35. Jonell Nash (1942-2015) died last year at the age of 72. Nash was born in Louisiana, and raised in Detroit. She learned cooking from her parents, including not just the recipes and techniques, but also their commitment to quality.
Nash graduated from Wayne State, in Detroit, and became a home economics teacher. She then turned to a career in journalism. She worked for Scholastic’s Coed magazine, followed by a stint at the Woman’s Day test kitchen. Then, in 1984, she became the Food Editor at Essence magazine, where she remained until she retired in 2008.
Nash was always an advocate for quality cooking and baking, and did it with style. In her New York Times obituary, a colleague mentioned that even when she ate lunch at her desk, she would produce a proper table setting, including china, silverware, and a tablecloth. Her commitment was reflected as a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier New York. Through that organization, she established a scholarship named in honor of Edna Lewis for students studying southern cooking.
Nash with 2010 Edna Lewis scholarship winner, Altagrace Auguste.
Nash will be remembered for two cookbooks she published in the 1990s:Essence Brings You Great Cooking (1994), followed by Low-Fat Soul (1996). In both books, Nash’s goal was to give cooks options for cooking traditional dishes in alternative ways, reducing fats, salt, and sugar. As her obituary put it, she wanted to “cut fat, not flavor.”
Nash was a pioneer in the movement to improve the health of African Americans with better nutrition, a trend that continues today, most conspicuously in Michelle Obama’s efforts to teach kids good eating habits.
From the historical perspective, what’s interesting about Nash’s approach is that it shed light on the meaning of “soul food.”
First, her recipes flow from the premise that what makes African American cuisine distinctive is in its creativeness, what she calls “flava.” For instance, in the Introduction to Low-Fat Soul, she says: “Even more than specific dishes or ingredients, soul food represents a certain spirit, an attitude, a flamboyance, a kind of loving that one brings to the kitchen and stirs into the pots. In essence, it’s a flava. Soul food was then born in the slave quarters of southern plantations as our ancestors pieced together amazing meals mainly from scraps and leftovers.”
“Compounding ‘Gumbo’ or Okra Soup” (”Aunty Sarah”) near College Point, Louisiana, 1864, by David McNeely Stauffer.
Second, Nash tapped into the broader heritage, including not only traditional southern/soul dishes from plantation days, but also African, Caribbean, Creole, Cajun, and so on. She says: “Our flava reaches back across the waters to West Africa and beyond. Seeds, techniques, and taste memory traveled in our stash and in our hearts as we made the arduous journey to this country in shackles.”
Chef Teda Ftty serves West African cuisine at the Mother Land Cafe in New Orleans’ 7th Ward.
Nash brings this creative spirit and heritage to create “flava” today: “Our saving grace is that many traditional African American foods are excellent sources of vital nutrients….So the question becomes, how do we lose the health-harming effects and restore the power to our favorite dishes while preserving our time-honored tradition?”
Thanks to our dysfunctional healthcare system, Americans of all races try to practice self-care through diet, and food trends come and go. Much has changed since Nash published her key cookbooks some twenty years ago. Some today would argue, for instance, that animal fats such as lard are not as unhealthy (and that vegetable oils are not as healthy) as we once thought. Nonetheless, Nash’s understanding of what “soul food” is all about remains sound, and represents a legitimate interpretation of the tradition. At 72, she passed too young (from cancer), and her devotion to the culinary arts and to healthy eating will be missed.