Chef Toya Boudy’s “Cooking for the Culture” is a celebration of Blackness through place and plates

Cooking for the Culture: Recipes and Stories from the Streets of New Orleans to the Table” is not your average cookbook. A big part of my life is reading cookbooks, for both work and pleasure, and very rarely do they leave me feeling like that I’ve read a memoir packed with vibrant, revealing prose — all in addition to learning to how to make smothered okra and shrimp and the perfect cinnamon-tinged cup of coffee

That’s because the book’s author, Toya Boudy, is so gloriously present in “Cooking for the Culture” and makes a point to show readers the way in which her lived experiences are intertwined with the meals she makes, like Christmas chicken, red beans and “expensive ass deviled eggs.”

Boudy’s Black New Orleans home cooking isn’t for the tourists. It’s for “the people who want to see the realness, the heart of why we are and why people come here and why celebrities or why people leave cities like New York and LA and come stay here. Why? What is it? It’s the warmth that I talk about with my parents that runs through the city.” 

Boudy spoke with me on “Salon Talks” about growing up in the city, the right way to make grits and what she hopes for future generations of young Black female chefs. Watch the episode here, or read our conversation below. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

First, the cover of “Cooking for the Culture” is beautiful. It is such a striking image. What is the inspiration behind that photo and why did you want this to be the first thing that people see when they pick up your cookbook?

During quarantine I got hired to teach these cooking classes. It was basically Black history through food for young adults, teens and some adults. And in the process of that, at the end of the class, I had this thing that I would do and I created a little jingle and it was, “Fun fact, bet you didn’t know this is African. Yeah.” It was the corniest thing you could ever imagine. And I literally sung it just like that too. “Yeah.” 

I would pick things that would surprise children and strike up conversations at the dinner table about African history through food. I stumbled upon watermelon. And I remember my mother was in the hospital at the time and I was working on the curriculum while I was sitting with her and she asked me what I was doing and I was talking about it and I said, “The fun fact is watermelon.” And she was like, “What?” For us as Black people, when you see watermelon, it’s like at a party, you don’t think about watermelon. You’re like, “I don’t want to be the first person to eat that.” Sometimes we don’t realize why we’re like that and it’s basically a little bit of programming of being ridiculed in those caricatures. 

“It’s not just the kitchen, it’s life. I can take care of myself.”

I was like, “Ma, watermelon is a majestic fruit. It grows up into 95% sand. That red clay-like sand in Africa produces this big juicy fruit that has all these nutritional values and a whole bunch of things.” And I said, “People would even gift it to travelers and explorers because you can eat it, you can be hydrated all at the same time.” And she said, “Man, that makes me even want watermelon right now.” That moment happened and then it gave me a newfound sense of pride and since that was the beginning of the episodes that I was creating for that class, I said, “Okay, so I’m going to find something each time,” and I just held onto that. But when it came time to doing the book, that image and idea and conversation popped back up because I fought the process of the book so much in the beginning, the whole idea of getting a book and doing another one, the work, and when I agreed to sign and start working with the agent, it was like an instant download. Boom. I saw the cover, I saw the inside, I saw my nails, I saw every single thing. 

They were like, “Well wait, the first response for a woman, or especially a woman that they deem to look a certain way, we need to put your image on the front.” No, I don’t want them to be distracted. Just how I’m gripping the watermelon, I set the intention that it would do like this to people and maybe would say, “Whoa, what is this?” So that was definitely the message, it was basically like taking everything back. Everything that seemed negative, even down to my hair. The shots in the book, you’re like, what the hell is the cookbook? Why is she wearing these wigs? And it’s our culture, it’s our vibrance, so what they deem to be ghetto or this or that. I said, “I’m going to take it back and you going to love it.”

You talk in the book about how you received criticism for elements of how you present yourself. What’s your hope for Black female cooks coming up after you, in terms of appearance and how that registers within the world of food?

I wanted to take my chance and be so unapologetic, and then execute in such a brilliant way, that’s why you noticed there’s grit in the photos and then the pictures are pristine, even down to the font. All of that was intentionally thought about. I wanted people to look at it and think, “Well, who am I, unapologetically? What does that look like?” 

