Alexander Smalls on How Food and Music Nurture Hope and Connection

Alexander Smalls on How Food and Music Nurture Hope and Connection


Grammy, Tony, James Beard Award Winner Alexander Smalls

[Photograph: Daniel Kreiger]

“A jukebox is the musical equivalent of a well-stocked pantry,” says Alexander Smalls. Poetic riffs on the relationship between food and music are par for the course with Smalls, who’s both a Grammy and a James Beard Award winner (not to mention a Tony winner, too). In part two of our interview, we talked about everything from hanging out with James Baldwin and Nina Simone in Paris to the guests he’d invite to his last supper. How does a table with the aforementioned Baldwin and Simone, along with Toni Morrison, Jessye Norman, Aretha Franklin, and Gloria Steinem sound? Pretty damn swell to me.

It was such a pleasure and an honor to hang out with Alexander Smalls, who is truly a national treasure. His new book is titled Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes From My African American Kitchen, and it belongs in every household’s collection. Just like last week, we’ll play the episode out with his stunning, soon-to-be-released rendition of Wade in the Water.

Production note: With everyone hunkered down in place we are no longer able to record Special Sauce in a fully equipped studio with an experienced and skilled engineer. So if the sound quality of this episode isn’t up to snuff, know that we are working on all aspects of the production within the context of the new reality we’re all living in. Better things and better sound lie ahead.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Today, the uniquely multi-talented chef, opera singer, and author Alexander Smalls, whose new book is, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen, is back with us.

EL: It’s so great, man. I have so many things I want to ask you still, man. We should have booked like 10 hours for this.

Alexander Smalls: Thanks for having me, glad to be back.

EL: So, let’s talk. First of all, why the new book?

AS: Wow.

EL: I don’t ask the easy questions.

AS: Why the new book? Well, I feel that at this point in my life, I’ve had a full ride and many, many tremendous experiences. And having the opportunity to share that with other young people, who are traveling this road that I’ve traveled. And also hopefully giving back some sense and sensibility to the journey, and sharing the lessons. This book, I feel that at this point in my life, I’ve lived long enough to have a point of view, and a view. So essentially, I look back over the landscape of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. And what I’ve tried to do in this book is to give you a sense of that journey through the lens of music and food, because those were my two walking, talking companions.

EL: And you write in the introduction to the book, and this really resonated with me. “In the United States, food and music are inextricably linked, especially in the African American culture.” What do you mean by that?

AS: Well, it’s part of our DNA. Essentially, when you think about how music and also the African American musical contributions to the landscape of our culture. And then you pair that with food, it’s art. It also speaks to the soul and spirit of an extraordinary people who have overcome so much, and yet we still celebrate.

EL: You also wrote in the introduction that food and music served a dual purpose of nurturing hope and connection.

AS: Absolutely.

EL: I thought that was so resonant and so true. And you also wrote that cooking without a song is like cooking without salt and pepper, which is pretty funny. Should everybody be singing when they’re cooking?

AS: Well, everybody should have a song in their heart. First of all, I believe that cooking should be an experience that brings joy and that you love. I don’t understand people who do things that they don’t enjoy. Even if you don’t enjoy every aspect, I always say to folks, find a dish you love. Find a dish that is of great satisfaction to prepare, and make that dish better than anybody else and make it your own. I had this one girlfriend years ago who her dish was lemon chicken. I don’t know who gave it to her, but every dinner at her house was that lemon. People would get to the point where they go, “Okay, we’re coming over for lemon chicken.”

EL: That was her jam.

AS: That was it, and she did it like nobody else.

EL: You talk in the book that your life’s work has been exploring the food of the African diaspora.

AS: Exactly.

EL: What does the African diaspora mean to you?

AS: Well, it’s everything, it’s why I’m here. I think that the foods of the low country, Charleston, Beaufort, the Gullah islands, probably the purest connection to the Argent of Africa. Essentially, through those recipes and those stories and that cooking, those ingredients, it creates a language. For people who were transplanted, it’s our history. And we’ve been able to weave the tales, the sound, the feelings, the visions of who we are through that culinary expression.

EL: You decided it was your life’s mission to piece it together?

AS: Without question, but once I understood that my work was really going to be about the food ways of the African diaspora. And I decided that understanding the importance of how food was the bedrock and foundation of our culture. The enslaved people were enslaved basically for their farming and horticultural and agricultural skills. The fact that they could do that work, and they could be the bedrock of the foundation of culinary and agriculture and farming, on five continents.

