Broccoli Rising and Righteous Cuisine
For Martin Luther King’s birthday, we’re all due for some righteous cuisine. The term comes from Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man , winner of the 1952 National Book Award. In a letter to his friend, the scholar and critic Albert Murray, Ellison wrote that he longed for “a belly full of that righteous cuisine — con cornbread, con buttermilk, con mustard greens.” Ellison wrote this while staying in Rome, home to one of the great cuisines of the world. But traditional Roman cuisine doesn’t speak to everyone’s soul. Food that does is righteous, resonant. It’s what home tastes like. And what that is differs for everyone.
But righteousness, I think, I hope, is universal. It’s integrity, it’s the thing that chimes within us as being true. And it’s not always easy or popular. I’ve been thinking about righteousness in this new year, an election year. As political pundits tell us, we’re on unchartered political turf. But in a way, we’ve been here before.
More than 70 years ago, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, at the height of the divisive, deceitful, fear-mongering McCarthy era issued a Declaration of Conscience. As she told Congress, "It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques — techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.” Her declaration was one domino that helped topple a demagogue.
Some current presidential hopefuls are employing McCarthy’s same bullying, totalitarian techniques today. It’s high time we reject them and instead stand up, speak out, hold on to the tenets of our Constitution and to our democracy. Like I said, it’s not easy or popular. But it’s necessary. And righteous.
Martin Luther King Jr’s idea of righteous food reflected his Georgia roots and included collards and cornbread. He and his crew even called it their sacramental meal.
For Ellison, righteous cuisine was tender cornbread, tangy buttermilk, and the spank of mustard greens. So I’m taking it and spinning it into kush. No, not that kush, although — fun fact — Florida’s credited with being the first to grow OG Kush. Kush is also the name of a comfort food and a prime example of poor man's cookery. Take a handful of basic ingredients, including cornbread verging on stale, olive oil, garlic, and greens, and ten minutes later, you have something amazing. Fold in a dollop of vegan buttermilk or yogurt if you like, as Ellison did, and it adds a pleasing base note of tartness and creaminess.
Some make it thick, moist and porridgy, others go for a dryer, more crumbly kush. In every form, kush welcomes all kinds of add-ins-- including vegan options like sautéed onions and peppers, cilantro, tomatoes, and beans. It's not meant to be elegant. At its most pure and simple, it’s a belly-filling treat replete with mustard greens, collards or kale—- winter’s sturdy greens. It’s quick, easy, green, and gutsy, the perfect restorative after holiday excess, and good any time of day.
Portugal has a very similar dish called migas
Cornmeal in all its iterations is righteous all across Meso-America and Europe
In Rome righteous cuisine might be polenta or might be pasta aglio olio con peperoncino, pasta with garlic, chili and olive oil
In India, it’s kitchri, a soulful combination of rice and lentils
Rice and lentils are righteous in Egypt too, but slightly different
In China, righteous food is comforting rice porridge known as congee or jook
In Japan, it’s wafuu curry
Ellison might also go for a Juneteenth bowl. He wrote the novel Juneteenth after all.
Righteous cuisine is unique to each place, each person, but the dishes tend to be comforting, mild of spice, easy to make and accessible to all. They’re starchy to feed a crowd, fill the belly, and stretch the budget.
What’s your righteous cuisine? May it fuel and satisfy you and keep you righteous.
Comforting and belly-filling kush is kin to conrbread dressing, and so much quicker and easier than my family’s elaborate recipe. Start cooking and you’ll be sitting down with a righteous plate of it in 10 minutes.
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