“The Historian”

by Heather Watkins Jones

in Interviews/Profiles

Rachel Finn may not refer to herself as a historian, but she is someone who studies and writes about history. The history of food of the African Diaspora.  What these foods are, where they originated, how they were cultivated, and their uses and influence on the food of today.  Food that is shared in homes of those who are of African descent.  Food that is served in my home and some of yours.  So in my book that makes her a historian.  Rachel is the writer, founder, and director of Roots Cuisine a non-profit organization founded to promote the food of African Diaspora.  Rachel is multilingual, a world traveller, and has published work in some of the top periodicals on food.  She is so passionate about her work, and fiercely independent.  I’m just gonna say it.  This sister is deep, her knowledge base goes far beyond that of many. I feel like quite the “Jenny Dingbat” just being in her virtual presence.  Having relocated from Chicago to Jamaica, she has spent the past several months working with the U.S. State Department Speakers program where she spoke about African-American foodways in countries such as Turkey.  This modern day renaissance woman is currently stateside where she is preparing an exhibit for the Southern Food and Beverage Museum Symposium this Fall. The exhibit, Roots, Rice and Beans: the African American Agricultural Legacy In the Americas” will open the gala before the start of the symposium.  Are your ready to be schooled? I bring you Rachel Finn.

TBTB: Tell me about your culinary journey, how did you find your way into this wonderful world of food?

Rachel: It started with seeking out Algerian pastries as a gift for a lover while I was living in Paris back in 2005.  We’d been together off and on for a long time and while I was a studying journalism at the Université de Paris 2 it hit me that I was completely in love with him and needed to find out what we could do together.  The answer to that question turned out to be nothing in the end, but the whole search for the cakes was the start of my life in food.  I wrote an article on Algerian pastries that was published in Gastronomica (my first ever), did a short apprenticeship at the shop in Paris where I’d found “the best”, and developed an intense obsession with pastries.  From that starting point I began thinking about and researching North African and Middle Eastern food, which led to a broader examination of African food (when I speak of African food, I include North Africa because there are such commonalities between the food of countries north of the Sahara desert to the that of the rest of the continent. It’s a shame it’s so common to view them as disconnected, hopefully I can help dispel that view with Roots Cuisine).  All of this burgeoned into a stronger interest in exploring global African Diaspora.

I pitched a few stories to the Chicago Tribune and The Root for which I covered food of African Diaspora and in researching them encountered various reactions from African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Belizeans, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Cubans, and Dominicans including, sheer ignorance, denial, shame, and hostility when I pointed out cultural and culinary connections to the African cultures and among the aforementioned groups themselves.  It really broke my heart and motivated me to start Roots Cuisine.  I want to promote the food of afro-descendents around the world…hopefully that work can inspire afro-descendents to have pride in their connections to each other and to African cultures and appreciate the richness of it all.  I also want people from outside these cultural groups to appreciate, learn, and finally give the foodways of these cultures the attention they deserve.

It has been a struggle and sometimes that it has seemed to knock the wind out of me, but I’m so committed and passionate about it all.  During one of my trips to Jamaica before relocating there permanently I spent nearly all of my time in and around Kingston and on the eastern half of the island.  I researched and explored and cooked and ate.  I had callaloo, fresh coconuts, and custard apples for the first time.  It was my first trip to a place where everyone was black and it changed my life.  The connections to African-ness were palpable…everywhere.  I touched and held shackles used to subdue and imprison slaves and I ate foods like duckanoo and even basic stew peas that reflected a history of cultural intermingling there dominated by West African influence.  I was sad that because of our history here in the United States, this has largely been erased from memory or completely unacknowledged.

TBTB: What is your first great Food Memory?

Rachel: My first great food memory?  Hmmm…I think for me the moments are like stills in a film when I look back… Childhood: my Grandmother’s breakfasts that usually included fried sausage patties, eggs, and always toast or biscuits with plum preserves or apple jelly; my grandfather like those flavors best.  It was all very southern.  She even made coffee on the stove when I was very young but it was the preserves and the jelly.  That amazed me, in my world away from my grandparents only Concord grape or strawberry existed.  I suppose my next memory is from adolescence, high school lunch where I sat for three straight years with a group of ethnically diverse friends. We were Indian, Irish, Taiwanese, and African American (me), each day we’d sit at the table and open up our lunch bags to reveal things like pork chop sandwiches and thick slices of lemon cake, daals of lentils or chickpeas with the occasional chapati, pork buns or fried noodles with vegetables, and meatloaf sandwiches with homemade oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies.  Funky smells wafted from the table as we would open our bags and dole out portions to everyone present that day.  It was a smorgasbord of deliciousness, except on Fridays of course, when we all bought pizza and French fries!

TBTB:  Who or What inspires you most in the kitchen?