EL: And so many of those people went unrecognized for centuries.

AS: Well, because also they weren’t considered people, so it just all got canceled out. I really feel that when I do the work that I do, I’m connecting the dots, which is why Between Harlem and Heaven was so important to me. Which is why creating Afro-Asian-American cooking was so important to me because those influences really are like this extraordinary quilt. This incredible fabric that basically brings all those silent generations of enslaved people to life.

EL: Wow. You described the book as a curated set of recipes, a playlist. And I love it as somebody who put a playlist in my book.

AS: Yes you did.

EL: Why a playlist?

AS: Well, let’s approach the book from chapter to chapter. The first chapter is Jazz.

EL: Right, and we should say you organized… which I wanted to ask you about. You organized the book by musical styles.

AS: Absolutely.

EL: So the chapters are jazz, spirituals, gospel, opera, divas, jukebox music, and serenades. So now, go back.

AS: The wonderful thing about curation is that it’s an artistic expression, so there’s no rules. It’s sort of like when you have a blank canvas, you create the language. And again, I look at culinary as currency and language. Essentially, what I wanted to do was give the reader a glimpse in how I have always seen my own personal experience and expression, through music and through food. So creating the jazz chapter, for example, which are appetizers, small plates, small bites. It’s whimsical, it’s a riff on a theme. My good buddy, Wynton Marsalis, who wrote the introduction to my first book, Grace the Table, always likened my way of cooking to jazz because it was so very improvisational.

EL: And you talk about that jazz is made up of three elements, blues, improvisation, and swing, which I think is a Wynton riff. This idea of curation, one of the things you also mention in the book where you connect food to music, is that a jukebox is the equivalent of a well-stocked pantry.

AS: Well, isn’t it? My gosh, you can live off of a jukebox. And that really comes from my father’s nightclub growing up, called the Hilltop House. My father would lock me and my friends in that club with the promise of, he would put the jukebox on to play any song we wanted. And all we had to do is clean the club while we danced and played. That was his way, and then he could go off and do other things that will go unmentioned. And so there we were, and he’d put the stage on so we could pretend to sing with the mic when the jukebox was playing. So these images, the jukebox was like a well-stocked pantry. It was full of everything that was expressive, especially black life.

EL: And it was the ultimate bit of curation, right?

AS: Oh yeah.

EL: Do you remember the jukebox at the M&G Diner on 125th street?

AS: Oh yes, absolutely.

EL: Okay. Where, not only was the fried chicken awesome-

AS: Unbelievable, and the fried pork chops.

EL: And the fried pork chops, but that jukebox was full of everything from-

AS: Oh my gosh. It was amazing.

EL: Brook Benton, Rainy Night in Georgia, to all blues, and everything in between.

AS: Right, Temptations, Gladys Knight, James Brown.

EL: It was the best curated jukebox in New York.

AS: And if you gave the waitress like a $10 or a $20, being big spenders. And we went there often times after Studio 54.

EL: Right, because it was open late.

AS: Yes. And we would give, and they would play those songs and we would say, “Keep the change.” And they’d go over there, I don’t even think they put money in the thing. They knew what to do, and the music just boomed all night.

EL: So talk about, if jazz is made up of three elements, blues, improvisation, and swing. How do those three things relate to cooking?

AS: Well, again, all of those things are very much improvisation and that’s what, when you own a recipe it’s essentially an outline for your trip, say for example. But essentially, when you pair that with who you are, how you feel, what you do, then it becomes a destination. I tell people all the time, I never cook the same thing twice, which is why I’ve always had… I was a chef who had to have a chef because if you counted on me to give you the same thing you ate the last time you were here, you’re out of luck, because I don’t do that.

EL: I don’t think that would go over well with an executive chef that you were working for.

AS: But I am the executive chef, and I’ve had five restaurants so I’ve managed to make it work. But the point is that I really shine in my home kitchen, where I put a restaurant stove, and I have these salons. And essentially, friends will come in, “Oh, can you make that?” I said, “No, I can’t. I do that anymore, I’m doing this now.”

EL: That’s funny. It is like somebody asking Wynton, “Could you play this song from 1983?”

AS: Well, would you paint the Mona Lisa again? No, there is.

EL: Right. That’s funny. So you do organize the book by musical styles?

