Interview with Alexander Smalls | Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from my African American Kitchen.

Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.

Alexander Smalls: Greetings. My name is Alexander Smalls and I have just penned a new book called Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen. I’m very excited to talk about it.

Suzy Chase: I am at a point in this quarantine where I don’t even know what day we’re on, but what I do know is breakfast continues to be the most important meal of the day. I saw on your Instagram a couple days ago, you made a gorgeous breakfast of eggs, sage sausage, and steel cut oats. Melissa Clark from The New York Times got me so intrigued by savory steel cut oats. Tell me about this breakfast.

Alexander Smalls: Well, I’m not one of these people who likes to have my oats sweet. I discovered that oatmeal has really a brilliant flavor when you treat it like you would, say, grits or couscous or grains. I like cooking my oatmeal with stock, vegetable stock, chicken stock, and I like to mix the thick cut oats and the steel, because it creates more texture. When I make my breakfast, I usually cook one half part of steel, one half of thick flake in chicken stock, which takes a while. I like to put a little coconut oil to give it that flavor and I love to serve it with savory protein, like sage sausage and, of course, a nice egg or two to top it off. I also put red pepper flakes and black pepper. So, there’s a twist for you.

Suzy Chase: Where do you get sage sausage?

Alexander Smalls: It’s an organic sausage that I buy at Whole Foods. Now, I have made my own, and when I do have the time, essentially taking some ground chicken and putting in my seasonings, everything from Herbes de Provence to lots of fresh sage. That works as well. It just depends on your time.

Suzy Chase: Well, we all have time right now, you know?

Alexander Smalls: It depends on what’s in your refrigerator.

Suzy Chase: Yes. This cookbook marries your love of food and music. How is music getting you through the isolation?

Alexander Smalls: I rise every morning around 5:00 AM. On my way to the kitchen to make my first cup of Earl Grey tea, I pass by the Sonos and get it going on my Bach radio station or my Spotify and classical music just immediately starts to pipe in. There is something so healing for me. There’s nothing like passing through and there’s a wonderful Chopin etude going crazy or a wonderful cello piece that sort of invades the air. And now and then a vocalist will come on to singing a song that maybe I sang when I first started studying music, one of the art songs. And I stop and I sing through that and then I just keep going. But this, it’s such an incredible companion, music. And so towards the middle of the day, I may switch over to some light jazz by sort of late afternoon. I’m really listening to some bebop and things like that. And then at night, I move into Afropop and it just makes me smile. It makes me feel good.

Suzy Chase: Have you checked out D-Nice on Instagram, the DJ?

Alexander Smalls: Yes.

Suzy Chase: Oh, my gosh.

Alexander Smalls: Just unbelievable. Talk about the perfect panacea for these times and then you see your friends names flashing up in the background and you start to go, “Oh, I see you, all right, blah, blah, blah.”

Suzy Chase: And there’s Chaka Khan. Oh, I love him.

Alexander Smalls: I love him.

Suzy Chase: Yes.

Alexander Smalls: It’s a wonderful time to really contemplate and feel the love that just comes from strangers and people who want to engage you wherever they find you in their own way. It’s a beautiful thing.

Suzy Chase: So could you read the most recent passage you wrote on Instagram, which is asmalls777 for anyone who wants to go check it out.

Alexander Smalls: Why, yes, yes. It is what it is. We are who we are. Human beings, ill-equipped to manage life without the heartbeat, laughter and joy, the absence of another’s embrace, grace and understanding. But be strong, courageous and steadfast. Joy will ultimately find us resilient in the coming mornings, believe.

Suzy Chase: Amen. Well, stay strong. Keep posting your dishes on Instagram and take good care.

Alexander Smalls: Thanks, Suzy.

Part 2:

Suzy Chase: You are a self-described social minister, James Beard Award winning chef, restaurateur, author, singer, and tastemaker. What I found so intriguing is you spent decades in Europe as a classically trained opera singer. You have a Grammy and a Tony. Now, how did you pivot over to becoming a chef and restaurateur?

Alexander Smalls: You know, that’s a really good question and what I would say about that question is I’ve always been all these things. It was just really about when they were going to take my life over at what particular time. And what I mean by that, is that I grew up essentially with my, and I called them almost my imaginary friends, but my two best friends was food and music. They really described best who I was and how I saw the world. I think that for me, they were the two languages, creative, artistic expressions that suited my personality and kind of mapped my journey in life. The music was essentially the driving force that launched my career and took me to reasonable heights and I received a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

Alexander Smalls: But I hit a glass ceiling as a black male opera singer trying to break through to the elite level of classical music. Black women, for the most part, were exotic, and there were quite a few of them, but black men had a very difficult time and often we had to go to Europe, and usually to Germany, to really sing at these sort of vocal factories where they would just abuse your voice. You would sing three, four times a day and probably come back home with a wobble and a vibrato completely out of whack and basically a tired voice.