Rachel: I don’t have a favorite chef or show or anything like that, although there are two women —colleagues—who do inspire me.  Their names are Leni Sorensen and Cynthia Bertelsen. They seem to be masters of their kitchens.  Leni in particular grows and raises her own food, puts it up (canning) and prepares everything from scratch!  I remember her once saying  that she either has or is planning to get a milk cow.  But she and her husband keep ducks and chickens that she raises for eggs.  So amazing.  I’d love to do that!  Cynthia seems to be able to cook anything you can imagine and has an immense respect for food.  She has hundreds of cookbooks!  They both live in the South in rural areas, which motivates me as a city girl who has long had pangs of country life to change my surroundings.  I think what inspires me most, however, is cooking for someone who appreciates it and likes it!  There’s a sense of pride and satisfaction in that, even if it’s nothing more than a bowl of oatmeal or a grilled cheese sandwich.  They are acts of great love, cooking and feeding someone.  In my opinion, those acts can make both the chef and the eater feel immensely loved and adored under the right circumstances (and with the right person, of course).

TBTB: Favorite Ingredient?

Rachel: I don’t really have a favorite ingredient.

TBTB:  Favorite Kitchen Tools?

Rachel: A wooden lemon reamer and a Microplane.  I have a tostonera and a small caldera that I also love.  The tostonera I like to have wherever I am living even if there isn’t a plantain in sight.  You can make tostones without it but the feel of the plantain being squished into a perfectly imperfect round is really satisfying.  As for the caldera, it’s a small size that you can usually find at a Latin grocery store, really perfect for cooking rice.  And you just can’t beat a reamer or a Microplane.

TBTB: I’m a firm believer in the art of the Sunday Dinner, which is a common practice throughout many African-American homes. Every Sunday after church I sit down with my parents, husband, children, and countless other relatives to what is arguably the best meal of the week. The conversation is good and the food is always great. What do you do for Sunday Dinner, and can you share a recipe that would be appropriate for my next Sunday Dinner?

Rachel: Honestly I don’t do much Sunday dinner-ing these days as I’m in transition and far away from the people I’d most like to share it with.  One thing I did like about it as a kid though was dessert.  It was the only time we really had it.  I liked it most when we had Chess Pie.  That was really special to me for some reason even though it’s such a simple thing.  It didn’t get prepared often, which is probably a good thing.

TBTB: Best piece of advice you can offer to the next generation of Chefs/Writers/Restaurant Owners, etc. who are aspiring to enter the Food Business?

Rachel: In terms of writing, I’d say be realistic about the time and the effort it will take to reach your goal.  People think the food business is fun and it is, but it’s really hard work.  Just like anything it takes a mix of time, effort, hard work, and a bit of luck thrown into the mix.   Lots of people think they can just throw up a blog and there you go.  I think this is because there are so many people writing blogs out there and some are getting plum assignments and making lots of money, but it takes lots of work and chunks of time and sometimes money that the average person doesn’t always have to devote to it.  Lots of those people have lucrative jobs or partners with lucrative jobs whose support enables them to do what they’re doing.  In most cases, you don’t jump out there within a month or even six months and start stacking enough paper to quit your day job so be realistic about financial prospects (especially in the face of our new world economy), be true and respectful of food and colleagues, and above all enjoy every aspect of it.  Oh I almost forgot, as with anything, be ready to take your lumps!  On the practical side, get a good camera, learn some HTML, CSS, and PHP basics and get your home office in working order.  Even if you’re doing things part time, you’ll be glad you made the initial investment down the line.

Rachel’s Chess Pie

½ cup milk

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

1tsp vanilla

1 tsp white vinegar

1 stick butter

1 pie crust (store bought, but preferably homemade)

Melt and cool butter.  Combine vinegar and milk and set aside.  In a bowl beat eggs and sugar together then add the milk mixture, vanilla, and melted, cooled butter.  Mix thoroughly and pour into pie crust.  Bake at 350°F until filling is set and golden brown.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tamara July 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Excellent article! I am a huge history buff and foodie. The fact that Rachel combines both in her career is fascinating to me. I am a new food blogger and I’m still finding my way. I agree it is really hard work. I also feel I haven’t even scratched the surface after reading this article. I’m really humbled.

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Samuel LaVaughn McKelton August 1, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Rachel, really great article and it’s awesome to know you exhist. My wife’s name is Rachel and so you must be an awesome spirit along with your wealth of knowledge. It would be a priviledge to sit at your learning table one day. I love especially the history of foods of the African Diaspora. There is such a wealth of it. I agree it’s a shame that it’s importance is discounted. We have to change that. Amazing, too, that there are no Michelin or 5 Star African Cultural restaurants. Perhaps, Marcus Samuellson’s reaches to it.

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