AS: Yes.

EL: Why are the starters, jazz? Why are the spiritual, spirituals? Why are the gospel, gospel and so on?

AS: Well, as I say, jazz is the hors d’oeuvres, is the improvisation. The spirituals are essentially our grains, our foundation, rice, these are like the gifts from the gods, wheat. I see them as the spiritual pantry. Then you’ve got the gospel, which is the keeper of the garden, and produce and all things that coming up out of the ground. Some of my best moments was with my grandfather, who was considered a city farmer. He had a third of an acre or half an acre in his backyard in the city, where he would have a mule come in every spring and plow it up. And we would run behind the mule cart. And then during the whole season of gardening, I would work in that garden with him, partly because of his stories. Being a boy, my grandfather was born to slaves, so he had lots of stories. He also was a rice paddy farmer. So in that garden was the gospel and it was beautiful.

EL: And what about opera?

AS: Well, because I am opera, and everything that goes with it. So those are big meals and that’s drama in the kitchen.

EL: And divas and then jukebox music. What are the diva dishes?

AS: Well, I mean-

EL: Is that where you strut your stuff as a cook?

AS: Yeah, it’s where you really… There’s a wonderful bourbon quail in cream sauce. It can be your fancy moments where you show out and you bring a touch of theater.

EL: Of grandeur.

AS: Of grandeur, yeah. One of the best chapters is sweet serenades, for example.

EL: Right, that’s the last chapter?

AS: That’s the last chapter, and how fitting when you… A serenade just like, it’s time now to just close this up with a sweet moment, and something delicate and indulgent.

EL: And jukebox music is sort of funky stuff?

AS: Well, when you read it, what came to mind for you? Think about that, because there are real moments that bring it to life. It’s like where you find your crusty.

EL: Well, I liked the jukebox chapter because it was the super funky stuff, like biscuits and muffins.

AS: Yeah, crusty.

EL: It’s like-

AS: Yeah, a pantry.

EL: Yeah, that’s kind of my jam really.

AS: Yeah. Now, I would say I am not a, what I would call a baker. That’s arts and crafts to me. I do it because it’s part of the story I tell, but I’m usually the guy who wants the metal to the fire. And a paddle, and I want to go. Baking is all about putting something together at different stages, then giving it to the oven. I don’t like to give anything. I just want to keep it.

EL: Plus it’s super precise.

AS: Well, it is. It’s super precise, although there are variational moments where you can create, but you have to have that basic structure. But my problem is that I have to let it go. When I’m cooking on top of the stove, I don’t have to let it go. I’m always on it.

EL: You always have access to it. So tell us three recipes that people should make when they first get their hands on the book.

AS: Wow. Well, it also depends on the… Well, actually you could make it any time, but if you were thinking seasonal. Let’s take the jazz chapter, for example, the black-eyed pea cakes or the crab cakes, those are wonderful things. She-crab soup will take you out. It is just one of the most incredibly delicious soups you’ll ever have. And it almost embodies all of the chapters because it has the jazz, it has the spiritual, it has the diva. It’s got all of those components.

EL: You’d have to make sure you use good crab.

AS: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, listen, when you put all that in a dish, you want to put the finest ingredients, without question.

EL: And what else? One more recipe that, is there-

AS: I told you about the quail, which I absolutely love. I also have a wonderful rabbit dish there.

EL: Rabbit?

AS: Rabbit, absolutely. Very fresh.

EL: Did you eat rabbit growing up?

AS: Well, of course I did, I was in South Carolina.

EL: What do you mean, “Of course I did?”

AS: Well, game.

EL: I didn’t eat any rabbit.

AS: Well, did you grow up in South Carolina?

EL:No.

AS: So game, my father and my grandfather, they’d go quail hunting. They’d go rabbit hunting, venison, I grew up with all that.

EL: Wow.

AS: It’s in the book because these are… First of all, the book is my African American kitchen and what I think are the essential dishes of the African American diaspora.

EL: It’s actually very… Now that we’re talking about it, it’s not dissimilar, it’s certainly not based on Edna Lewis’s book. But it has the same sensibility, that same farm to table sensibilities. She was more direct about linking the farm to the table, but you do it sort of in passing.

AS: I would also say that I bring in a global, a more modern flair to the cooking.

EL: For sure.

