Alexander Smalls’ Cookbook Explores African American Recipes

Alexander Smalls' Cookbook Explores African American Recipes

PITTSBURGH — Alexander Smalls was a professional opera singer before reinventing himself as a chef and restaurateur. It’s no surprise, then, that he takes an artistic eye on the recipes he created for his 2020 cookbook, “Meals, Music, And Muses: Recipes From my African American Kitchen” (Flatiron, $35).

He listens pretty well to the Southern dishes mentioned in the book, offering a “soundtrack” of the bold and flavorful Gullah Geechee foods he grew up eating and learning to cook in Spartanburg, South Carolina – some of which can be seen were at the Declaration and Resistance Dinner he put together on April 23 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art to celebrate an exhibition by Baltimore artist Stephen Towns.

Each chapter pays tribute to a genre of music associated with a food category. For example, appetizers are compared to the improv, blues, and swing of jazz, while rice, pasta, and grits—lean on me dishes that often form the backbone of a home cook’s repertoire—represent the comforts of spirituals.

As he notes in the cookbook preview, food and music are inextricably linked in the US, especially in African American culture. “Both Southern music and Southern food are rooted in a gnarled line connecting West Africa and Western Europe,” he writes.

Smalls traveled the world for years as a young performer, winning both Grammy and Tony awards for the cast recording of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with the Houston Grand Opera. Yet as a black man he has never been able to break through the glass ceiling of opera; His last audition at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he recalls, resulted in an offer to join the choir instead of the lead role where he had made his debut, to rave reviews.

“So I left devastated,” he says, “but really determined to move on with my life,” opening the small, intimate restaurant he’d always dreamed of in the back of his mind.

Cafe Beulah, one of the forerunners of New York City’s soul food revolution, opened in 1994 to rave reviews. Four more restaurants followed, including The Cecil in 2013, which highlights the interplay between African and Asian cuisine, and the jazz bar and restaurant Minton’s next door.

“I had to have not just one seat at the table,” says Smalls, “but the entire table.”

His first cookbook, “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day” from 2018, won him a 2019 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Best American Cookbook. It examines the immense influence the African diaspora has had on global cuisine.

With ‘Meals, Music, and Muses’, Smalls hopes to continue the conversation about the unsung contributions that people from the African diaspora have made to American cuisine.

“It’s essentially my kind of ode to African American cuisine, and my path if you will,” he says. “The lens that made me the creative person I am.”


Serves 6

“Crab cakes are an essential part of Southern Coast cooking,” writes Alexander Smalls in “Meals, Music, and Muses,” which is why the chef and restaurateur has had them on his restaurant and catering menus for over 30 years. This “Jazz” starter, which can be made larger for a plated appetizer or smaller as an appetizer, features a robust Creole mayonnaise spiced up with cayenne pepper to elevate the flavor profile.

If you’re trying to cut back on fried foods, you can bake the crab cakes in a 400-degree oven until browned, about 5 minutes.

For crab cakes:

  • 1 pound lump crabmeat, picked for shells
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped celery
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup small cubes of white bread, toasted
  • 1/2 cup regular breadcrumbs, plus more for dredging
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels
  • Salt and pepper
  • Peanut, canola or vegetable oil, for frying

For Creole mayonnaise:

  • 1 cup canned diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped red pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise

Prepare crab cakes: In a large bowl, combine crab, onion, bell pepper, celery, parsley, eggs, bread cubes, bread crumbs, thyme, cayenne pepper, corn, and 1/8 teaspoon salt and black pepper until well combined. Cover and let cool for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

To prepare mayonnaise: In medium saucepan, combine tomatoes, bell pepper, celery, onion, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, tomato paste, vinegar, salt, and black pepper and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently.

Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has the consistency of a thick paste, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature and then cool for 1 hour.

Transfer the tomato mixture to a food processor and pulse until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the mayonnaise. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving, or store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

To make crab cakes, place breadcrumbs in a shallow bowl. Shape crab mixture into 1-ounce patties (about 1 1/2 inches in diameter). Dredge patties in breadcrumbs to coat and shake off excess crumbs.

Fill a large cast iron skillet with oil to a depth of 1/2 inch. Heat over medium heat to 325 degrees. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, add crab patties to hot oil and cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side.

Drain on a crumpled brown paper bag or paper towels. Serve immediately with Creole mayonnaise.

– “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron Books, $35)


Makes 12 chocolates

Popular in the Southern states, these sweet treats—listed in the “Serenades” chapter of the cookbook—are easy to make and a perfect way to end a meal.

  • 3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

In a medium saucepan, combine brown sugar and cream and heat over medium heat, stirring, until brown sugar has melted. Cook, stirring occasionally, to form a paste, about 10 minutes. Add butter, vanilla and pecans. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Line half a baking pan with baking paper. Drop the pralines onto the prepared pans by tablespoonfuls and let them cool completely.

— Adapted from “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron Books, $35)


Serves 8

“This salad, for me, is about flavor, texture, and childhood memories,” writes Smalls in “Meals, Music, and Muses.” It’s one of many that will be on the menu at the “Declaration & Resistance Dinner” on April 23 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. The cookbook pays tribute to his South Carolina heritage and the music that inspired the former professional opera singer.

It was on the menu when he opened The Cecil in New York City in 2013. It honors his father and grandfather and the pears they grew in their backyard in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

The beans add protein and the pears add a touch of elegance. A lemony vinaigrette ties it all together.

It’s a versatile recipe that can be made ahead of time to dress up later, and it easily goes from an appetizer to a full meal, depending on size. For smaller portions, I halved the ingredients.

For salad:

  • 4 ripe but firm Bosc pears, halved and cored
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 star anise pods
  • 1 1/2 cups halved grape tomatoes
  • 1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 cups thinly sliced ​​seedless cucumbers
  • 2 pounds mixed salad greens
  • 2 1/2 cups cooked black-eyed peas

For vinaigrette:

  • 1/2 cup champagne vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon each fresh lemon, lime and orange juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped shallot
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons honey
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine pears, wine, sugar, cinnamon sticks, star anise, and 1 cup water in a medium saucepan.

Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and poach until pears are soft but not mushy, about 35 minutes. Let the pears cool to room temperature, cover and let them cool for at least several hours to overnight.

Prepare vinaigrette: In a food processor, combine vinegar, lemon juice, shallot, mustard, mayo, honey, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pulse until smooth, about 30 seconds.

With the machine running, add oil in a thin stream and process until emulsified. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Remove the pears from the viscous liquid and cut them lengthwise into 1/8 inch thick slices. Save poaching liquid for another use.

In a large bowl, toss grape tomatoes, onion, cucumber, and greens to combine. Add black-eyed peas and vinaigrette (a little at a time, until green light is covered) and toss.

Divide among 8 chilled plates. Garnish with poached pears and serve immediately.

– “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron, $35)