You knew it was coming and here it is! The first book review in theHotness “Reading is Sexy” Series. Written by the self-described ‘potty-mouthed chef,’ mom & blogger, Stefanie Kelly, this review will break down the best of “Vibration Cooking” and make you a believer in hot skillet spirituality.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor is a charmed culinary master. She is the engaging and evocative author of “Vibration Cooking: Or The Travel Notes Of A Geechee Girl.” We love Vertamae for a number of different reasons. Among them: she is a world traveled grrrrrl from the geechee south. she once danced and sang with Sun Ra’s Afro-Futurist Arkestra. and she burns like a pyromaniac.
From her Southern beginnings she evolved into a fearless visionary who became both worldly and otherworldly through her self-education, bravery, and paradoxically, through her firm, sure-footed grounding in her original self. After befriending an almost famous young Nina Simone, she took it upon herself to migrate to Paris. In a series of the hilarious stories and vignettes that make up her cookbook/ memoir, she mentions that she was tall, and ungainly, that she fled the south to not feel this way. By the time she’d returned, having lived in Paris and NYC’s legendary L.E.S. in the early ’60’s, and even though she’d grown at least another inch, she no longer felt odd. This wanderlust is one of the most important reasons for the special place she holds in my heart.
And with regard to free-thinking cookbooks, she broke the mold. Apparently, she came to the art of cookbook writing because, as a true renaissance woman, she wanted to show her creativity and having mused on the axiom write what you know, she borrowed a friend’s typewriter and birthed a legend in 1970 when her “Vibration Cooking” was first published.
she is a freedom fighter~
Her weapons: the spatula and the pen. When a supercilious jackass from Time Magazine put down soul food as “fatty, overcooked and under-seasoned,” our grrrrl did not mince words: “Sirs: You have the bad taste to say that soul food is tasteless. Your taste buds are so racist that they can’t even deal with black food. Your comment that the ‘soul food fad’ is going to be short-lived is dumb. But then your whole culture is made up of short-lived fads. So you white folks just keep on eating Minute Rice and instant potatoes… and stick to your instant culture. And I will stick to the short-lived fad that brought my ancestors through 400 years of oppression.” It is this blending of the down home/erudite sophisticate that informs her life and in turn the book, and the mix is intoxicating.
With chapter titles like “Nat Turner Apple/Pork Thing” and “Forty Acres and a Jeep” how could “Vibration Cooking” be anything else but magical? The recipes are about her thoughts leading up to the food, the situation(s) surrounding the food, the people who ate the food— they are about the experience of life. For example, “Forty Acres and a Jeep” is a train-of-thought musing on modern society’s way of “treating their cars better than their children,” which turns into a mention of society’s ills: “What, exactly, is a second-class citizen? Either you’re a citizen or you are not… talking about they can’t feed all the people here. Why? And that reminds me of my forty acres and a mule. I’ll take my forty acres and a jeep.” The way she weaves her ancient understanding through each recipe, is what I think makes the book a glowing, relevant, supernatural force that is so ahead of its time, that it could have come out this year and still been miles over folks’ heads. I guess that’s why it was just re-published last summer.
As a very young chef, I was, for a brief, unfortunate period, married to, yet intimidated by cookbooks. I was afraid to revise recipes, afraid to be without every single exact ingredient that I needed for a recipe. I’m sure it had something to do with my neurotic Virgo soul, but for whatever reason, I lived in abject fear that without a precise replica of the directions on the page, my food would be a failure. This attitude is soul killing and allows for no creativity. Vertamae freed me from this compulsive rigidity with her loose recipe style and love of revisions. Many of the recipes are annotated in such a way that they give a lot of versatility and can be translated anew each time, giving freshness and novelty.
she is a grrrrrrl you need on your side~
She uses no measurements, so that whatever you make under her tutelage, is made up of your own vibrational desires, which changed the game for me. You see, I’ve always been terrified of ganache. If you’re not careful ganache can end up, through the simplest of mistakes, a grainy, runny mess. Her recipe, “Mrs. Jackson’s Chocolate Cake,” cleared that right up. Something about the way in which Ms. Smart-Grosvenor writes/vibes, made this young chef feel as though Mrs. Jackson was right over her shoulder. As if it really was such a simple thing to hook up an ersatz (ok, janky) double boiler and go for it until I got it right. And her lead-in to each recipe, like her chocolate cake, which is found in the chapter titled “Bon Voyage Parties,” is always a mesmerizing journey reflecting the quirky souls that inhabited her life:
I thought I would be out of the country for good so I invited EVERYBODY! Black folks, white folks, the man from the candy store on third street, militants, Uncle Toms, racists, Black Nationalists, Yorubas, hustlers, actors, husbands, wives, ex-husbands, ex-wives, mistresses, ex-mistresses, and so on. Well the party was a smash… everyone showed up… Bob Stocking brought his camera and a bottle of gin but forgot to bring his film… Mrs. Jackson was going to bring some sweet potato pies, but Johnnie Mae thought that would be too colored. Mrs. Jackson can cook chocolate cake. Lord can she cook chocolate cake: Mrs. Jackson’s Chocolate Cake – sift 2 cups flour…
The recipes in “Vibration Cooking” are a potent mix of high/ low/ everyday/ arcane. From sweet potato pie to alligator tail, feijoada to jambalaya, all learned in their native towns from Brazil to the American back wood, nothing has escaped this lucky grrrrrl in her travels. Her down to earth, matter-of-fact steez has echoed in my soul and guided me from stressed to blessed more times than I can name. Like Edna Lewis, another worthy lit kitchen idol, she legitimizes soul food and puts it where it belongs: on the world stage of great cuisines. Not only that, but she freely experiments with food from anywhere in the world in a fearless, authentic way that highlights the world’s commonalities as opposed to its differences.
she is a genius ~
–Written by Stefanie Kelly
Stefanie is the proprietress of People’s Kitchen Catering and is currently at work on her own cookbook/memoir. For contact information, recipes and the arcane thought or two follow her blog BELLY.