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The history of African-American cooking feeds body and soul

(ran SP edition)

There's more than Southern ambrosia salad, Lesotho fish cakes and Jamaican curried chicken between the covers of Of the People: an African American Cooking Experience.

You will find history and humor, hope and triumph, and, if you read closely, you will find understanding, not to mention some fine food.

The 175-page book, just published by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was in the works for about three years, but what began as a typical collection of recipes from museum members and celebrities changed into a cultural history told through the food of many lands and generations.

"As we developed the cookbook. . . we decided this was an ideal opportunity to take readers and cooks through the phases of African-American cooking by paralleling parts of our core exhibit, "Of the People: an African American Experience,' " says Dawn Langford, the museum's retailsales director who spearheaded the publishing effort.

The book is organized much like the museum _ sections reflect elements of the African-American experience _ and sprinkled among the recipes are quotations and proverbs that reveal much about black history, values and experience.

"It's up to the living to keep in touch with the ancestors," says a quotation in the first section, called "The African Memory." Here are recipes for jollof rice with chiles from Mali, basic curry from Somalia and groundnut (peanut) soup from Ghana, dishes and ingredients that blended into the American mainstream in part because of African-American cooks.

"We do not choose our cultures; we belong to them," says a quotation in the "The Diaspora," introducing Caribbean and South American cuisine. Dishes include exotic-sounding fare such as black rice with calamari, coconut fritters and pepper pot soup.

Then comes "Survival of the Spirit _ Africans in America" and this rhyme: "We raise de wheat, dey gib us de dorn; we bake debread, dey gib us de cruss; we sif de meal, they gib us de huss."

The stark verse speaks volumes. People given almost nothing _ scraps, really _ learned how to make them into good-tasting food that nurtured spirits and bodies. People ate foods such as chitterlings, pigs' feet and smothered rabbit because they had to and because they had learned not to waste a thing.

Recipes for foods such as pigs' feet were included in the book because of their historical value, not because Langford thinks people will necessarily want to cook them, she says, but they're only a small part of the book.

Most of the recipes make you want to head to the kitchen _ to eat, if not to cook. Earnestine's Lemon Buttermilk Pound Cake, Camille Cosby's Satisfying Stewed Chicken and Sweet Potato Angel Biscuits are just a few.

Check with favorite bookstore on availability or call the museum gift shop at (313) 494-5800 between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Suggested retail price is $21.95.