Fred and I sat hunched over his laptop in a busy Ann Arbor coffee shop — which is not a particularly uncommon scene these days. Today, however, the glow of the blue light LED screen reflected a Google Form entitled “Luther House Cooks Ingredient Request.” Fred and I both live at Luther House, one of Ann Arbor’s numerous housing cooperatives, famous for fitting 49 people into two yellow houses on Hill Street (and thousands more for our annual Halloween party). To complete his weekly chore requirement, Fred is one of our Thursday cooks, meaning he is responsible for churning out a dish to feed 50 people every Thursday. A week before each meal, he has to request all of his ingredients on a Google Form so that other people can go pick it up from the store as their own chore.
This Thursday, Fred was at a loss. Surrounded by college students typing away on their laptops, he turned to me and asked me if I had any ideas. I’m still not sure what made my brain drift back to the shores of West Africa that day, but almost instinctively, maybe to give my Danish exchange student best friend a challenge, I told him that he should make Jollof rice. Immediately, he flipped my own challenge back on me.
“OK I’ll do it, as long as you’ll help me get it right.”
Fred knows I love to cook, especially foods from across the world. It’s not too uncommon for my housemates to find me in the kitchen for hours making anything from Shanghai soup dumplings to Argentine chimichurri. As a kid, cooking was my way of connecting with a wide open world that seemed out of reach to my 10-year-old self growing up in the suburban South. Now, after many years of cooking, I’ve amassed a pretty large collection of kitchen gadgets and niche ingredients which allow me to feel confident enough to take on almost any culinary challenge. So, of course Fred thought I had made Jollof rice before, especially since it is the food of my people, my ancestors.
I hadn’t. In fact, it had never hit me until that moment that in the 10 years I’ve used the kitchen as my vessel to see the world, I had never once cooked a dish from the shores of West Africa.
I didn’t grow up in Africa; in fact, where I grew up felt like the farthest place from it. Off of Georgia Highway 120, a couple of miles between Roswell and Marietta, is a white picket fence community called East Cobb. East Cobb is a place I now describe as my prison, the place where I plotted, for 18 years, to break free from. It took me 17 of those years to even figure out why it felt so unsettling to exist in that place: It was white, and I was not.
My parents grew up in two different worlds. My mom comes from a Polish immigrant bloodline in the working class towns of northern Rhode Island. My dad comes from a line of Black revolutionaries, operating in and around Philadelphia. The two met in Boston and made their way south to the Sun Belt to raise a family, after my dad landed a white-collar corporate job at IBM. My dad’s solution to the racism he faced in the workplace was to leave his Black identity at the door in order to assimilate into white, corporate culture. He and my mom shared this sentiment and thus decided to raise their two mixed-race children in the heart of the Deep South.
Growing up, I had no connection to my Black identity. I simply did not even think of myself as Black. Why would I, when I was existing in a society where no one looked like me and it was simpler to not even question that fact? It got a lot harder to ignore my identity once it began being weaponized against me. Once I started getting slurs carved into my lunch table and started having a bit too many unpleasant police confrontations for comfort, it became almost impossible to ignore that this society, which had always felt alien to me, was in fact built against my existence. The final nail in the coffin came when I watched a man who looked like me suffocate to death on a Minneapolis street at the hands of a cop.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I stumbled into a community I should have known my entire life. In anger, I took to the streets of Atlanta, and was both surprised and comforted to be met there by an uncountable number of fearless Black organizers who did the same. They embraced me with open arms, and promised to teach me the revolutionary history of our people. We weren’t just slaves in past lives — our ancestors freed themselves, over and over. They created culture, food, ideologies and struggles all informed by the continent we were stolen from all those years ago.
Africa, as a concept, occupies a very interesting space in the Black community marooned here in America. Most Black Americans have never been back to the continent of their ancestors, but the traditions passed down from our historic lineages across the Atlantic are still ever-present in our culture. It’s not uncommon to see a Black man sport a dashiki or for a cookout to be hallmarked by a pot of Jambalaya. In many ways, Africa feels so close to the Black consciousness in America, but in so many other ways it remains forever distant. I knew that if I made the choice to immerse myself in my heritage, it would mean something two-fold: I wanted to investigate and celebrate my roots in this land, but it also became a unique priority for me to honor and cherish the continent that birthed and nurtured our people for millennia.
After telling Fred I had actually never made Jollof rice — or any West African dish — before, he was still adamant I help out and even take the lead. I was getting excited about it; not only would this be a very new culinary venture for me, but I also had never cooked for this many people before. I always loved cooking for my housemates, but I always did it on my own terms. It was only when I had time, with whatever ingredients I had and usually a familiar recipe that I knew would impress. This time was none of those things. After firing off the ingredient request, all we had to do was wait for next Thursday, and maybe do a little bit of research before it rolled around.
