Issue 12.3-13.1 | Summer 2014/Fall 2014 / Guest Edited by Kim F. Hall, Monica L. Miller, and Yvette Christiansë

“Everything you do . . .”: Recipes from Ntozake Shange’s Art/Work

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Section 2: The Recipe as Text[26]

“Reading the recipes is almost mesmerizing…like an incantation. You imagine flavors and aromas that are created and the sensory experience of eating.”
—Janet Theopano, Recipes for Reverie

My brother, who is doing a doctorate in American studies with a focus on food, taught me to read recipes in just this way. Then, Shange, with the publication of her novel, solidified this embodied practice that whets one’s appetite. In an interview in The New York Times in 1993, Shange commented on the recipes in Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, saying that they “became part of the plot, which describes the lives of three sisters.” She admonishes her audiences by reminding them that “You have to read the entire recipes—ingredients and procedures—because if you don’t, you don’t really know what’s going on with those girls.”[27] The recipes in the text vary considerably and change via the transmission of letters and times. They have a direct address and geographically specific addresses. These details, like the details in all recipes matter. As Shange said: “I didn’t want readers to skip over the recipes, or they would lose that sense…I wanted those recipes to create a place to be.”[28] Shange’s characters cook for a variety of reasons: to celebrate, to comfort, to mourn, to seduce.[29] Moreover, since the recipes also interpellate the audience, they, too, are invited to empathize and even replicate the recipes for their own needs and desires.

For example, should a reader wish to cook “Rice Casserole #36,” a recipe of the title character, Sassafrass, or her “Favorite Spinach,” that reader “can be right in her kitchen, right in the book,” as Shange said. The idea of being “right in the book” is akin to having the audience participate in the performance of the choreopoem—which is, in fact, what happened when the show for colored girls was first performed in the bars in Oakland. Shange’s work narrowed the distance between audiences and performers, whether on the stage of the page or in the bar.

Sassafrass is the sister who takes her time finding her art. She lives with her misogynistic jazz musician boyfriend, Mitch. In the novel, Mitch convinces Sassafrass that “…everything was an art, so nothing in life could be approached lightly. Creation was inherent in everything anybody ever did; that was one of the mottos of the house.”[30] Sassafrass then made an “appliquéd banner” that said this, and it hung over the stove:


And she does. Sassafrass’s Rice Casserole #36 is numbered like one of Whistler’s paintings, an opus for a symphony, or a love potion or spell. Although this is Mitch’s injunction, Sassafrass makes the motto her own by appliqueing it on a banner. She and her sisters, Cypress and Indigo, are proud that “Mama had a craft that all women in her family could make something besides babies.”[32] We should remember that the tradition is change, as Mama says when she adapts the Christmas recipe to fit new dietary restrictions, devises a recipe for duck at Kwanzaa, or switches pork to tofu in a recipe for greens.[33] All these variations reveal how Shange’s aesthetic focuses on “bringing what you need, approaching difficult concepts with ourselves.” These are ways to both have and resist power. All of this work should make us marvel, and attests to Shange’s deep and abiding interest in (black) embodied pleasure. She almost always eschews two-dimensional versions of anyone—especially of heroic freedom fighters, such as Toussaint L’Overture.[34] Rather than seeing them as mythic figures, she wants to know, “what do you eat to celebrate a revolution?” She brings the body back…and forth. It is significant that Shange shows these historical heroes as sensate beings who needed nutrients to survive, food to relish the dreams of revolutionary action.