Alexander Smalls: And I had my third audition at the Metropolitan Opera. After my audition, singing two operas, the voice from the audience there, one of the directors said, “Oh, great job. We see the maturity in your voice.” I had auditioned for them before and I’d been living in Europe and studying at a Paris opera house. And they said, “Well, we’d love for you to come and work with us and we’re doing Porgy and Bess and we’d love you to do chorus and some small roles.”

Alexander Smalls: Now, what you have to understand is that I already had a Grammy and Tony for the recording of Porgy and Bess. So it was a frightful slap and disappointment. And I went home and decided I was no longer going to pursue opera as a career. And I turned to my second best friend and love, which was food and hospitality. And I decided that I needed to take my living room public and open my own restaurant.

Suzy Chase: So, in the book, you dedicate it to your parents, their parents, and your ancestors. I’d love to hear a little bit about your family.

Alexander Smalls: Well, I had a wonderful family, loving, supportive, generous. I was very fortunate when I was born, my aunt and uncle, who were living in Harlem, my aunt, a classical pianist, and my uncle, a chef, and had worked in many New York restaurants and had traveled around the world as a Navy man and a Merchant Marine. And he had taught himself Spanish and French.

Alexander Smalls: So what they did to enrich my life is probably why life really turned out the way it did. My aunt was my piano teacher. My uncle essentially taught me the art of dreaming and creativity through food. And the two of them, I spent probably more time there, in some cases, than my parents or my sisters, for that matter. But they had me as a young boy reciting Shakespeare, reciting John Donne, Langston Hughes. I was listening to opera, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson at such an early age, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson.

Alexander Smalls: This was really the language for me at an early age of seven that carried through and it was very early that I decided that I wanted to be an opera star. And my parents, who were horrified, they knew nobody that looked like me or them, they were frightened beyond measure. I mean they wanted me to become a professional, a doctor, a lawyer, something that was in the realm of understanding. But this idea of a classical musician, an opera singer, and they had nothing to compare that with, but they didn’t say no. So this is how I evolved and basically won lots of classical music competitions, got scholarships to go to some of the best schools in the country. And that’s how I started my career and my family was right there supporting all of it.

Suzy Chase: So, when you think of your Uncle Joe, who was a chef and could also play piano by ear, but he couldn’t read a note, do you think about him in your daily life? I feel like you’ve fulfilled a lot of his dreams.

Alexander Smalls: Oh my, yes. You are absolutely right. I mean, I think about them all the time. They are so much a part of my life and they are part of my inspiration. I sit with the ancestors. I’m comfortable with the gifts, the knowledge, the sacrifices that they all made so that I have the platform that I have today and the knowledge and the passion and the belief that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.

Suzy Chase: So, speaking of ancestors, Julie Dash’s incredible documentary called Daughters of the Dust-

Alexander Smalls: Oh, yes.

Suzy Chase: … shows us the Gullah culture of the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Tell us a little bit about that almost forgotten culture.

Alexander Smalls: What you’ll have to understand is that while my father was born in Charleston, at Johns Island, and my grandfather, my grandmother from Buford, South Carolina, and this is all on my father’s side. My mother’s family was from what we call Upcountry and that would be Spartanburg, that area north of Columbia, north, northwest. I grew up eating very different things than my friends were eating. Their food was more like the foothills of Appalachia, the Piedmont. While our food was very Afrocentric, the influences of the Gullah Geechee people, the outer islands there, was the foundation of farm and culinary that influenced my life.

Alexander Smalls: So, my father would, literally while I was still sleeping, put me in the back seat of the car along with my sisters and the caravan would leave Spartanburg for that journey to Charleston and Buford, South Carolina, Green Pond. It was like going, we used to say, to the old country. It was so different. A lot of farm land, but the life in Charleston was very interesting for me. It was very ritualistic. People told stories and they spoke with thick Gullah Charleston Geechee accents, made it very difficult for us as a child to really understand what they was saying.

Alexander Smalls: But the food was just something unimaginable. You know, lots of seafood, we were on the coast, lots of stews. One of my favorite dishes is shrimp and okra stew, which in West Africa, it’s shrimp and okra soup, stews are soups in Africa versus here they are stews. And this is how I grew up and this is how I understood life and the connection of the old country, which was the Lowcountry to Spartanburg where I lived with my family, my normal life. It was fascinating for me.

Suzy Chase: By the end of the 19th century, South Carolina was the largest rice producer in America. The Gullah Geechee people were experts in growing rice, knowing the tides, how they flooded the fields, et cetera. One of the main dishes of the Gullah cuisine is red rice. Tell us about your Charleston Spicy Red Rice.

Alexander Smalls: Well, the red rice is really a takeoff of Jollof Rice, which is the famous Jollof Rice that the Nigerians and the Ghanaians fight over all the time, who has the best. Well, interestingly enough, there’s really no contest because it was kind of created by the Senegalese.

Suzy Chase: Yeah.

Alexander Smalls: We’re not even in the conversation. But yes, the red rice is something that we grew up on, less spicy, I think, in America than it was in Africa and a main staple. You know, rice built South Carolina. When the slave traders were collecting enslaved people from West Africa, they understood exactly the type of workers that they need and they purposely looked for these rice growers, these people that had the expertise.