It’s not just Black women, it’s all women of color. I had an interview that happened with another chef that was a Mexican woman, and even her, trying to hide stuff. No, no. I wanted them to see it and think, “Maybe I could, maybe I should. I will.” And I also did everything the way I did in the book and presenting it because I wanted people who had the power to write contracts. I want them to say, “Well, looks like we need an unapologetic Black woman. We need an unapologetic Spanish woman. We need to find a Jewish one. How about Arabic?”

I agree. That leads into your recipes. A lot of people associate New Orleans with food, but in “Cooking for the Culture,” you are specifically turning your focus on Black New Orleans home cooking. How is that different from what a typical tourist may expect?

It’s real. It has real body. It just doesn’t carry the ambiance. The tourist experience is filled with ambiance. That’s why you see a lot of people, and you see, I said recently, I said, “You don’t hear anyone saying laissez les bons temps rouler, unless they’re a tour guide that’s from another state, giving a tour and talking about our history.” I’ve never heard someone, and both my parents from the heart of uptown, I mean hardcore, real uptown living, and they’ve never said laissez les bons temps rouler. They’ve never, “Let the good times roll,” like that, it’s ambiance. And I get it. 

Not everybody wants to go to the depths of a place. Some people just want to go to Hawaii, that part that’s fun, they don’t want to see the other part. That’s always tough when you travel to other countries and you see the beautiful area that’s touristy, and then you’re like, you get into the city and you’re like, “Whoa. This is how people live? God, I wonder, are we adding to it by coming or taking away? Or are we…” I’m telling you. It’s a wowing. We just went to Mexico. And when you go outside of that and you see the way they live, and you’re like, “God, what is the government doing for them? Are they only caring about this part?” That’s a lot to accept.

So I feel like with my book, the people who want to see the realness, the heart of why we are and why people come here and why celebrities or why people leave cities like New York and LA and come stay here. Why? What is it? It’s the warmth that I talk about with my parents that runs through the city. That’s what it is.

A real undercurrent in the book is the importance of family and family meals. That’s a beautiful thing for people who have a good relationship with their families and people who also don’t—it’s like there’s someone there. What’s one of your favorite meals from the book to cook for your family and friends?

Gumbo. For sure. And it’s not the clichéd reason, it’s also, it’s a rags-to-riches meal, for real. Started on the tables of the poor, made its way to the tables of the wealthy. But my husband loves gumbo, all of my babies love gumbo. 

“That’s the missing component in every single recipe: fear.”

That’s the one compliment now… No, my mama’s, my red beans compliment — my mama ate my red beans one day when she was over here and she sat back and she said, “That’s damn good” — and I knew that, but for an elder who knows the kitchen to tell you that, “Bring me a container gumbo.” That’s a lot. That’s a lot. And my favorite meal to cook for them is that, just because they eat it until the pot’s empty. 

They’re so used to seeing food, it’s ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous. They’ll pass up five star for a Little Caesars pizza, you don’t understand. But when it comes down to gumbo, they do empty the pot down to the bottom. You know what I’m saying? It’s just that and eggs and rice. Now the fried eggs and rice is simple, butter, seasoning, maybe garlic if you want to get fancy, fried egg and rice, it’s honestly what you would call a typical hood meal. If I make a big thing of that, girl, it’s going to be gone by the end of the night. For real. And it’s just simple.

Let’s say that you’re talking to somebody who has no experience in the kitchen, where would you point them in your book as a good starting point?

As a teacher, and whenever, and I’ll say this saying that my first child student, because I learned how to cook at nine, and the family I was working with, they pour into their kids creatively. So they got me to come and do cooking lessons and he was 9, 10. You know what I started him out on? Making a roux.


Hell, yeah. You know why? Because if I show you how simple that is and you do it, you think, “Oh, you think I can do it.”

Well, that opens up the whole world. 

That’s all you need. You just need to win. That’s why when you read, man, when I tell you, I will say this, I probably don’t give myself compliments enough on stuff, but I will say I wrote the hell out of this book and also the roux, girl, when you read that roux, I’m telling you, everyone who read that was like, “I’ve never seen it that approachable.”

Neither have I.

I broke down all the stuff because you know what it is, girl? It’s fear. That’s the missing component in every single recipe: fear.