AS: And I’ve also tried to make these recipes really simple because I really want you to use the book. There’s nothing worse than all these books that people acquire, that they just read and look at the pictures. I want you to use it.

EL: What’s next? Let’s talk for a second, this is another way our lives have crossed paths. You talk about making this recording, the African American Songbook, Volume One. Let’s talk about this. What are you doing with the African American Songbook, Volume One?

AS: Well, I’m excited about this project. In fact, it has the same cover as the cookbook.

EL: And you say in describing it, that you’re taking Negro spirituals and creating a modern setting for them?

AS: Well, somewhat like what I did with Southern cooking, essentially putting it. After traveling all over the world as an opera singer, I realized fine dining was really about creating a cradle, a palette, a modern foundation for local food. So the African American songbook idea was born out of the idea of so many African American songs that are being lost. I started with the spirituals primarily because once slavery was finished, the spirituals lost their purpose. Most people think the spirituals are religious music; they never were. Essentially, enslaved people were not allowed to gather or congregate unless it was religious. So, they devised a way to take scripture and hymns from the European religion and marry them with African folk songs. So they could create their own rituals and communications, which is a big part of who they were. Dancing and singing was a huge part of being African.

AS: So it sanitized in spirituals, but it provided them with that. It also allowed them a language to talk about things like the underground railroad, a road to freedom, current events. Things that they were going through, pass on messages, this was the Negro spiritual. So once slavery was done, this music was basically claimed by the church, but it just lays and lingers there without real purpose. So I teamed up with Bob Sadin and also a young producer, Ulysses Owens, Jr., who is this extraordinary percussionist, drummer, musician, composer. And the two of them, I’ve known Bob for more than 35, 40 years. He has done brilliant work with so many musicians.

EL: He is. He’s had an amazing and incredibly varied career.

AS: He’s amazing.

EL: Kind of like you, dude.

AS: What really was shocking is that he would grace me with his gifts because-

EL: Except he can’t cook.

AS: Well, but he likes to eat, and he’s probably more excited about that book than I am. He just loves it. But they have helped me, I’ve got Cyrus Chestnut on this recording.

EL: Wow, great piano player.

AS: Joseph Joubert, another great piano… They are there, and we have put together an incredible music expression.

EL: Do you think… This is an interesting question that I never really thought about, that spirituals overlap with gospel music, or they’re not one in the same?

AS: Well, gospel music probably is more of a style than a particular song. And there’s the gospel sound that overlaps not only spirituals, but rhythm and blues, folk music. Singing gospel is about a style. You can take a country song and you give it to a gospel singer.

EL: Right, you give it to James Cleveland.

AS: There it is. Give it to Aretha Franklin. You won’t recognize it, but it’ll be one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever heard.

EL: All right, now it’s time for the Special Sauce all you can answer buffet. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on you, Alexander, I’m just telling you that right now. And this first question, I think you’ve already answered. Who’s at your last supper, no family allowed? And I guess from what I’ve read, you would have Toni Morrison. You might have Jessye Norman, who you actually haven’t mentioned today, but I’m going to give you a really big table, dude. You can have six people, living or dead, men, women-

AS: Well, you’ve named two already.

EL: So Jessye Norman?

AS: Jessye was like a big sister to me, and I was very fortunate to have her in this latest documentary that’s been made of me. She’s there. So absolutely Toni, Jessie, Diahann Carroll who we just lost, a very good friend. Nina Simone, who aside from all of the wonderful stuff-

EL: This is an awesome table. You have to reserve, I could even sit on the side, man. All right, so now that’s four amazing women.

AS: I had a wonderful relationship with Nina Simone in Paris years ago, she and Jimmy Baldwin. And I’d have to invite James Baldwin because he has to take care of Nina Simone. That’s how I met them, he was taking care of her.

EL: I worked for a concert production company, we used to do Nina Simone concerts in the 70s and early 80s. She was not an easy person to deal with, at that time.

AS: No. Well, she was very unhappy. Her unhappiness consumed her life and she was very bitter. And she never forgave the world for denying her to be the greatest classical pianist.

EL: That’s so interesting.

AS: She never valued what she did in a positive way beyond that.

EL: That’s so interesting because there’s that great documentary about her.

AS: I know, I hosted the after party.

EL: But they didn’t really make the connection to the… I don’t think, maybe I just don’t remember. It was her resentment about not being able to be the classical prodigy that she was meant to be.

