind the recipe, and I'm going to let you choose. Which one should we choose from the cookbook? We both have a copy right here in front of us.

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, I want to go to the gumbo. And gumbo was a big, big part of bringing the Henderson family together when we were coming up. So that's why I choose the gumbo - you know, with rice and sausages, okra, crab, shrimp and chicken as well.

NORRIS: Now, I asked you to serve up a story as well as the dish. What's the story behind the gumbo in this book? And even the word gumbo is interesting, isn't it?

Mr. HENDERSON: Yeah. Well, you know, gumbo is - I call it the Southern bouillabaisse, and it's amazing. I love to cook it. There's many great stories behind it as well.

My grandfather was the main cook in our family, and he was the one who always cooked the gumbo for the family.

NORRIS: Are we serving biscuits with this meal?

Mr. HENDERSON: Absolutely. Sweet potato biscuits.

NORRIS: Sweet potato biscuits.

Mr. HENDERSON: Sweet potato biscuits, yes.

NORRIS: OK. All right. Put a little something-something in.

Mr. HENDERSON: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: And do you use butter or lard in your biscuits?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, you know, there's two ways you can go about that. Butter is all about the flavor, with the butter. Lard, you get a more -flakier biscuit. I personally prefer butter in my biscuits. And with this particular biscuit here, you know, you can also take leftover candied yams, mashed sweet potato, and add to the biscuit because, you know, back in the day, you know, we didn't waste anything. You know, everything was used. The pot liquor left over from the collard greens, turn that into a soup, use it as a cooking liquid to boil vegetables and whatnot.

NORRIS: Now, we promised that these recipes would come with a story, and this one...

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

NORRIS: ...comes from a very interesting story. It's from Tuskegee, Alabama, and it appeared in "How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes, and Ways of Preparing Them for the Table." And that was a book written by George Washington Carver, someone that we learn about every February...

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

NORRIS: ...in Black History Month, someone who contributed much to American agriculture.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. And it's really amazing to find out that he cooked and had recipes as well.

NORRIS: What didn't he do?

Mr. HENDERSON: He done everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: He did everything.

Mr. HENDERSON: He was an innovator, a Renaissance man, wasn't he? Yes.

NORRIS: He did a little bit of everything.

Mr. HENDERSON: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: Now, for dessert - we've been waiting patiently to get to dessert, because the studio smells so good right now.

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, you know, I brought some desserts here to NPR studio - here today for you, Michele.

NORRIS: And I've been trying - if I've been talking a little bit fast in the course of this interview...

Mr. HENDERSON: That's OK.

NORRIS: ...it's because I've been eager to get to dessert because it looks so delicious.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

NORRIS: What did you bring in for us?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, we have a Southern pecan pie, and we have a buttermilk pound cake...

NORRIS: Oh, but you're not...

Mr. HENDERSON: ...with some blackberries.

NORRIS: ...done because over behind me - and pardon me if I reach for just...

Mr. HENDERSON: Yeah, well, you know, I was going to...

NORRIS: ...a second.

Mr. HENDERSON: ...save the best for last.

NORRIS: We have a big, old basket here.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

NORRIS: What's in this?

Mr. HENDERSON: We have some red velvet cupcakes.

BLOCK: Mmm. Mmm.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. With cream cheese whipped on the top there. Amazing, great, moist, wonderful flavor.

NORRIS: Yeah...

(Soundbite of eating)

Mr. HENDERSON: You going to have a bite with me?

NORRIS: ...I am going to have a bite with you.

Mr. HENDERSON: All right.

NORRIS: Now, the red velvet cupcake has had a renaissance. You can find them - sorry if I'm talking and chewing at the same time. You can find them all over the place. This was really, a Southern treat for many, many years?

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. And...

NORRIS: And people didn't always use food dye.

Mr. HENDERSON: They didn't. They used to use red beets and vinegar. I don't use vinegar in mine. I just don't like the vinegar taste.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HENDERSON: I actually use food coloring versus the beets because we wanted to make this pass-it-down cookbook - recipes very simple for the home cook. So we didn't make it too complex. But there's - many people make it many, many different ways.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

NORRIS: What do you want people to do with this cookbook?

Mr. HENDERSON: I want people to understand the stories and the connection that African-Americans played in history in this country, and food. I want people to document and save the recipes that came from their family from generation to generation.

NORRIS: And you have a place for them to do that...

Mr. HENDERSON: Absolutely.

NORRIS: ...at the back of the cookbook.

Mr. HENDERSON: Right in the back of book. And that was one of the most amazing additives to this book - is this book stays in the kitchen. It should never leave the kitchen. It should be in the kitchen for hundreds of years because whoever comes along and open this book, there's recipes in the back, and they can document themselves.

NORRIS: Chef Jeff, always good to talk to you.

Mr. HENDERSON: Likewise.

NORRIS: That was Chef Jeff Henderson. His latest book is called "America I AM Pass It Down Cookbook: Over 130 Soul-Filled Recipes." And you can find a few of those soul-filled recipes at npr.org.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.