"I love Thanksgiving," Tanya Holland says. "It's nondenominational; everyone's invited. My gatherings tend to be a little like the island of misfit toys." The chef is so devoted to the holiday that when she was a homesick 26-year-old student at France's prestigious La Varenne cooking school, she invited her classmates to a Thanksgiving dinner. "There was a store in Paris that sold some American grocery items," she says, "but I couldn't find yams or cornmeal." Still, she pulled it off. This year, she created a spectacular meal that brings together her French training, Creole background and California influences.
Holland is the owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, California. She moved there the same year I did, 2003, although I didn't know it at the time. I'm an urban farmer who left Seattle looking for a less rainy place to keep my bees and raise my chickens. I rented a duplex next to an abandoned lot and rode my bicycle around in search of something to eat. Dodging potholes and broken glass, all I found was fast food and three Korean restaurants.
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Like me, Holland quickly realized that she'd have to get in her car just to find a decent cup of coffee. Yet the Bobby Flay protégé still loved her new neighborhood, a predominantly African-American working-class area that reporters often called "gritty."
West Oakland hadn't always been so down and out. During the World Wars, the area was a port-and-train hub, a boom town with a jazz scene, plenty of bars and restaurants and a diverse population of upwardly mobile African-American, Irish, Polish, Scandinavian, Chinese and Mexican families. In its glory days, it was similar to the Rochester, New York, of Holland's childhood. "There were many immigrant families there, and they informed us on how they ate," Holland says. Her Southern-born parents started a cooking club. "It was three white families and three black families," she says. "They cooked world cuisine and regional American food."
When Holland moved to West O, she sensed the area was ready for what she could bring: soul food with a California sensibility. She opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008 with modernized Southern classics: fried free-range chicken with waffles, shrimp and grits with organic cheddar cheese—and good coffee. Today, the restaurant attracts an eclectic mix: hipsters, African-American ladies, woodworkers and printmakers on their lunch breaks.
Among the regulars at Brown Sugar Kitchen are the novelist couple Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. Chabon even had the party there for his latest book, Telegraph Avenue, a big-hearted portrait of intertwining black and white families in Oakland.
This year, Chabon and Waldman invited Holland to cook Thanksgiving at their Craftsman house near the foot of the Oakland Hills. Other guests included Holland's husband, Phil Surkis, R&B singer Ledisi and Shiree Dyson, director of programs at San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora.
Combining all her culinary influences in one dish, Holland served bisque as a starter. She loaded it with Dungeness crab, one of her favorite West Coast ingredients, and spiked it Creole-style with Tabasco and cayenne. For her bronzed, gorgeously lacquered turkey, she chose a free-range bird from a local farmer and brined it overnight, then glazed it with bourbon and brown sugar, a nod to the importance of sugar plantations in African- and Caribbean-American history.
"Tanya's turkey was the most beautiful I've ever seen, and it tasted amazing," Waldman says. "Michael and I looked at each other and said, 'Crap, we'll never be able to match this.' "
Ten years after Holland—and I—moved to West Oakland, the food landscape is unrecognizable. I can now ride my bike to a Montreal-style bagel shop or a tapas bar. Or I can go to B-Side BBQ, which Holland opened in 2011.
At Brown Sugar Kitchen, the restaurant that inspired other chefs to take a chance on the neighborhood, I'm warmly greeted by a hostess who lives nearby. As I finish the best pork hash I've ever had, I feel comforted—like I've finally found my home.
Novella Carpenter is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.