Academic journal article American Studies

Post-Blackness and Culinary Nostalgia in Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef

Academic journal article American Studies

Post-Blackness and Culinary Nostalgia in Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef

Article excerpt

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I found myself lying on the couch indulging in an afternoon marathon of my favorite television show, Chopped, which airs on The Food Network. I cannot explain why I take such perverse pleasure in watching the anxiety-ridden countenances of "chef-testants" upon being given a hodge-podge of four ingredients as disparate as calf's liver, gummy bears, Swiss chard, and smoked gouda and charged with transforming them into a tasty dish in less than 20 minutes. In one particular episode, while introducing the illustrious panel of judges, host Ted Allen referred to Marcus Samuelsson as the "New Harlem Renaissance" chef.1 Naturally, I was intrigued. As a scholar of contemporary African-American literature and culture, I have been careful to stay abreast of emerging black artistic movements and trends. But the "New Harlem Renaissance" was a moniker for a seemingly localized black cultural, artistic, and apparently, culinary, rebirth of which I knew little.

Ultimately, this led to an afternoon of pursuing all things Marcus Samuelsson. While doing so, I came across the November 2008 issue of Food and Wine that featured an article entitled, "The New Harlem Renaissance," highlighting the easy friendship and culinary collaboration between Chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the Red Rooster restaurant, and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem. The article in Food and Wine details Golden and Samuelsson's plans for an elaborate dinner party to celebrate the publication of his then-new cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine, which pays homage to the African food cultures that Samuelsson believes have gone virtually ignored in Western culinary spheres. Among the invited guests were famed artist Kara Walker, jazz pianist Jason Moran, and choreographer Bill T. Jones, the latter two of whom were "touring with new works and in the past six months have been in more than 45 cities, from Rio de Janeiro to Melbourne."2

It is fitting that this august group assembled at a gathering cohosted by Golden, who is, perhaps, most well-known in academic circles for her coinage of the term "post-black," in reference to the 2001 Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Golden, along with artist Glenn Ligon, defined post-black artists as "adamant about not being labeled 'black' artists, though their work was steeped, in fact, deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness."3 Indeed, many of the artists featured in the exhibition, including Ligon, Rico Gatson, Rashid Johnson, and Susan Smith-Pinelo, among others, are less (if at all) invested in representing the celebratory notes of blackness and more intent upon signifyin' tropes of blackness through various forms of satire and play.4 After Golden's iconic exhibition, the expression "post-black" quickly morphed from mere description of a singular artistic event to characterize the experiences of an entire generation of blacks who came of age in the post-civil rights era. This generation is marked by the critical distance from its civil rights forebears (who are most often and most directly their parents) at the same time that its members have benefitted both materially and socially from the activist struggles that exemplified the civil rights and black power eras. However, what truly distinguishes this generation is its desire to live outside what had previously been the rather tight strictures of racial allegiances and expectations.5 In fact, the most common strain in post-black works is the expression of a desire to exist as an individual composed of many distinct attributes. Blackness, in this case, operates within a pretty vast sea of subjectivity.

The shared sensibilities of the artists in attendance at Golden and Samuelsson's dinner party all reflect a post-black/post-soul aesthetic in which the concept of "blackness" has been negotiated and renegotiated both as a site of subjectivity and as an aesthetic object. But the intention of this particular fellowship was not to provide a discourse about visual or musical art but rather to familiarize guests with Samuelsson's take on contemporary African cuisine. …

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