You brought up rags-to-riches and something that this book, in addition to nixing the fear, it’s also big on the idea of cooking with what’s available to you. You write about the luxury of having access to commodity ingredients in the context of a recipe for peanut butter cookies. What’s the connection there?

Every time I’m asked about that recipe and about the commodity thing, it gets me to tears every time, because we grew up poor. Somebody had to give us commodity government — give — we couldn’t even get it ourselves. They gave it to us. That’s why you got to look back at your life affectionately to see how you were really blessed deep down. And not in the moment, the pain, but the result of the pain. That’s the blessing. 

With the commodity peanut butter, I’ll never forget it. I was just going through the boxes, going through the box, looking at that big can with the peanut on it and you open it up and I looked the back of it. And when I spent it around the back, I looked at the recipe, and I thought, I looked in the cabinet, because my son, he just turned 10, and he said he’s amazed at how I did stuff so young. And I told him, I said, “You know what it is?” I said, “Emmanuel, what it really is that I just knew how to read.” Well, I did have a cooking gift, obviously, but still, I just read. I read, I followed instructions, and I did it. Just the victory of that thing happening. I made cookies from scratch as a child with no assistance. That thing of just taking what you have, that’s the power. 

“With the grits, I always think of how I could make it feel like a hug. Ironically, I’m not a hugger.”

Even with my husband before when we first got married, he used to always say, “We don’t have this,” or, “We don’t have that,” and I’m like, “What’s in a cabinet?” And that idea, do you know the power? Because people think that, “Oh, why I can’t boil water?” Whatever. And I said, “”You know how to cook. You just don’t know what’s your lane and also, someone has probably injected subconscious fear,” because we need fight or flight to live in this lane. You probably never wanted to have a fight really a day in your life, and you would know how to fight somebody off if somebody came and attacked you in that room. It’s fight or flight. You need food to live, so you know how that means. You got to know how to cook some way, you just never had it uncovered. And my thing is, if you take away all of the pride that people wrap into food and stuff like that and you bring it down to human basic like, let’s get this done, anybody can cook something. And if I can get you to believe that you can provide for yourself and give yourself food, that’s giving you confidence in all kinds of ways. It’s not just the kitchen, it’s life. I can take care of myself.

I lived in the South for over a decade and there are certain foods that ignite immediate controversy about the right way to make them, and grits are definitely one of those foods. What’s your recipe?

I do a dinner grit. That’s what I call a dinner grit. I don’t even know if that’s supposed to be said like that, but I made it up in my mind and I just always say it. What I did was, when I decided to make shrimp and grit, it’s one of the things that I do every Christmas morning, I bring breakfast to my parents’ house because we all have, we open gifts together, whatever. One of the things, which my sister corrected me this last Christmas before it started, she was like, “Hey, are you doing something different this Christmas or are you doing shrimp and grits? Because last year you brought something else.” I brought pancakes. No one cared. I did pancakes, French toast sticks, all kinds of stuff. And they was just like, “So the grits?.” And I was like, “Man, y’all are a trip.” That’s like my daddy coming to my house and he ate and he said, “You don’t have pie or something here?” 

So with the grits, I always think of how I could make it feel like a hug. Ironically, I’m not a hugger, and I like to make food feel like a touch. I want you to take your shoes off and rub your feet together. I want you to feel like, “Let me take my earrings off to eat this.” I decided to do half and half. I said, I tried it with all milk once. And I said, that’s too thick, that’s too rich. And I said, how about half water, half this? And then I add cream cheese, or then I add heavy cream or whatever like that, just to make it this rich feel that it is breakfast, but it’s not breakfast. So that’s kind of like, that’s why I came up with my grits recipe like that, even though I still love traditional grits. I do. I do love them. But if I’m going to have something that’s a brunch idea or either dinner, it’s got to be a rich, hearty kind of feel. I just really wanted my grits to feel like love, basically.

And shrimp and grits, which you’ve cooked a couple times on TV. Is that right? Can you talk about that?

I got my behind handed to me over some grits. I was on “Food Network Star,” and we was picking a meal and I submitted, you know you submit recipes and they pick which one they want you to do. I submitted some and they picked the shrimp and grits and I was like, “Okay, well I know I could do that with my eyes closed.” So got to the time, well, we were judging and that’s not, I mean you see a clip on a video that’s this big, but it’s like 14 hours. I got eliminated with the shrimp and grits. And when I went home, I was just like, whatever. 

