cookbook club: Between Harlem and Heaven

The second book of our Flavors of New York cookbook club turned out to be a fun plot twister!

Our autumn 2021 season of the 92nd Street Y and Kitchen Arts & Letters cookbook club is dedicated to exploring four distinct food stories that represent what is just the tip of the iceberg of food in New York City. 

autumn 2021 cookbook club featured books
all books available at KitchenArtsandLetters.com

These four books tell of restaurants and food businesses – bits and pieces of the New York story – of neighborhoods, families, communities, and the melting pot of distinct flavors that come together into something truly, uniquely, NYC. 

Through these books we’ll cook and taste…

  • the history of NYC restaurants
  • the importance of neighborhood
  • immigrant foodways (from near and far)
  • reverse migration of foodways (what NYC sends into the world)

Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day was first selected to represent an historical neighborhood. What happened when we cooked from it and dug into our conversation was a fabulous plot twist! 

The story of Harlem is as multifaceted as the people who call it home. This book took us on a journey around the world and through time – time meaning history, and time with this cookbook club. In our discussions, we revisited several past favorites, including our first book The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, as well as To Asia With Love by Hetty McKinnon, and Senegal by Pierre Thiam. 

For many of us in the cookbook club, Between Harlem and Heaven brought those other books we’ve cooked from to life in new ways… by showing us how cultures and ingredients can come together in something greater than the sum of their parts. All while maintaining integrity to their origins. Much like the flavors of New York, and like New Yorkers. 

As author Alexander Smalls described it, “The recipes in this book represent a unique culinary discipline of global taste and cooking styles… an edible culinary conversation that celebrates and pays homage to the legacy of the African diaspora.”  

food of Harlem

When you think of the food of Harlem, do you think of soul food? OK, technically, you wouldn’t be wrong. Some of the best soul food in the country can be found there. But that’s just a beginning. 

Nearly every immigrant group to pass through New York City has found a home in Harlem at one point or another. Who they were, though, may surprise even lifelong New Yorkers. They surprised me!

The 1920s saw an “explosion of art, music, and literature” known at the Harlem Renaissance.  Celebrities of the time included the timeless Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. What you may not know is that Harlem at that exuberant time was also home to countless Chinese restaurants (and restaurateurs) – had been since the 1880s. 

By the 1930s Harlem was home to “overlapping diaspora” including Chinese, Jamaican, Barbadian, Bahamian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Bengali, Thai, and countless other South and Southeast Asian nationalities. 

So, Alexander Smalls’ concept of Afro-Asian-American cuisine was alive and well in Harlem for decades – just waiting to be named and elevated to its justified stature.

about the book

Between Harlem and Heaven received the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook. It’s a celebration of the history, art, and culture of Harlem, yes. But it’s also a culinary jazz performance in its own right. 

The stories and recipes here combine the unsung contributions of enslaved people to culinary culture and art, layers of immigrant history and overlapping diaspora, and the “hospitality and grace” that was the hallmark of high Harlem.

Author and chef JJ Johnson said in his introduction, “Jazz consists of three elements: blues, improvisation, and swing.” Cooking dinner every night may be the blues for some. Get inspired and use the recipes in this book as personal improvisation in the kitchen. Lastly, “Swing is the thing that brings it all together” ‘blast your favorite song and just have some fun!’

On that note, you have to be willing to improvise with the recipes in this book. You also need to read through the recipes at least once before cooking them. (More on that practice in a short video I made here).

My professional opinion: these are restaurant recipes that were edited for a home cook but not necessarily tested by home cooks. The arrangement of the recipes and the required sub-recipes could be clearer and easier to use (see the below notes on Spicy Black Beans). Once you get your jazz riff down in the kitchen, you’ll find it easy to make substitutions, mix up pairings, and add your personal twist. This is not a cookbook for people who don’t get the jazz analogy. 

about the authors

Alexander Smalls is a Tony and Grammy Award-winning opera singer and restaurateur. He brought elevated South Carolina Lowcountry cuisine to NYC with his Café Beulah in the mid-1990s. He’s also cultural historian who has, for decades, studied the intersection of the African and Asian diasporas through history and on the plate. 

Chef JJ Johnson is a young, classically trained chef who was eager to explore his Caribbean roots through cuisine – a cuisine that drew on influences from both African and Asian diaspora in its spices, rices, and techniques. When Smalls tagged him as the executive chef of two new restaurants, he found his opportunity and his voice.

