African-American cooking beyond chitlins

William Faulkner once explained that he tried to evoke the past, present, and future in every sentence that he wrote. The same could be said for Joe Brown. Instead of words, though, Mr. Brown uses ingredients. And instead of novels, he creates meals. Working out of his Cherry Hill, N.J., restaurant, Melange Cafe, Brown blends traditions of the South into a simmering stew of African foodways in a Philadelphia suburb.

Contrary to what TV chefs would have us believe, chefs are normally reluctant to share the details of their work. On a recent visit to Melange Cafe, however, I learned that Brown bucks this stereotype. He's an engaging chef, and his openness is consistent with his insistence that patrons do more than just enjoy the taste of his food. "My goal is to enlighten people," he says.

As Brown sees it, food and history are indistinguishable, and an academic knowledge of African-American history informs his work. "Dating back to the days of slavery," he says, "black people were in the kitchen. Even after slavery was abolished, there was still a tradition of cooking for the wealthier white families. Recipes were passed from generation to generation, and I have listened."

Introducing these traditions above the Mason-Dixon line has become his professional obsession. "In the South," he says, "there is a much stronger presence of African-Americans in the culinary arts. I wanted to raise awareness of people around here as to how African cuisine has been integrated into so many different styles of cuisine." African contributions to American food, he wants to show, go well beyond the stereotypical chitlins and collard greens.

To celebrate Black History Month, for example, Brown dedicates each week in February to an African-influenced American cuisine. Last year, he explored the traditions of Afro-Bahamian, Caribbean, Southern Low Country, and Louisiana Creole cooking. Throughout the month, Brown prepared meals that literally captured the essence of these historical cuisines, provided diners a fact sheet about the meals presented, and concluded the evenings with a discussion of the particular cuisine's wider impact on American culture. (There wasn't a quiz, however.)

As patrons ate and discussed foods such as feijoada completa (a pork stew pioneered by Bahamian slaves), callaloo (a West Indian stew made with the callaloo vegetable, crabmeat, okra, pork, and coconut milk), Hoppin' John (a mixture of black-eyed peas, hot sauce, and rice), and jambalaya (a versatile Creole stew), they directly experienced the diversity of traditions that make American cuisine such a rich mélange of flavors.

"I see Black History Month as a chance to share the African-American sense of community and culinary history with my patrons," Brown explains. In fulfilling this unconventional goal, he has simultaneously made Melange Cafe "a place that caters to all ethnic groups."

This is no empty slogan. During my last visit to Brown's restaurant, I counted about 60 patrons, of whom 30 appeared to be African-American, about 25 white, and five of Hispanic descent. My waitress was from Denmark. Such diversity in a commuter suburb says something about the success of Brown's mission.

The road to Melange Cafe hasn't been easy for Brown. He grew up the youngest of 10 children in Willingboro, N.J., not far from Cherry Hill. His father died when he was 8. His mother, a Tennessee native, raised the family by herself. Chores normally beyond the range of a 6-year-old suddenly became young Joe's responsibility: cooking, for instance.

Brown helped his mother cook nightly. "She was a great cook," he explains. "She didn't waste anything, and she taught me how to use fresh ingredients, mainly from our garden." Through his mother's efforts to keep her family well fed, he learned the vital lesson that "food does not always have to look good," but must be infused with carefully combined flavors that have a historical basis.

In an age when chefs seem to spend their time sculpting food into ridiculous towers on elaborately decorated plates, Brown's emphasis on homely simplicity and honest taste seems visionary. Today, the meal that most directly manifests his mantra of simplicity and historical legitimacy is Brown's jambalaya. Cobbled together from hints and tips culled from his mother, grandmother, aunts, and neighbors, it is a dish that Brown describes as "real food that makes sense."

A one-pot stew launched Brown's amateur cooking career at the age of 8. His mother was late getting home from work, dinnertime had passed, and his brothers and sisters were hungry. Although the youngest, Joe had the most experience in the kitchen, and they turned to him.

"There was some leftover turkey from Thanksgiving," he recalls, "and we were out of space in the freezer." Although unsure exactly how he would transform the leftover turkey into a meal for 11, he did know that "there was no way we were going to let this turkey go to the garbage." He subsequently tossed every leftover ingredient he could find into a pot and set it to simmer. The result, which blended and thickened into a hearty goop, doesn't have a name. Whatever you want to call it, though, it was packed with taste and the pot "fed the whole family."

In the early 1990s, Brown honed his skills at Philadelphia's Restaurant School. Like virtually all American cooking programs, it hewed closely to classical French methods, which he found valuable. But the school, he says, "never touched on African-American cooking."

Brown's instructors, however, encouraged him to explore the ethnic diversity underlying American cuisine. What he most remembers are "long days of reading" in an effort to understand the role Africans played in shaping American food. The idea of Melange Cafe came to him on a day spent reading about African foods imported to Barbados, followed by a night class on classical sauces.

On a recent afternoon at his cafe, Brown had no time for books. But adjusting the seasoning on a crawfish pie, he explained that, without historical grounding, "a cook isn't a chef, but a piece of equipment in the kitchen." The distinction might seem abstract. Taste his food, though, and you'll see how a little book learning can educate the palate.

Joe Brown's Jambalaya

'What I like most about jambalaya is that there's no right way to make it,' says chef Joe Brown. 'As the saying goes, there are as many versions of jambalaya and gumbo as there are Cajuns and Acadians in Louisiana.'

8 tablespoons canola oil

1 cup sliced smoked andouille sausage

20 sea scallops (about 3/4 lb.)

8 shrimp, peeled and deveined

8 whole crawfish, cleaned, or 1 8-ounce package of frozen crawfish tails

1 cup diced green pepper

1 cup diced white onion

1 cup chopped scallions

20 mussels, cleaned and debearded

16 littleneck clams, cleaned and scrubbed

6 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic

8 teaspoons Cajun seasoning

8 cups cooked white rice

4 cups chicken or seafood stock

Heat oil in large skillet over high heat. Add sausage. Sauté for 1 minute. Add scallops, shrimp, crawfish, green pepper, white onion, and scallions. Sauté for 3 minutes. Add mussels, clams, garlic, and 6 teaspoons of the Cajun seasoning. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add rice and stock. Cover and cook until liquid is reduced by three-quarters and clams are all open.

Ladle into large bowls. Garnish with remaining Cajun seasoning. Serves 6 to 8.

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