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How To Start The Dialogue: An Interracial Cookbook Club

Adrian Miller, author of "Soul Food," suggests an Interracial Cookbook Club to open the dialogue on race.

Adrian Miller, author of "Soul Food," suggests an Interracial Cookbook Club to open the dialogue on race.

“We need to have an honest dialogue about race.” I’ve heard or read a variation of that statement a lot this summer. I agree that we do need dialogue, but making it happen raises questions. How and when would that conversation take place? How do we get people who are reluctant to talk about race to engage in a dialogue? How do we create a safe space to explore uncomfortable topics? What would reconciliation look like once we’re through talking? I thought L’affaire Paula Deen gave us a good conversation starter on race, but the feeding frenzy served to only reinforce how people already felt about race.

Adrian Miller, author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." Credit: Bernard Grant

Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.” Credit: Bernard Grant

Still, there was some thoughtful commentary moving us toward a teaching moment about how the South’s cooks and cuisine are emblematic of the region’s conflicted past and complicated future. I have imagined that with a different cultural dynamic that focused more on forgiveness rather than condemnation, Ms. Deen could have played a pivotal role in stimulating a productive, public dialogue. But, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Those of us hungry for a dialogue need not wait. Food is one of the easiest ways to bring people together, and Southern cuisine — with all of its diversity — gives us a great platform to have a racial reconciliation dialogue through food. If you’re game, here’s my four-step plan for forming a cookbook club that facilitates a dialogue on race.

1. Form your group. If you may already belong to a book club, this project would be fairly easy to adopt. Otherwise, you’ll have to form a group and recruit members. There is a lot value to talking about these issues with people you already know, but I encourage you to stretch and invite someone of a different race who you don’t know so well.

2. Select your reading material. I think the most stimulating conversation will come from reading and cooking from two Southern cookbooks — one authored by a white Southerner and the other authored by a black Southerner. Though you are free to choose any cookbooks that you’d like, here are my recommended pairings:

For an interesting contrast in home cooking:

The Deen Family Cookbook” by Paula Deen (2009) and “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way” by Sallie Ann Robinson (2003).

For classic texts on rural Southern cooking:

The Taste of Country Cooking” (1976) or “In Pursuit of Flavor” (1988) both by Edna Lewis and “Cross Creek Cookery” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1942).

For a survey of overlapping cuisines:

The Welcome Table” by Jessica B. Harris (1995) and “Southern Memories” by Nathalie Dupree (1993) or “Classical Southern Cooking” by Damon Lee Fowler (2008).

For a good look at working-class Southern food:

The Soul of Southern Cooking” by Kathy Starr and “White Trash Cooking” by Ernest Mickler (1986).

For those who like the greener things in life:

Vegan Soul Kitchen” by Bryant Terry (2009) and either “Butter Beans to Blackberries” by Ronni Lundy (1999) or “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Sheri Castle (2011). Though the latter two have meat recipes, there’s plenty for vegetarians.

Books that aren’t available online may be at your local library.

3. Plan your meal and the conversation. Ask the participants to make a dish from one of the cookbooks and bring at least one question to get some conversation going. If you’re stuck on how to start, take a look at the One America Dialogue Guide that was published in 1998 under the auspices of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. It has sample questions that should prove helpful.

4Let’s eat on Aug. 28th! If you can, gather your group to cook, eat and share on Aug. 28, 2013. Why? Because 50 years earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” Let’s do it for real and expand the table by making it as inclusive as possible. If this timeframe is too ambitious, have your communal meal as soon as possible.

Talking honestly about race is not easy, but we need to try and we need do it out of love. Let me end by apologizing to any readers who I might have  offended with this racial reconciliation idea. Please understand that I am who I am, and I’m all about changing for the better.

Top composite photo:

A sampling of books recommended by Adrian Miller to start the conversation on race.

Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Adrian Miller is a former deputy director of President Bill Clinton's Initiative for One America, which focused on ethnic, racial and religious reconciliation. Miller's latest book, "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time" has just been published (August 2013) by the University of North Carolina Press.