Jollof rice is believed to have taken form in the Senegambia region in about the 14th century. It got its name from the Wolof Empire inhabiting the region at the time, preserving its people’s roots as it later migrated across land and sea. Before it was “Jollof,” it was called “Thieboudienne” and looked markedly different from what it is today — usually centered around fish instead of chicken. Three events happened in the 19th century that allowed the tradition of Jollof to spread and take on its more modern form. First, under the binds of colonial rule, Senegal’s agrarian economy was forcefully shifted from subsistence crops such as millet and sorghum, to extractive peanut production. The French colonizers “compensated” this by importing broken rice from Southeast Asia to the region, a crop largely unfamiliar to locals. Secondly, after the colonization of the New World, new ingredients began flowing into West Africa and its regional cuisines. Tomatoes, bell peppers and chilies from the New World, and even curry leaves from India and thyme from the Mediterranean, began making their way into West African staples. Finally, the spread of Islam forever southward in the African continent, brought Jollof Rice from its Senegambian homeland to where it’s most familiarly found today — the shores of Nigeria and Ghana.
In its modern form, Jollof rice has many components. The fixture of the dish is of course the rice itself, cooked not in water but in a mix of chicken stock, spices and a sauce consisting of tomatoes and peppers. Usually, it is served with vegetables mixed into the rice and complemented by a large piece of chicken. Jollof didn’t make it across the Atlantic fully intact, so the dish is foreign to some Black communities across America. I was very excited to begin my journey of learning a culinary tradition that isn’t just rooted in my community’s past, but is instead a way to build a cultural bridge across the Black Atlantic that has divided us from our homeland for centuries.
Thursday came, and it was time to hunker down in the kitchen. Alone, I began cooking in the afternoon, working on marinating the chicken before the others came to start the cooking in earnest. My housemates came and went in the Luther kitchen in a constant stream, asking me what I was making, many surprised to find three recipes in front of me instead of one. In my week of research, I was unable to settle on one recipe to encompass a dish that spans an uncountable number of cultures. I decided that we would use three recipes and combine them as we saw fit in the moment. Getting to share this very personal journey with my passerby housemates reminded me how much communion is baked into this dish, our culture and even the house we all live in together. The African spirit of community, home and communion with one another has become the bedrock of Black culture in America. My favorite effect of that culture of solidarity is the birth of the Black cooperative movement, one of the core reasons my house even exists today. Ever since Black people were forcibly sent to this land, they realized that the only way to survive was to build an economic and social system of cooperation. Pooling resources, employing mutual aid tactics and eventually pioneering novel housing experiments were a tool of resistance that Black people employed to guarantee their survival. Now, 400 hundred years after my ancestors were brought here, their hard work has passed down a tradition and a community I wouldn’t be me without.
Soon Fred and Layla, our other Thursday cook, came to join in on the feast preparation. It was nice to be able to lean on them as well. At this point in the semester, both of them are seasoned veterans at preparing tasty dishes for a house of 50. As we got into the cooking groove, things began to go very smoothly. I started cracking some jokes about how my ancestors were guiding my cooking. In reality, however, I noticed myself instinctively employing cooking techniques from across the world that I had picked up over the years in order to make this dish of my homeland unique. I suggested that we burn our tomatoes and peppers directly on the stove before we blended them together to make them sweeter. To marinate the chicken, I added a heaping spoonful of papaya powder, a natural tenderizer I had picked up in a Chinese supermarket a few years ago. In our sauce, I ran to grab a box of Indian dried curry leaf powder that I have on my personal ingredient shelf. Cooking with Fred and Layla was endlessly entertaining as well — all three of us combining our skills and culinary background to make a dish that reflected our stories as much as it did the land where it came from. Fred queued up his favorite Danish songs to jam out as we cooked, slowly but surely crafting a culinary masterpiece.
Then the rice cooker broke. Of course, not everything can be smooth sailing. We had to pivot, and we had to pivot fast. I grabbed our industrial size rice cooker with two oven mitts and poured it into a massive pot for the stove, the rich stock splashing all over me as the rice cascaded down. Bright yellow turmeric stains now speckle my shirt, but after this many years of cooking, it’s hard for me to imagine them as anything other than battle scars.
After a 30-minute delay due to the rice cooker snafu, we were done! My housemates lined up in the kitchen with every bowl, plate and spoon in the house, eager to try a dish that was just as unfamiliar to many of them as it was to me. I had cooked for my housemates many times before, but this time it felt different. Through our hours of toil in the kitchen, I was inviting them to share in a culture, a tradition and a lineage that means the world to me. Everyone loved it. As we were cleaning up the kitchen, we heard the house give a round of applause to the chefs.
After the cooking was all said and done, I thought about my grandparents. Both are long gone, but I always find myself thinking of them whenever I feel like I’m reconnecting with their world. They may not even know what Jollof rice is themselves, but they would absolutely know how much it means to me to work tirelessly in a kitchen for hours to create a portal to a home we never knew. It seems daunting — even near impossible — to dig for roots in a land that’s an ocean away, but the ever resilient lineage of Black revolutionaries in America has ensured our culture is always within reach — they’ve carried it on their back for generations.
Statement Correspondent Joseph Fisher can be reached at email@example.com.