This White Woman Learns to Read a Black Man’s Memoir

It was my intent this week to get on my soap box and air my grievances about the flooded market of so-called memoirs. For the most part, I don’t like or don’t trust them. Memory is slippery. There is often an agenda. Frequently, they feel whiny to me. Or the writer has an ax to grind.

And I am unforgiving when an autobiography is called a memoir. When the book starts at birth and takes you through the person’s entire life IT IS NOT A MEMOIR. It is an autobiography. A different beast altogether.

I was going to compare what I thought was a rich, authentic, food memoir, Ruth Reichl’s, Save Me the Plums, the story of her time as Editor-in-Chief at Gourmet magazine and Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes Chef, a memoir of his life’s journey from orphan to celebrity chef.

GIVEN WHAT HAS FINALLY BROKEN OPEN RIGHT NOW IN STREETS ACROSS AMERICA, WHAT I WAS GOING TO TALK ABOUT IS UTTERLY UNIMPORTANT AND BESIDE THE POINT.

Whatever I felt when I was reading Samuelsson’s book has absolutely changed for me. I read it the first time with my bias against the genre fully intact. I resented him skimming over the surface of his life, leaving so many parts of his journey unexplored —his lack of introspection, the un-memoir of it all, the lack of any emotional feel. 

On my second read, I was appalled at myself. Amazed that I could be that unaware of my white privilege, struck by my easy passage through life, blending freely without a thought. I wore it on every page as Samuelsson apprenticed in one white inhabited kitchen after another. Shame on me.

He chose a cowriter, Veronica Chambers, experienced in writing books about our contemporary celebrity black heroes—Beyonce, Michelle Obama, Robin Roberts, Michael Straham, even Shirley Chisholm. She must know what she’s doing.  

Veronica Chambers

Samuelsson showed his warts and failings. He didn’t dwell on them and I just didn’t see them first time around. He understood the only way to survive, thrive, and master this world was by keeping focused, his head down, his emotions intact and bound up, by traveling quietly in this hostile world, feeling for its soft spots. He showed his mistakes (and some were whoppers—no spoilers here) but didn’t dwell on them for our eyes. 

Let me back up and give you a window in to what this man experienced.  

He was born in Ethiopia in a small village amidst a scourge of tuberculosis. Both he, his sister, and mother contracted it but his mother managed to get them to a hospital in Addis Ababa. The children survived but she did not.

When he was three, he and his sister were adopted by a loving white Swedish family, but racial tension was always there and he was bullied in high school. Did you know that in Swedish basketball is referred to as Negerbol?.  

He discovered his love of cooking through his Grandma Helga, his Mormor, and once he decided he wanted to become a chef, that was it. He never took his eye off the ball.

Through apprenticeships in Sweden and then throughout Europe in Austria, Switzerland, Germany and France, we learn he is always the only black man, he always keeps his nose to grindstone, and always works longer and harder than anyone else. But he also was so anxious he threw up before shifts. Another obnoxious factoid: In European kitchens, the word for the person who does the scut work, the low man in the hierarchy, is negre. Ouch.

 When he first came to new York, he felt at home. Black people all around for the first time!  He loved tasting the new flavors in all the ethnic neighborhoods and discoveries he made at the never-ending food carts. But he soon sees that all is never as it first seems.

Trips to Ethiopia that united him with his birth family and the flavors of his country awakened his taste buds and gave him many creative food ideas to meld with the food of his adopted country, the formal cuisine of Europe and the wide variety of ethnic food he discovered here in America. His desire wherever he went was to ‘chase flavors’  and find a way to creatively  combine them. If we could only blend like this as people

His life had its tremendous highs and lows but there isn’t a box on the list of Chef Achievements he hasn’t checked. James Beard award. Top Chef Masterchef. White House State Dinner. Head Chef in the finest restaurants. The coveted stars awarded to his restaurants.

Now, living and working in Harlem with his Red Rooster Restaurant , he is in his own comfort zone with his cuisine and he is at the helm of his own empire. I feel I don’t know that much about Marcus Samuelsson personally. But I do know this. What he achieved was remarkable. But what helped make it make it over the top remarkable was us. He is off the charts successful in a completely inhospitable world he navigated on his own. He gives new meaning to a self made man.

There isn’t much more to say. This isn’t a book review. But I did learn something about myself this week . It’s obvious but then so is everything else we are in denial about, racially speaking.

I missed the value of reading this book because I read it wanting something he couldn’t give me. It was right there, unspoken, between the lines. I should have understood that. And that is part of the problem.

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