The Immigrant Cookbook Is a Loving Manifesto
It must surely say something about the current moment when a newly published cookbook, edited by Leyla Moushabeck, is as much a manifesto and celebration of humanity as it is a collection of recipes.
The political subtext, in fact, is right there in the subtitle: "Recipes that Make America Great." Crack open The Immigrant Cookbook—which Anthony Bourdain has described as a “powerful, important, and delicious cookbook which everyone should own”—and you’re met with an excerpt from “To Young Americans of Syrian Origin,” a poem by Kahlil Gibran:
“I believe that you have inherited from your forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy, which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude upon the lap of America.”
If that doesn’t make it clear enough, what follows in the book is a string of recipes offered up by almost 80 contributors, from chefs to food writers, representing about 60 different countries of origin. The recipes make for an expansive feast, encompassing soups, vegetables, meat, desserts, snacks and more. But where The Immigrant Cookbook especially shines is as a package of memories and traditions, little time capsules that convey us on a wave of nostalgia back to the kitchens, cities and countrysides from whence these participants come.
Readers aren’t asked to pick a side, but just to listen, as chefs and personalities like José Andrés—who shares the recipe for his wife Tichi’s gazpacho that he says is among the best in the world—and others introduce themselves by way of the food they love. And perhaps in the universality of the stories they share—learning how to cook at a grandparent’s knee, the comforting familiarity of a mother’s special dish—the spaces between us measurably shrink.
That’s one thing Moushabeck hopes comes out of the book, part of the proceeds from which will be donated to the ACLU for its Immigrants’ Rights Project.
“In really practical terms, immigrants make up the majority of a lot of the lowest paying labor in our food production, factories, farms, grocery stores and restaurant kitchens,” Moushabeck says. “And also, so many of the incredible chefs at the forefront of American food culture are first- or second-generation immigrants. A cookbook felt like a very natural way to honor that contribution. And I hope it will highlight a lot of the valuable ways our culture is shaped by ethnic diversity.”
Participants were asked to talk about recipes that mean something to them. In many cases, their thoughts turned back to home. They reflect on childhood memories, their first experience in the U.S.
Cristina Martinez, who’s from Mexico, is an undocumented chef and restaurateur who walked across the desert in 2009 to reach the U.S. She runs her Mexican restaurant El Compadre in Philadelphia, where Philadelphia Magazine named her the 2017 Best Chef in its Best of Philly 2017 rankings.
The dish she contributes is pork ribs with purslane, a recipe from her mother Ines who would always cook it on Thursdays. That’s because it was the day purslane arrived from the farm, and everyone would help prepare the purslane leaves. When her mother came to the U.S. to visit, it was one of the first things Cristina asked her to make.
“I think that’s so relatable,” Moushabeck says of Martinez’s recipe and story. “We all have dishes that are favorites from our childhood and that taste best when our mom or a favorite relative makes them.”
From Dominique Ansel, creator of the illustrious cronut, we get instructions on how to bake five-minute madeleines. They’re connected to one of the earliest food memories he has of growing up in France, that of visiting the local bakery to pick up bread fresh from the oven. In his bakeries today, mini madeleines are made to order, so you can enjoy them like that, straight from the oven.
Tunde Wey is a cook and writer from Nigeria who moved to the U.S. at age 16. He’s been taking his pop-up dinner series Blackness in America around the country since 2016, using it to explore race in America. His contribution is a recipe for jollof rice, a popular dish in Nigeria.
Grammy-winner Ziggy Marley’s contribution is coconut dream fish. The son of Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley and the author of “Ziggy Marley and Family Cookbook,” he explains about this take on the traditional Jamaican brown stew fish: “You fry the sea bass lightly with coconut oil; then cook it down with onion, garlic and other seasoning. Real herbs and spices from the earth give the best flavor. And then you add the coconut milk, so the whole thing has this deep coconutiness.
“When I first made it I thought, oh, this is like a coconut dream! Makes you go to bed real nice.”
Line them up one after the other, and the little vignettes start to merge and blur. Family, and the sparkle of wonder attached to childhood reminiscence, are common threads in all of our origin stories. And so it is with The Immigrant Cookbook and the collection herein.
Moushabeck curated this collection because of the tenor of discourse in the country today around the 41 million immigrants who live here. And to remind us of the universality of our stories, those of us who were born here and those who piled into a boat, car, plane or, in extreme cases, walked to get here. This land is their land; it is all of ours.
“Food is powerful,” Moushabeck says. “This can be used negatively, for cultural appropriation or suppression, but it can bring families and communities together, provoke discussion, share experiences, or connect with home and heritage. I think food has great potential for promoting cultural understanding.”