The chef boldly explains that the longevity and popularity of Mediterranean food is due to its dynamism. it is never static, never boring: “Does anyone understand that the southern cuisine is the only cuisine that has grown and matured?” he asks. “Everyone wants to be part of the story and be known for having the best southern cuisine. There is no way to prepare any of these dishes. It is the entirety of the experience, not just one experience. “
One of my favorite ways of using a cookbook is to mentally build the pantry of the chef who writes it. Bress ‘n’ Nyam is rooted in southern constructs – a very special south and sense of place. It’s Gullah Geechee, but it’s not about replicating any particular canon of dishes. Raiford’s travels and experiences from California to Italy (where he once represented the United States at the Slow Food International Global Gathering) have influenced how he interprets the food from home. His vision enables him to see the global in his childhood. He brings his nana’s love of produce and fresh vegetables to his quiche and giardiniera. He marries Ethiopian Berbere spice, jerk spice, feta, bottarga, mole, ice cream and compote with things he can get on a short walk to the chicken coop, orchard, brackish water around Gilliard or his garden, a modern day rival, Jeffersons Experimental field in Monticello.
As a chef, Raiford offers everything you could guess about Lowcountry Georgia, prepared through the lens of Matthew’s constant search for twists: muscadines become jelly and compote; Peanuts cooked in potlikker or served over chicken and purple cane syrup; Oysters roasted under burlap soaked in salt water or hidden next to roast turkey; a freshly grilled Ossabaw Island pork; the smell of wild sumac, blueberries, pomegranates; Mustard greens served over its signature CheFarmer grains. The classics are also available with excellent angles: sweet potato tart glazed with condensed milk, fried mullet, fried chicken, prawn perloo and red rice. Even better is an homage to the drinking culture of the Deep South Juke Joint, which is based on moonlight and local gins with fruity, salty and hot elements such as butterscotch, ginger and hibiscus.
The book is all the more surprising given that Raiford has done his best to get out of the bubble that others see as “Mediterranean” or “soul food”. For many black chefs in the 1980s, the stereotypical assumption that they would rely on diner favorites was stultifying. “In cookery school I tried to distance myself from Mediterranean food,” says Raiford. “Nobody allowed me to do what I wanted because they had a narrow vision: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cabbage vegetables, everything has to be fried or with bacon.” In addition to the need for variety and cooking that exceeds expectations, it is also about promoting balance and healthier practices. “I used a little steak seasoning to make my greens because there were so many people who like their greens without meat. You’re looking for that umami, that smokiness – not necessarily the meat. “
Chef Raiford expands the term health in his work. For him, health means maintaining healing practices that go back centuries: harvesting and using plants such as mullein, sumac, thistle and wild thyme. “Good health means eating in balance and knowing the vitamins and nutrients and knowing that certain wild herbs and spices that we grow and buy have health benefits,” he tells me. “It’s also about knowing the quality of the food and the soil. Good stuff in the soil and good stuff out – you need to know what types of nutrients are in the soil so that you know what is going on inside your body.
Bress ‘n’ Nyam covers so many subjects in a collection of recipes meant to be enjoyed and celebrated. It’s a microcosm of a black chef’s hard work for a holistic vision for his resurrected family farm. Old lights are honored in a new way. Here we have the opportunity to really see the big picture – the concern to preserve family and local traditions, to support black businesses like farms and distilleries, to eat well and healthy and with joy, and to love people of color on ancestral lands hold is a braid performance. This is the conversation we need to celebrate and expand, not just long. This cookbook is meant to tell us that now is the time for that conversation.