AS: Well, when you have someone like Nina Simone and there’s so much material. They touched on it but again, there was so much to do.

EL: It’s true.

AS: I would have hated to have that editing job.

EL: For sure. All right, so you have one more person.

AS: Well, only one more? Gosh.

EL: Yeah, I’m sorry.

AS: Then I guess it would have to be Aretha Franklin, who I knew.

EL: This is the coolest table ever. Aretha Franklin, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Jessye Norman, Toni Morrison, and who’s the sixth person? Oh, Diahann Carroll.

AS: Diahann Carroll and Gloria Steinem. See, I’ve got her in there. Gloria Steinem, I love her.

EL: And what are you eating?

AS: Well, Toni would want the coconut cake, and my mother’s bread and butter pickles.

EL: So let’s start there.

AS: Nina would want the fried chicken. Diahann Carroll, maybe my pepper duck Caesar salad with cornbread croutons. Let’s see.

EL: This is quite a meal.

AS: Jimmy Baldwin, the grilled okra and shrimp briquettes. Let’s see.

EL: That’s a lot of food already, man.

AS: For Aretha, I would do the icebox lemon pie. How about that?

EL: That’s not a light meal, I have to say. I don’t think cardiologists would approve, but it’d be delicious.

AS: I don’t think there’s a light eater at the table.

EL: All right, now here’s a really interesting question. What are you listening to?

AS: Let’s see. Well, we couldn’t listen to Nina because she would be distracted and maybe turn over the table. Aretha wouldn’t mind us listening to her, so I would do early Aretha when she was still under her father’s tutelage.

EL: That must’ve been a very complicated relationship between-

AS: You have no idea.

EL: Off-mic, we will get into that. So, three books that have profoundly influenced your life?

AS: Well, Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Jimmy Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room. This is going to be odd for you, but William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.

EL: So what do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat, like if you just had your pantry?

AS: Oh, I love this. I love just going to see what’s in the refrigerator and in the cabinets and pulling things. I would say it starts with the grain, it starts with either pasta or rice. I lived in Italy for three years and I spent my summers every year in Italy, forever. Had I not opened a restaurant of my heritage, I probably would have opened an Italian restaurant. So I can cook Italian food, and pasta is some of the most fulfilling, interesting, creative ingredients. And I feel the same way with rice. I could be as simple as fried rice with a fried egg on top. In fact, when I used to come in from the Studio 54, the dish I always wanted was white rice and a fried egg. That’s it.

EL: That’s funny.

AS: But I will tell you my favorite food, and there is a recipe for my favorite food in all three of my books. And probably different in all three, it’s hot dogs.

EL: Hot dogs?

AS: I love hot dogs.

EL: That’s awesome. So wait, so are we talking kosher style all beef, are we talking about beef and pork? Oh, you don’t really care.

AS: Well, I do. When I started, I didn’t care much, but I do. Right now I buy veal hotdogs from the Russian delicatessen, those are my favorites.

EL: Got it. So it’s just been declared Alexander Smalls Day, all over the world.

AS: Mercy.

EL: What’s happening on that day?

AS: Everybody’s having hot dogs.

EL: Of course.

AS: Chili dogs.

EL: Chili dogs?

AS: You have to make the chili, and then you have to make a slaw. And the secret of the slaw is the sweet pickle relish, or bread and butter relish, you have to do that. So that’s happening.

EL: Are people dancing, singing, or are they just hanging out?

AS: Well, I think that there probably should be a full on out music festival, but of course with my recipes being served or made available. And there are enough recipes for that, and then we got to get a little singing. We got to get a little group stuff going on. Oftentimes, the dinner parties at my house result in moving to the piano and we’re all getting up, singing all kinds of songs. And some of the guests that I didn’t even know could sing.

EL: That’s really funny. Wow, all right, that’s quite a day. I think people would really enjoy Alexander Smalls Day.

AS: That’s nice, I’ve never been asked that question.

EL: Listen, man. Thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us, Alexander Smalls. It’s been great having you here. Wow, what a pleasure.

AS: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed myself.

EL: Wow, what a pleasure and an honor it was to talk to Alexander Smalls, who is truly a national treasure. Alexander’s new book is titled Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from my African-American Kitchen. And just like last week we will leave you with his stunning, soon to be released rendition of Wade in the Water. So long, Serious Eaters. Please stay safe and healthy. We’ll see you next time.

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