Cooking with James Baldwin




Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for a virtual wine tasting on Friday, December 18, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, visit our events page, or scroll down to the bottom of the article.

Baldwin’s characters haunted French bistros, where oysters with mignonette are a staple. Photo: Erica MacLean.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So read the inspirational quote in the front window of my Brooklyn gourmet market the day I shopped for a meal celebrating the work and life of James Baldwin (1924–1987). These words, coincidentally but not surprisingly, are from Baldwin, who is the man of the moment again thanks to the extraordinary relevance of his writing to today’s America.

Baldwin as a novelist is perhaps best known for Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, the former a gay man’s self-reckoning and the latter a brutal and tragic wrestling with being Black in America. He is known to a lesser extent for having lived most of his adult life abroad, first in Paris and then in the Provençal town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, though he always kept up his connection to the Harlem of his birth and was an active participant in the U.S. civil rights movement. Intense and multitalented, Baldwin was also a playwright—he loved actors and the theater—and a critic and essayist. His nonfiction collections Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time have predicted the future to an astonishing degree.

 

My homemade baguette was imperfectly shaped and slashed, but it tasted nearly right. Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

One of the great Black intellectuals of his era, Baldwin posited race as the central conflict in American life—and identified the “innocence” of race as the white man’s central crime. “I can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the conditions of his life,” he writes in Notes of a Native Son. He believed that America taught Black people “with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” This schooling made it impossible to love self or family, made it impossible to live as a Black person in America—Rufus, the main character of Another Country, dies by suicide. In later years, Baldwin claimed that the nation’s fundamental qualities had remained unchanged despite integration and civil rights. “Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free,” he writes in The Fire Next Time. These facts contain “the gravest implications for us all” because “the Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.”

The 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro juxtaposes Baldwin’s words and speeches with images of contemporary protest against police violence in places like Ferguson, Missouri, to great effect.

 

A character in Another Country cooks a plate of pork and rice with salad during a domestic dispute. This version is from the culinary icon Edna Lewis. Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

The root of the racism that defines life in America, Baldwin felt, is fear. White people, Baldwin says in The Fire Next Time, “had robbed black people of their liberty and … profited by this theft every hour that they lived.” The white man despises the Black man because doing so provides him with a feeling of superiority and he cannot face his crimes against the Black man. “A vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white,” Baldwin writes. Elsewhere, he says: “The crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, [is] that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

Baldwin’s thought seems an obvious progenitor to the core ideas of contemporary racial-justice movements. I find it edifying—and a fact to which close attention should be paid—that the influence of Baldwin’s thought has lasted and grown, as a peer to, or perhaps even overtaking, the ongoing generative power of the legacies of other great figures who were his contemporaries. I Am Not Your Negro takes as its starting point an unfinished Baldwin essay on three Black leaders of his time, all of whom were assassinated—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers—and all of whose deaths affected Baldwin profoundly. Each embraced a slightly different form of activism. Baldwin’s was through his art—and his artistic mission, as he conceived it, was to wrestle honestly, visibly, and unflinchingly with everything he saw as true in himself and in the world around him. As Baldwin’s biographer David Leeming writes, “He was born to translate the painful human experience into art.” Baldwin wrote about the church, about his homosexuality, and about race without regard for the sensitivities of anyone and despite the great difficulty and personal pain inherent in doing so. This truth telling has held tremendous power over the decades since his death.

 

Lewis’s technique calls for the butter and water to be heated together before incorporation with the stuffing. Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

I would love to know Baldwin’s thoughts on today’s issues. He was insistent that as a matter of self-preservation, Black people must neither hate white people nor give up on them (despite the manifest temptations of doing so), but very often he had white liberals in his crosshairs, memorably accusing them once of “incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtuseness.” If nothing else has changed, that probably hasn’t either. The Baldwin quotation at my gourmet market, for example—“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”—felt to me more ironic than perhaps the people choosing it had intended, since the shoppers at this particular store are predominantly white and the cashiers are predominantly Black. I was there for oysters and imported French butter and Roquefort cheese—to celebrate James Baldwin, no less—yet I doubt my awareness of race while I made my purchase changes anything. In the more sinister sense, the market’s association of itself with Baldwin probably serves to entrench the status quo.