Shange is a performance artist concerned with the materiality of culture. Her novels feature recipes as a collective call to improvisational response. She produces choreopoems that, like everything she does, “envelope an entire social milieu including those audiences that happened to show up as the piece evolved [and who should be seen as] another source of the performance that develops through ritualized combinations of commentary, contribution and endorsement. The open, on-going structure credits adaptation as a factor in artistic creation.”[35] We should understand that:

Play production thus becomes a model in itself for a vision of revolutionary blackness as collective revision: openly acknowledging its establishment within a network of material, philosophical and discursive relations, it distributes the authority normally reserved to the author across a field of competing and cooperative positions…it bears witness …to collaboration within the vibrantly interdisciplinary arena of African American expressive culture….[36]

Calling Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo an epistolary novel would flatten it like the two-dimensional heroes Shange did so much to round out. Like Shange’s choreopoems, this “book” works on and through us. It is a conjuring book, dream book, recipe book, and “talking book” whose pages are performative. Its content is accessed through use, or perhaps through an embodied engagement that puts to shame the concept of the “active reader” or even of reader response. It captures and compels lived experience and black women’s contingent, cultural performances. The characters (in both senses of the word) conjure, weave, cook, dance, sing, and write. Indigo’s cures for cultural wounds function, like the book as a whole, as recipes for ridding oneself of the scent of evil (again, a feature reminiscent of Hurston’s recipes about how to win at court). Each page of the novel is festooned with different fonts, icons, inserts, and other performative features. It beckons us to read it in novel ways (pun intended).

Drawing on the traditions recorded by Hurston and others, the receipts or recipes in the text are also poultices. Hurston includes recipes in Mules and Men for things like “how to rent a house” and “how to make a man come home and for dealing with court scrapes.” For the latter, you need whiskey and John the Conqueror Root that has been soaked for thirty-eight hours (they need to have been gathered before September 21), and after soaking and draining, they need to be mixed with white rose or Jockey Club perfume. Although the mix of healing and nourishment was a feature of cookbooks from the ancient era through Mrs. Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, Shange emphasizes the efficacy of such written “spells” for her new world black characters, the “slaves who were ourselves.”[37] Like early cookbooks, which date back to the late medieval period and were written in vulgar Latin rather than liturgical Latin, Shange’s books underscore folkways—ways of the everyday. If I can cook and Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo work as performative prose poems whose interdisciplinary style simultaneously makes them suited for different kinds of activities. Although most recipes are written in the imperative, only some of those in Shange’s novel are; others compel the imagined users to improvise. The recipes are prescriptive, sequential, guided, and inherently “shared”—collected and collective. Nevertheless, they are also a form of “orature” (to use Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s term) that mediates speech and writing such that they are understood to be mutually constitutive.[38] Here we recall the attention to orality and black mouths making the most of world they encounter and reconstruct. The recipe is performative: like “twice behaved behavior,” it can be rehearsed, repeated, recreated. The recipes can also be improvised according to what ingredients are available in the moment and/or on different shores.

If cookbooks are meant to engender and inspire creativity even when they include precise measurements—of both time and ingredients—then certainly Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo is such a book. Like notes to be played, scripts to be performed, or blueprints to be built, cookbooks have been fictionalized, memorialized. In Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions and The Postcolonial, Parama Roy comments on the “psychopharmacopeia of empire,” noting that “soul making and body shaping, physiology and epistemology were intimately conjugated [such that] the body was both a figurative reservoir, generating tropes of encounter . . . with abandon and the materialist locus of transformation.”[39] It seems to me that Shange, ever aware of the socius; the civilizing mission; colonization; and the reparative, soul-making properties of new-world black culture—poultices for healing the effects of rape, food for thought that nourishes, words that one ingests—continually stages on the pages the questions of encounter and rule, proximity, cathexis, consumption, incorporation (or, again, what Kyla Tomkins calls racial indigestion), carnality, and transmutation, or perhaps just “vibration.”[40]

In the invented tradition of black vernacular production, one can see Shange’s work as related to that of her friend, Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor. Smart-Grosvesnor’s Vibration Cooking (1976) models the multifaceted genre taken up by Shange in her later work.[41] For example, Vibration Cooking, subtitled “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” includes a letter from a friend telling us that for his last meal, the revolutionary “Nat Turner had roast pork and apple brandy.” The letter is followed by a recipe for the meal. Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor (who worked as an NPR correspondent and an actress) wrote the forward for Shange’s If I can Cook/You Know God Can (1998). Both women produced multiform epistolary-recipe-history-memoirs.