Suzy Chase: Okay. So I want to love okra, but I just, I don’t get it. What do you recommend for us folks that think we don’t like okra?

Alexander Smalls: Why don’t you like okra? Do you know?

Suzy Chase: Yeah. It’s just slippery.

Alexander Smalls: Fibrous?

Suzy Chase: Yeah.

Alexander Smalls: Slippery? Okay. So, what I recommend always for my friends who say they don’t like okra is my okra fries and I fry them in rice flour, crisp, delicate, scrumptious. Now, if you don’t like fried okra, something’s wrong with you or you’re not having it fried right. So I’ve given you a recipe in Meals, Music & Muses. Hopefully that will help you get over the hump. But fried okra probably is the best approach. The second best approach is charred okra, because that gets out all of the slicky part and it’s charred crisp with a broiler on a grill. And again, it’s a wonderful accompaniment. I, as a kid would eat okra sandwiches, okay?

Suzy Chase: So, what was on it?

Alexander Smalls: Well, a fresh sliced tomato, fried okra and something we call in the South, Duke’s Mayonnaise, like your Hellman’s Mayonnaise here, only better. And sometimes a slice of cheddar cheese. So I want you to try that recipe and tell me about it.

Suzy Chase: Okay. So, last night for dinner, I made your recipe for Citrus Whipped Sweet Potatoes on page 86 and your Southern Fried Chicken on page 132. Can you describe-

Alexander Smalls: And you did a great job.

Suzy Chase: Thank you.

Alexander Small…: I saw it on IG and I was so proud of you.

Suzy Chase: Oh, thank you. Can you describe these recipes and talk a little bit about shoebox lunches?

Alexander Smalls: Well, let me start with shoebox lunches. I had a restaurant in Grand Central Station for 15 minutes. Unfortunately, 9/11 happened and everything went to, I had just opened it. But the name of the restaurant was called The Shoebox. And The Shoebox was in celebration of the shoebox lunch, which was the way in which people of color during segregation made sure that wherever they traveled, they had something to eat.

Alexander Smalls: It was very difficult finding black owned restaurants that they could go to. And this was also during the time when a very clever man from the South decided that black travelers needed something called a green book. And that book sort of identified black owned businesses or businesses that were accepting of black business when they traveled. So the shoebox lunch essentially was a discarded shoebox that was filled with food that traveled well, wrapped in waxed paper most of the time, and then tied with twine.

Alexander Smalls: That is, this great story, my uncle often would go back and forth from South Carolina to New York, Harlem, on the train. Aunt Laura looked like a white woman. She was very pale and Uncle Joe was very dark, but he spoke French and Spanish and passed himself off as a diplomat. And so they would get to ride in the white car. Once Uncle Joe forgot the shoebox lunch that my grandmother had prepared him. Because I think what he normally did was take the shoebox and then kind of discarded it or put the food in a pocket book or something, a bag. It was too tale-telling for him to walk on there with a shoebox lunch. So my grandmother, realizing that he had forgotten this, runs to the train going, “Son, son, you’ve forgot your-”

Suzy Chase: Oh, no.

Alexander Smalls: And the conductor, horrified, threw my uncle out of, he was traveling without his wife, out of the white car and made him go back to [crosstalk 00:19:12].

Suzy Chase: Oh, man.

Alexander Smalls: My mother used to love to tell that story and so when I opened my restaurant at Grand Central Station, I thought how fitting to do something like that. And often times you would find that fried chicken that you enjoyed the other night, right in that shoebox. It was a perfect thing to travel because it’s fried, the oil is like preservatives and you’d find say some corn bread, you’d find some cake, like a pound cake was a great traveler and, of course, there was always cheese sandwiches. And there would be carrots and celery, sort of crudités things. And if you were going to eat them quickly, you might find a few deviled eggs in there and that was kind of like the appetizer to have once you got on the train because they don’t keep.

Suzy Chase: Now for my segment called My Favorite Cookbook. What is your all time favorite cookbook and why?

Alexander Smalls: Well, my all time favorite cookbook is Charleston Receipts. It is a cookbook that is a collection of Charleston Lowcountry recipes that was a constant companion in my home growing up. It really speaks to the food of the Lowcountry and the contributions of African American enslaved people who essentially were the hospitality and culinary practitioners. Because they were not allowed to read and write, recipes were are often collected by the various families and the family name went on them. But you knew in the details who was really making that food.

Suzy Chase: Yeah.

Alexander Smalls: But you know it really mirrors the roots of where I come from and so it has always been a constant companion in my home and I take great inspiration from it.

Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?

Alexander Smalls: Well, I’m very active on Instagram. I have also page on Facebook that I don’t attend to as well as I do Instagram. And then there is alexandersmalls.com which is my website.

Suzy Chase: I am so thankful that you wrote this cookbook. Thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.

Alexander Smalls: Thanks for having me. I’ve enjoyed my chat with you and I appreciate all of the support and generosity that you’ve given me. Thanks a lot.

Outro: Subscribe over on CookerybytheBook.com and thanks for listening to the number one cookbook podcast Cookery by the Book.

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Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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Suzy Chase

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Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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