It’s discouraging, and it can be difficult to feel much optimism for the solutions currently on offer for the ongoing problem of racism in America. Today’s objectives seem to be mostly the same ones we’ve already been attempting, just more so. Yet if Baldwin is to be believed that nothing has changed—and I do believe him—these methods already haven’t worked for half a century. It’s possible that we just haven’t tried hard enough, but it’s also possible we aren’t trying the right things. In reading Baldwin, then, I tried to learn something new by mimicking his openness as a writer with my openness as a reader. I attempted to read with the same tolerance for difficulty and complexity with which he wrote, and to encounter surprises, to find not what I expected but what I didn’t. In the end what struck me most was the power of his contention that “the price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.” I imagined all the ways the world might look if we gave up American whiteness and American Blackness both—they are linked, after all; they live and die together—and found in this exercise an arena for ongoing meditation.

 

The apple-herb stuffing for Edna Lewis’s crown roast of pork uses a lot of butter, but it’s so worth it. Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

It’s much easier to cook dinner than to provide answers, even when the dinner is an elaborate feast befitting one of our greatest writers. And while the people in Baldwin’s books are usually short on money or appetite—moral nausea has that effect—the writer found food important in a variety of ways. He risked his life on many occasions to protest segregated dining. In his bohemian youth, he was often hungry. Later, he famously became a bon vivant. Describing Baldwin’s great love, Lucien, Leeming says, “They both loved laughter, food, sex, and, above all, drink.” This might seem trivial, but it was a central part of Baldwin’s philosophy: he thought that our fear of sensuality was a fear of ourselves and that without loving ourselves, we would not be able to love others. In one oft-quoted passage of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes of this American fear and the importance of overcoming it in our liberation:

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and becomes as joyless as they have become.

Thus emboldened, I started out with the mission of re-creating a meal from the culminating pages of Another Country, when the Black heroine, Ida, is making a dinner of rice and “tomatoes and lettuce and a package of pork chops” for her white lover, Vivaldo, while they say terrible things to each other. The scene is full of precise cooking instructions, like the way Ida “walked to the table and opened the meat. She began to dust it with salt and pepper and paprika, and chopped garlic into it, near the bone.” But Vivaldo and Ida eventually abandon the dish—“Come away from the stove, I can’t eat now,” Vivaldo says—and I thought its simplicity was not in the spirit of Baldwin’s sensuality. To truly channel him, I had to go at least partially French. For that, I had a scene from Giovanni’s Room in which the self-denying gay hero, David, first and doomfully falls in love. David’s Paris is Baldwin’s Paris, and I imagine it being a scene from Baldwin’s life when the two men go to a working-class bar in Les Halles to consume “white wine and oysters,” which Giovanni says “is really the best thing after such a night.” Eating them, “Giovanni sat in the sun, his black hair gathering to itself the yellow glow of the wine and the many dull colors of the oyster where the sun struck it.”

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

My efforts to combine these elements achieved a really exciting serendipity. I served a plate of oysters on a restaurant-style bed of crushed ice with a homemade mignonette, paired with a Where’s Linus? Sauvignon Blanc made by the Black American winemaker Chris Christensen. My spirits collaborator, Hank Zona, suggested this wine as a dry, crisp, citrusy option that “goes nicely with fresh shellfish” and is “like the squeeze of lemon on the raw oyster.” Where’s Linus? is a collaboration between Christensen and the boutique distributor Jenny & François Selections; it’s more widely available than Christensen’s own, also highly recommended, line of Bodkin Wines.