In the forward to If I Can Cook/You know God Can, Smart-Grovesnor writes, “Zaki, in the tradition of Dumas, Colette, Amado and other writers understands the importance and connections of food and culture and how they are entwined in our everyday lives and manifest on our tables.”[42] Ntozake Shange, as an exemplary food writer, clearly belongs in this literary canon, especially with the publication of If I Can Cook, which shares much of its interdisciplinary format with Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo. It is “a creative culinary celebration that compels us to hear the words, taste the spice and feel the rhythms of Africa in the new world . . . from Brooklyn to Brixton and beyond.”[43] It is also much more than that; it asks us to rethink what is crucial, historical, world-making. If we continue the move toward the molecule, the nano, to ever-smaller “grains of sand” that found our significance, Shange’s project is part of a much larger world-historical event. We can see her connections with the radical historians of the Annales School who showed how everyday “culture” could be raised to the level of art and how memories of “great heroes” could be memorialized in minor modes, such that what and how they ate becomes part of their heroic status. In this, she would, I think, concur with Adrian Miller, who conceives of his work on soul food as “a love letter to past, present and future African American cooks. [He believes] the time has come for soul food cooks to take their rightful place in the pantheon of African American cultural performers.”[44] Certainly in Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo and much of Shange’s other work, what is “ordinary is made extraordinary” through adaption, showing the artist’s hand as laboring to elevate the everyday.[45]

It is significant that the recipes in this text almost always appear embedded in epistles, in some form of intimate exchange. Each recipe in Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo has an author and is written for a specific date, person, and context. Such features help to extend and dramatize the emotional bonds between the women in the family, mark occasions, and keep connections. It also comments on the beginning of the novel in the eighteenth century, and, arguably, on the growth of particular literary forms pertaining to the personal and the individual, and to distance and its abridgement through the letter-form itself. It is the circulation of the recipes that matters most, and that gives them renewed (if not endlessly renewable) life. Shange tells us that “receipts” is Charlestonian for recipes.[46] This line, repeated in some of Shange’s other work (such as If God Can Cook) reminds us of the healing and conjuring that recipes evoke.

Shange puts it this way: “These perusals of history, literature, vernacular, culture and philosophy ‘long with absolutely fabulous receipts are meant to open our hearts and minds to what it means for black folks in the Western Hemisphere to be full.”[47] This is why the “restitution of Okra’s reputation” is one of Shange’s projects, as is reclaiming eating watermelon—from a history of denial comes a desire for “fullness.” While such projects could be read as comical, in fact, they reveal Shange’s dedication to revise stereotypes and rethink sustenance. Indeed, the word “sugar” in the black vernacular culture with which I am familiar was a synonym for kisses. My grandmother always was imploring me to “come give Granny some sugar.” Having now studied Shange’s work, I see how these invocations of sugar actually converted the term from a reference to a refined substance made from slave labor and black blood and forged in colonial factories for commodity culture to an action that was the essence of caritas, of love and community.[48] Of course, the other side of this is the use of “sugar” as a synonym for diabetes—a disease that can be the result of devouring too many carbohydrates that turn to sugar in the bloodstream.

Section 3: Letters, Home

My Oberlin-educated grandmother’s last letter to me was written in 1987, just months before she died. The hand-written note included a recipe for stewed tomatoes with “light bread, plenty onions, enough sugar.” It came with other recipes for “life” such as “be sweet, get your lessons.” Similar letters appear throughout Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo and in Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, “Girl,” published in The New Yorker in 1978; Gloria Naylor’s novel of recipes hidden in a suburban basement, Linden Hills (1985); and Fran Ross’s under-read, brilliant novel, Oreo (1974), which features letters, dreams, recipes, menus, and more.[49] Shange urges and encourages us to take “A different approach to the force of gravity. To our bodies and what we produce…[she says] We are performers in the fields, in the kitchens, by kilns, and for one another.”[50] The idea of performing art as part of a daily practice and for one another is at the heart of Shange’s aesthetic philosophy.

