Introduction: Home is Where the Kitchen Is
I hope you enjoy every page of this book—not only the recipes, but the stories and photos too. Creating this for you has truly been a dream of mine since I was sixteen years old.
I worked as a journalist in San Antonio on the James Madison High School yearbook staff during the day, then after school would head to KSAT-12, the local ABC station. I actually produced video and wrote the words the anchors would read for the evening news. I remember calling home and reading my script to my parents before the news came on so they would know which words were mine. As a high school intern, it was a powerful and rewarding feeling to know that adults deemed my work on par with my older coworkers. I worked hard at fitting the right words into the right amount of script time and loved every single learning moment; it didn’t even feel like a job. I knew then that I loved words, documenting life, and sharing it. I told myself that not only did I want to pursue journalism as a career, but that somehow I also wanted to make my words permanent and be published one day.
So, I joined the United States Air Force right out of high school as a journalist and was stationed in Seoul, South Korea, as a radio disc jockey. Although I loved music and even spun records at a few clubs while in high school, being a radio host wasn’t quite my plan. But the military trains its journalists to do a host of communicating jobs, and it was just the luck of the draw that I landed in radio. My success in Seoul landed me a job in San Antonio as a radio journalist at the world news headquarters for all the branches of the military (the Armed Forces News Agency) and I was overjoyed with my assignment. Finally, for the first time in my life I was moving to a city I knew. I still thought about being published, though. At the time I had no idea how to get closer to my dream, so I continued to work hard as I’d watched my dad do in the United States Army, hoping one day the opportunity would arrive.
My dad built a career in medicine while serving as a U.S. Army soldier, then officer and he always told me to do what I love. I have vivid memories of him coming home from work every day smiling and happy. This set such a good example for me in every city and country our family moved to, because no matter the location, he loved his job, and it wasn’t just about work. Food and travel are also things my parents taught me to love early on. My first memory of this was when we were stationed in Columbus, Georgia at Fort Benning. My dad came home one day with a box full of German language tapes and books and announced to the family that after a quick move to Virginia, we would be on our way to live in Germany. I was in second grade and for the next few months, as a family, we practiced the German language after dinner and read about local customs. Most important to them were table manners and how to order food.
My parents’ excitement about eating new things and seeing new places was infectious even that early in life. My mom was already a culinary sponge, picking up recipes pretty much everywhere we went. Being a military wife made that easy because our neighbors in every military community were as diverse as New York City, which is probably why I love living in Brooklyn so much now as an adult. It feels like home, with people from all over the world right in my back yard. I can knock on my neighbor’s door and ask them for a recipe from their native land and surprisingly get a warm welcome from someone happy to share their heritage. I saw my mom do this in every state or country we moved to, and it shaped the mind of a young culinarian.
Each move brought new recipes and ingredients. In Fort Benning it was bushels of oysters from the bayou; Texas brought Vietnamese dumplings from the Tran family across the street, not to mention chorizo, chiles, and all things Tex-Mex. In Bad Kreuznach we gathered a long list of recipes that started at Rosie’s Restaurant, just steps from our off-base housing. As Americans, we did our best to fit in, speaking German to Rosie, sharing our stories and family recipes, and then she did the same. As an honor she gave us a permanent table (called a stammtisch) and she’d always sit with us for a minute to catch up, lovingly making a plate for our family dog, Ginger. Germany was in perfect proximity to much more travel and food, so almost every weekend our family would pile in a car and attend volksmarches, which were walking marathons, mapped through the hills and streets of villages. There were checkpoints along the way where you were expected to stop, have a local bite, and for my parents, drink some beer. When we reached the finish line there was a big tent of people doing the same, eating, drinking, and getting to know strangers. We’d get a plate or a beer stein for our participation, and our wall at home filled with these trinkets over the three years we lived in Germany.
We went skiing on the border between Austria and Germany and had the best waffles and hot chocolate at the peak of the tallest mountain in Europe, the Zugspitze. (I vividly remember being called chocolate by some giggling kids on one trip up the Rhine River on a tourist boat. It wasn’t mean or malicious; in fact, the kids smiled. I was quite possibly the first black person they’d ever seen, and they touched my skin to see if it rubbed off. I still giggle at the memory; being called chocolate was, well, pretty sweet.) There were visits to France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and everyplace in between. Each visit was about history, sightseeing, and food. My parents would sit and talk for hours about flavors, spices, and neat new ingredients found along the way.
I knew food was the glue that held us together as we moved from place to place. My mom made breakfast and dinner every single day. In fact, as many times as we moved, the most important boxes to open first were the ones labeled “kitchen.” I remember one time being very upset with my brother because he labeled a box that contained my mom’s various types of flour, “flower.” I thought, how are we going to have pancakes when we get to our next house if we can’t find the flour? That may sound silly now, but having our kitchen in order is what made us feel at home.
When we moved from Europe to Pennsylvania, my mom put up a new decoration in the kitchen, and I still think about it. By then, I was in middle school and very aware of how difficult it must be for my parents to pick up the family every year for a new town or city. I myself was growing tired of losing friends. These were the days of letters with stamps; there was no email, cheap long-distance calls, or Skype. I knew that each friend I gained would soon be lost. The only thing that stayed the same was the nucleus of our family and the things we saw inside our home. The new decoration my mom hung on the wall was a wooden house with banners strung by chains beneath it. Each banner listed a different city we’d lived in thus far, and the first banner read “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” I thought it powerful that she hung it in the kitchen, because we all knew that the kitchen was the beating heart of our family.
When I got to Yongsan army base at are eighteen for my first assignment, I did what my parents taught me and my brother as kids—I learned the local customs, picked up some of the language, and enjoyed all the authentic Korean food I could. And continuing our tradition, the first thing I unpacked was a recipe book my mom had given me and a small box of dishes for the kitchen. It was 1993 and there I was, an ocean away from family, and I was lonely. But I knew that if I wanted to feel at home, all I had to do was cook. So, I got in the kitchen and the first thing I made was something familiar, pancakes.
Years later I have shared that pancake recipe with countless others and opened my life of travel and food to anyone willing to listen. I feel truly fortunate and blessed to be able to do what I love and to share what I love with you. I don’t take this opportunity lightly; the sixteen-year-old in me is very happy and fulfilled. All I had to do was live my life to its fullest.
After I left the military, I ate my way through the New Orleans seafood scene, then had every rivaling bowl of chili in the competitive market of Detroit. When I landed in New York as a radio host for HOT 97, I cooked for friends and recording artists, and that led to starting a catering company. Soon, I got one of those calls you hear about, but this time it was happening to me—on the other end it was the Food Network asking me to share my stories and recipes from my kitchen on an episode of Emeril Live. That was the day this all started for me. At thirty-two, I landed a job where people asked me, “When are you coming out with a cookbook?” Unbelievable.
Thanks to a life of travel and exploring new flavors, my book was there all along. That said, no one should have to move for good food or wait for it to come to them, because it’s as close as your own kitchen. I can’t always get to Germany, Korea, or anywhere else I’ve visited physically, but when the smells fill my kitchen and my plate, just a bite is all I need to feel transported. That’s what comfort food is, more than flavors—it’s the feeling that goes along with it, the memories, friends, and celebrations. In my kitchen I usually find myself trying to hit that emotional mark, so it’s my hope this book helps you reach yours and inspires you to experience more life through food. Thank you for letting me into your kitchen. These are my stories; these are my recipes and I’m honored to share them with you.
With sunshine in my heart,