I next made baguettes from scratch, following the injunction from The Fire Next Time to eat better bread, and served them with Roquefort cheese mashed together with fancy French butter, as Baldwin believed was proper. I riffed on the pork chops, rice, and salad by making them from the pages of Edna Lewis, an icon of the kind of Black Southern cooking that influenced the Harlem of Baldwin’s youth. My salad follows Lewis’s loving descriptions of how to mix different greens and how to make a dressing, including shaking it up in a pint Mason jar. My rice is her red rice, the secret ingredient of which is the rice itself—either Carolina or “popcorn” variety. Once baked, this mild, creamy, small-grain variant makes jewellike little clumps, and the balance of pepper, smoke, and sweetness is exquisite. Lastly, I’d read a Saveur magazine article by a woman who’d dined with Baldwin at a restaurant owned by a friend of his in the South of France—the kind of long, legendary afternoon meal the writer was known for. For dessert they’d eaten fresh pineapple, and Lewis happens to have a recipe for a spectacular, show-stopping crown roast of pork garnished with pineapple and stuffed with a glazed-apple-and-herb bread mixture. This is far from the simple chop that Ida made, but its unabashed gustatory wow factor seemed right. Zona paired it with a Maison Noir OPP Pinot Noir, from the Oregon winemaking operations of Andre Mack, a Black restaurateur and vintner based in Brooklyn. The OPP Pinot Noir is less ripe and fruity than the California styles of the same grape, but it still has “plenty of that cherry fruit flavor that goes well with pork,” Zona said, along with notes of herb and spice to match my stuffing.

 

This crisp, lemony sauvignon blanc from the Black American winemaker Chris Christensen is the ideal pairing for oysters. Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

The Frenchness and the Black Americana fit perfectly together. Lewis is more Alice Waters than country cook, and every one of her recipes I’ve tried has been revelatory. Even my baguettes, which were denser and chewier than I think proper, were fresh homemade bread, which is never bad. The crown roast of pork was not difficult in terms of technique and seems like something everyone should be doing for a holiday table. I’d make any one of these dishes again, and I highly recommend them as an entire spread, complete with the wines.

To speak of our holiday tables: that we all ought to sit down together and eat—that we can do better—was something Baldwin believed, though fitfully and with difficulty. I can only hope he’ll be right about that, too, as he has been about so many things. In the meantime, at least we have his books to learn from.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

French Bread with Roquefort Cheese and Butter

Adapted from a King Arthur Baking Company recipe.

For the starter:

1/2 cup cool water

1/16 tsp yeast

1 cup flour

For the dough:

all of the starter

1 1/2 tsp yeast

1 cup and 2 tbs lukewarm water

3 1/2 cups flour

1 1/4 tsp salt

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Note that this recipe takes twenty hours and needs to be started the night before.

To make the starter, mix everything together to create a soft dough. Cover and let rest at room temperature for about fourteen hours; overnight works well. By then, the starter should have expanded and become bubbly.

To make the dough, mix and knead everything together—by hand, mixer, or bread machine set on the dough cycle—to make a soft, somewhat smooth dough. It should be cohesive, but the surface may still be a bit rough. If you’re using a stand mixer, knead for about four minutes on medium-low speed (speed 2 on a KitchenAid). The finished dough should stick a bit at the bottom of the bowl.

Place the dough in a lightly greased medium-size bowl, cover the bowl, and let the dough rest and rise for forty-five minutes. Gently deflate the dough, and fold its edges into the center, then turn it over in the bowl before letting it rise for an additional forty-five minutes, until it’s noticeably puffy.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased work surface. Gently deflate the dough, and divide it into three equal pieces.

Round each piece of dough into a rough ball by pulling the edges into the center. Cover with greased plastic wrap, and let rest for at least fifteen minutes (or for up to an hour, if that works better with your schedule).

Working with one piece at a time, flatten the dough slightly, then fold it nearly (but not quite) in half, sealing the edges with the heel of your hand. Turn the dough around, and repeat: fold, then flatten. Repeat this whole process again; the dough should have started to elongate itself.