Smalls and Johnson opened The Cecil and Minton’s in 2013. Both are in the former Cecil Hotel – a Harlem Renaissance hot spot that also became the home of the legendary jazz supper club, Minton’s Playhouse, in 1938.

Although Smalls and Johnson have both moved on to new projects, the two restaurants are still there.  

Veronica Chambers is the contributing author who brought the narrative of this book to life and maintained the integrity of the voices of the other authors. Chambers is a memoirist, author, scholar, and former senior editor of New York Times MagazineGlamour, and Newsweek. Definitely not your average ghost writer.

the cooking part…

For each cookbook, I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes from the book in order to provide some structure for the prep and for our conversations. These are only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. Here’s just a few of the recipes we chose from:

Breakfast

Yam Flapjacks
Black Bottom Bean Cake with Papaya Salsa
Cornbread with Purple Yam Puree  

Lunch
Delicata Squash Salad with Yuzu Buttermilk Dressing
Collard Green Salad with Coconut Dressing 
Bebop Chicken Chili 
Tofu Gnocchi with Black Garlic Crème and Scallions 

Dinner
Cinnamon Scented Fried Guinea Hen
Afro-Asian-American Gumbo
Feijoada with Black Beans and Spicy Lamb Sausage
Salt Crusted Salmon with Collard Green Salsa Verde
Citrus Jerk Bass with Fonio

notes on what we cooked

cornbread

Many of us made the cornbread – who could resist? For reasons I’m attributing to our choices of cornmeal, corn, and baking pans, we ended up with a few very different outcomes. Ultimately, we all loved what we made. I had mine for dessert with a bourbon-black walnut old fashioned and highly recommend the pairing!

spicy black beans

You have to make this recipe. Seriously. You can’t make several of the others without it. Wish that was spelled out somewhere in the notes. As a chef (and a good reader) I knew that. As a good group leader, I told everyone in my group that in advance. Those who listened found themselves blessed with an abundance of some of the best black beans ever. Plenty to make the (at least) three other recipes that call for them. Make the spicy black beans. Make a quarter or half the recipe if you’re not sure.

bebop chicken chili

This was, quite possibly, the most popular recipe of the list. I’ve personally made it three times since we finished this book. Riff on the type of chicken (I use cubed thighs). And don’t forget to make your spicy black beans in advance!

feijoada with black beans and spicy lamb sausage

That spicy black bean recipe? This is where you’ll find it. It’s a sub-recipe. It makes more than you need. If you can’t find or don’t want to play with oxtail, try short rib. You’re welcome! 

tofu gnocchi with black garlic crème

I was the only one adventurous enough to take this one on. The recipe is complicated and doesn’t play out in real life like it reads, which didn’t surprise me much. Gnocchi recipes should only ever be a suggestion… too many variables. That said: that black garlic sauce is one of the most decadent and delicious sauces I’ve ever made. This one’s a keeper! Put it on any mild, delicate dumpling, noodle, or pasta. Dress it up with a dollop of caviar or uni. Serve it with perfectly chilled blancs de blancs and drift off to heaven. 

citrus jerk bass with fonio

I think all of us used chicken instead of bass in this recipe at least once. This jerk rub is addictive. Make a side of the Mother Africa (peanut) sauce to dip in. And for those of you who cooked along with us for the book Senegal, here’s another awesome place to use the fonio. As a fonio convert, I’m now open to any way to get more fonio onto my plate!

There are no desserts in this book. But there are a few great cocktails you really should try. If you’re looking for desserts, wait till our next book (Flavors of the Sun) – I’m still trying to make my way through all the desserts I want to make from that one!

Have you cooked from Between Harlem and Heaven? I’d love to hear what your favorites dishes were. Leave a comment with your thoughts below!

As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC. 

If you missed this season’s club registration there’s still time to register for Winter 2022 – registration comes with new copies of all four of the selected books shipped to you from Kitchen Arts & Letters! Our live by Zoom sessions are scheduled for February 1 & 15, and March 1 & 15, 2022

Register HERE on the 92nd Street Y website. Our theme will be “Cooking Off the Beaten Path” – I’ll be writing more about it and the four books we’ll cook from here on this blog later this month!

If you would like to catch up with the past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.

Sign up for my newsletter and follow @Wander.Eat.and.Tell on Instagram to be one of the first to know when registration opens for the Summer Cookbook Club!

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