In her essay, “Movement/Melody/Muscle/Meaning/McIntyre,” Shange explains that she sees the choreographer Dianne McIntyre’s work, “moving toward sculpted impulse and labyrinthine density . . . [with its] reliance on Afro American popular dance, respect for Afro-American music, and a sense of the conceptual realities available to us through these forms. It is not that McIntyre’s work rejects folklore, but her versions of what is folkloric are formed by the here and now. There are no accidental ethnic references. It is all on purpose.”[51] These lines pertain equally well to Shange’s own praxis. For me, her art/work succeeds at keeping memory alive, in the mix, moving among states and geographies (national, political, psychic, and racial), the individual and the collective. We can be grateful to Shange for teaching us that “we ourselves are high art.” We can credit her with providing us with the means and the meals to “Pull the so-called Personal outta the realm of non-art.”[52]

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  1. My first professional paper, given at the Modern Language Association annual meeting in San Francisco in 1991 was entitled, “The Recipe as Text in Black Women’s Fiction” and was inspired by Shange’s work. I also acknowledge the work I did at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library with Barbara Ketchum Wheaton in the “Reading Historic Cookbooks” seminar in the summer of 2013. [Return to text]
  2. Marialisa Calta, “The Art of the Novel as Cookbook,” New York Times 17 February 1993 URL: [Return to text]
  3. Calta, “The Art of the Novel as Cookbook” 1993. [Return to text]
  4. In her essay, “The Arts of Loving,” art critic Lisa Gail Collins notes that: “Central to the blueswoman’s ballad is a black diasporic premise that expertly prescribed and properly charged objects—charms, roots, potions, gris-gris, jujus, goofer dust, …a hoodoo hand and black cat bone—can harness an object of desire and abet hunger for emotional control.” See Lisa Gail Collins, “The Arts of Loving,” Women and Religion in the African Diaspora: Knowledge, Power and Performance eds. R. Marie Griffith and Barbara Dianne Savage (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006) 199. [Return to text]
  5. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 87. [Return to text]
  6. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 87. [Return to text]
  7. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 87. [Return to text]
  8. Shange, Sassafrass 1982. [Return to text]
  9. Shange, for colored girls 2011: 25-30. [Return to text]
  10. Kimberly Benston, Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) 167. [Return to text]
  11. Benston, Performing Blackness 2000: 89. [Return to text]
  12. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 224. [Return to text]
  13. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: James Currey Ltd, 1997 [1986]) 12. [Return to text]
  14. Parama Roy, Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions and the Postcolonial (Durham: Duke UP, 2010) 7. [Return to text]
  15. For an excellent redaction of the term soul food (from Shakespeare through the Black Church, Motown, and SNCC) see Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2013: 41-45. [Return to text]
  16. Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor, Vibration Cooking: Or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (Athens: U Georgia P, 2011[1970]). [Return to text]
  17. Vertamae Smart-Grovesnor, forward to If I can cook/you know God can, by Ntozake Shange (Boston: Beacon, 1998.) [Return to text]
  18. Smart-Grovesnor, forward to If I can cook 1998: 1-2. [Return to text]
  19. Miller, Soul Food 2013: 10. [Return to text]
  20. Miller, Soul Food 2013: 8. [Return to text]
  21. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 3. [Return to text]
  22. Shange, if I can cook 1998: 3. [Return to text]
  23. See Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985), as well as Kara Walker’s work, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” (2014), which is a massive sphinx made of sugar and shown at the defunct Domino Refinery in Brooklyn, NY. [Return to text]
  24. Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl,” At the Bottom of the River (New York: FSG, 1978); Gloria Naylor Linden Hills (New York: Penguin, 1986); Fran Ross, Oreo (Boston: Northeastern, 2000[1974]). [Return to text]
  25. Shange If I can cook 1998: 42. [Return to text]
  26. Shange, Lost in Language & Sound 2011: 60. [Return to text]
  27. Ntozake Shange, SeeNoEvil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983 (San Franscico: Momo’s, 1984) 39-40. [Return to text]