With the seam side down, cup your fingers, and gently roll the dough into a log. The recommended length is sixteen inches. However, that made a baguette that was too long to fit on my cookie sheet. Measure your baking surface before you embark, and adjust accordingly. Taper each end of the log slightly to create the baguette’s typical pointy end.

Place the logs, seam side down, into the folds of a heavily floured cotton dish towel or onto a lightly greased or parchment-lined sheet pan. Cover them with lightly greased plastic wrap, and allow the loaves to rise until they’re slightly puffy. The loaves should look lighter and less dense than when you first shaped them, but they won’t be anywhere near doubled in bulk. This should take about forty-five minutes to an hour at room temperature.

Toward the end of the rising time, preheat your oven to 450 with a cast-iron pan on the floor of the oven or on the lowest rack. Start to heat three cups of water to boiling.

If your baguettes have risen in a dish towel, gently roll them, seam side down, onto a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Using a bread lame or a very sharp knife held at about a forty-five-degree angle, make three to five long lengthwise slashes in each baguette.

Load the baguettes into the oven. Carefully pour the boiling water into the cast-iron pan, and quickly shut the oven door. The billowing steam created by the boiling water will help the baguettes rise and give them a lovely, shiny crust.

Bake the baguettes for twenty-four to twenty-eight minutes, or until they’re a very deep golden brown. Remove them from the oven, and let them to cool on a rack. Or, for the crispiest baguettes, turn off the oven, crack it open about two inches, and allow the baguettes to cool completely in the oven, until both the baguettes and the oven are at room temperature.

Serve with Roquefort cheese at room temperature, mashed together chunkily with about two tablespoons of high-quality butter, also at room temperature.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Oysters with Mignonette

For the mignonette:

4 tbs red wine vinegar

1 tbs shallot, finely minced

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

For the oysters:

12 oysters

about 4 cups crushed ice

lemon wedges (for garnish)

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To make the mignonette, combine all the ingredients in a small decorative dish, and stir.

To serve the oysters, prepare a plate of crushed ice, and place it in the freezer. Open the oysters using your method of choice, making sure to reserve as much liquid as possible in the shell. Place each opened oyster on the ice in the freezer as you go along. Serve immediately with the dish of mignonette and lemon wedges for garnish.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Edna Lewis’s Red Rice

From In Pursuit of Flavor, by Edna Lewis.

5 or 6 slices of good-flavored bacon, cut into half-inch pieces

2/3 cup chopped onions

1 tsp dried thyme leaves

a green pepper, seeded and chopped

2 small round hot peppers, seeded and chopped

2 cups fresh tomato puree

1 tbs brown sugar

2 cups cold water

2 cups Carolina or popcorn rice

1 cup or more small pieces of cooked ham or fish

salt

freshly ground black pepper

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until crisp. Remove the bacon pieces from the pan, and set aside. Pour off half the bacon fat, and heat the remaining fat over medium-high heat. Add the onions, stir, and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in the thyme, and then add the green and hot peppers. Mix well, and add the tomato puree and brown sugar. Add the water, and stir in the rice.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Cover the pan, and let the mixture simmer on a low burner for about fifteen minutes, until the rice begins to cook. Add the bacon pieces and the ham or fish. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well, and spoon the mixture into a casserole or rice steamer. Cover tightly, and bake in the oven for forty-five minutes to an hour, until the rice is tender. Keep warm until ready to serve.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Crown Roast of Pork with Herb Dressing, Garnished with Pineapple

From In Pursuit of Flavor, by Edna Lewis.

For the glazed apples:

2 tbs butter

3 medium-size green apples, cored and quartered

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

For the herb dressing:

7 cups diced white bread cubes, a day or two old

1 cup finely chopped onions

1 1/2 cups chopped celery

1/3 cup chopped celery leaves

1 tsp salt (or more to taste)

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp crumbled dried sage leaves

1 tsp dried thyme leaves

1 tbs Bell’s Seasoning

1 1/2 cups cold water

2/3 cup butter

For the crown roast:

a 6 to 8 lb crown roast of pork

2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into slivers

ground ginger

salt

freshly ground black pepper

For the pineapple garnish:

a fresh pineapple

a small one-inch round cookie cutter (or equivalent) to core the pineapple

4 tsp butter

1 tbs brown sugar

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Preheat the oven to 350. Be sure to adjust the oven racks so the roast has ample headroom.