Then so much time happened and then I ended up having an interesting situation. I actually almost died before Hallmark. I caught meningitis and I had it for weeks. And I went to the hospital, they said it’s tension headaches, went home. And that was before we all knew that they treat Black women a certain way and they were sending me home the second time. And I went to the hospital and I just stopped and I said, “Can you ask my doctor for a CAT scan?” And somehow in the machine, my fever spiked and they did a spinal tap. The last thing I remember the nurse saying, “Your blood pressure is very low.” And then by the time I woke up again, I saw my sister, and then I woke up again, I saw my husband, and then I saw white suits and tape because the CDC had to come in because they didn’t know what was going on.

“I think when you’re in a lower income setting and you have a lot of life happening around you, it’s hard to pour into this art, you’re just kind of surviving.”

And one of the times I woke up, my husband said, “Good news. Hallmark just reached out to you about…” I guess he was just trying to tell me something to wake me up. That’s marriage, okay? And none of it makes sense. It never does. So I finally heal from that and he says, “Hallmark wants to fly you out.” But I don’t even remember having interviews with them so that’s how much I didn’t have recollection or whatever. I just remember the day before going in there, finding out I was pregnant with my youngest daughter. I came out of being sick and all of this stuff, I came back to this world where I was like, I don’t even remember how my hair got the way it got on the show, that’s how much I don’t remember. And this all led up to the grits. 

So I got to Hallmark and stuff like that. I did day one, day two, whatever. And then it came down to the last day and I wanted to cook something completely different and I did not even remember. I can’t even remember what it was, but she said, “We think you should do shrimp and grits.” Not me just going getting sent home a month ago over grits, and now you want me to make shrimp and grits. And it advanced me to the next thing and that’s how I got through. And I was like, “Damn,” but I felt like it was a aha from God. What you think may be ashes, what you think may be trash, may be golden treasure. You just don’t know. You just have to wait. It’s like, girl, that’s so crazy. When I told my husband, I said, “I don’t even remember my nails getting done, my hair.” When I saw the pictures, I was like, “When did I even get my hair done? I can’t remember,” because I was still healing. I was in the hospital for a while.

And then freshly pregnant too.

I actually told Debbie, and she’ll never forget this, because we were talking and she said, “How do you feel?” And I looked at her, I just found out I was pregnant, and she said, “What?” And we literally was like, so the running joke was every time I came back to Hallmark, she was like, “You’re not pregnant again, are you?” I said, “Girl, no. Girl, that train is left. That train snuck to the station. Okay?” So I literally don’t even remember none of that. It was just such a crazy ride in the fact that shrimp and grits, that damn recipe.

Speaking of wild rides, you talk about how as a kid it was apparent really quickly that you would march to the beat of your own drum as an adult. If you could go back and talk to young Toya as she’s figuring out what she wants to do, is there anything that you would tell her?

Keep failing, girl. Go ahead. Keep failing. You don’t need to know. I would also say that. You don’t need to know, and they don’t need to know either. Nobody needs to know. My mama didn’t know. No one knew. No one knew I had gifts until I was like 25. No one. People knew that I was crafty. I was always able to do stuff with my hands and I could cook. I was always able to build things or whatever, even refinished tables. 

I think when you’re in a lower income setting and you have a lot of life happening around you, I think it’s hard to pour into this art, you’re just kind of surviving. You know what? I wouldn’t say nothing. Because I didn’t need to know. And I mentioned this in the book, and I say, if I would’ve known anything, I would’ve abused it just how I abused the hall pass. So I wouldn’t say anything. I would just watch. I wouldn’t let her see me. I would just probably just watch from a distance and I would probably just look back at it affectionately and just think. But I wouldn’t say anything to my younger self because I like where I am. I like who I am. I like where I went and I mean, there’s nothing that I don’t regret. I have no regret at all and I’ve been through some… I been through some places, we don’t have a bottle of wine for that, but I’ve been through some… I’ve been some streets, some places, some abuse, some trauma, like heavy trauma. And I’m telling you every bit of it, I love it.

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