To glaze the apples, heat the butter in a skillet until it foams. Add the apple quarters, brown sugar, salt, and nutmeg. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples are tender and well glazed. Set aside.

To make the herb dressing, put the bread crumbs, onions, celery, and celery leaves in a large bowl, and toss. Add the salt, pepper, sage, thyme, and Bell’s Seasoning, and mix with your hands. (Lewis specifically recommends using dried herbs instead of fresh here for the slightly different flavor they impart.) Heat the water in a small saucepan; when it is hot, add the butter, and let it dissolve. Pour this over the crumb mixture, and mix well with your hands or a wooden spoon. Gently stir in the apples. Cover the dressing until you’re ready to fill the crown roast.

To prepare the roast, make slits in the meat with the point of a sharp knife and insert the garlic slivers. (Being fairly aggressive with the knife makes this easier.) Liberally cover the roast on the inside, bottom, and all sides with ginger, salt, and pepper. Spoon the dressing into the center of the roast, pushing it down with your hands as best you can. (I had a fair amount of extra dressing; how much you need will depend on the amount of room inside your roast.) Place a sheet of tinfoil in the roasting pan, set the roast on top of it, and shape the foil up around the bottom of the roast.

Place in the oven, and bake for two and a half to three hours, until the meat is tender and completely cooked. You may have to cover the bones of the roast and the filling with foil during roasting to prevent drying. Test the roast for doneness with a meat thermometer or by inserting a cake tester or small skewer into the meat, piercing the inside of the roast through the dressing. If the tester goes into the meat easily, it is done.

To prepare the garnish, cut the spiny rind from the pineapple with a large knife. Slice the pineapple into six slices, each about half an inch thick. Use a small cookie cutter to cut out the core in a neat circle. Melt the butter in a wide, heavy skillet until foaming, and sauté the slices for a few seconds on each side. Sprinkle the pineapple with brown sugar, flip, and continue to fry until browned.

When the roast is done, lift it from the pan and, being careful to prevent the stuffing from falling out, slide the roast off the foil and onto a large serving plate. Garnish with the pineapple slices. Serve the roast by cutting between the ribs to cut off whole loin chops.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Edna Lewis’s Green Salad

From In Pursuit of Flavor, by Edna Lewis.

For the dressing:

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp sugar

1/2 tsp dry mustard

1 tsp scraped onion

1 clove garlic, peeled and cut in half

2/3 cup olive oil

For the salad:

1 good-quality tomato, cut into wedges

4 cups any mixture of high-quality greens (Lewis recommends combining different greens, “some bitter, some sweet,” and particularly likes “arugula, Bibb and Boston lettuces, early romaine, black-seeded Simpson, purslane and cress”)

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To make the dressing, put all the ingredients together in a pint jar with a lid, and shake until the salt is dissolved. Remove the garlic. Shake again just before dressing the salad.

To serve the salad, toss all the greens together with the tomato and dressing to taste. Serve at the end of the meal, “after the main course but before dessert,” Lewis says. “I like to put a good goat cheese and bread on the table, too, and perhaps open another bottle of wine.”

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Wine!

Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday, December 18, at 6 P.M. for a virtual literary wine tasting on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. We will be discussing food in the work of James Baldwin, the culinary legacy of Edna Lewis, and recommended wines from Black-owned wineries such as Maison Noir.

The wines seen in the story are the Where’s Linus? Sauvignon Blanc from Jenny & François Selections and the Maison Noir OPP Pinot Noir, which is widely available in stores and on wine.com and drizly.com.

Anyone who would like more specific advice on how to find these wines near them can email us (hank@thegrapesunwrapped.com).

 

 

Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.

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