a sweet potato Dutch baby in a blue pan

Pecans and Buttermilk in a Brooklyn Kitchen: My Food Journey from South to North

For many Black Americans, our personal food history begins with a robust larder.

This article is part of our series, Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans left the South and settled in the rest of the United States, bringing rich culinary traditions with them—sweet potato pie, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, barbecue and so much more.

All eyes have been on the soil where I was born, a place where Arkansas Black apples perch in the Blue Ridge mountains and satsuma oranges dangle in the South Georgia groves' winter light—an edible geographic contrast that fades or comes into focus when racial politics inspire a new generation to move below or above the Mason-Dixon line. The Peach State's new power structure points to Black American's pliancy to carve out refuge where opportunities are ripe. Leaving home and falling into the bustle of a big city means cherishing the specialness of a place and ingredients no longer in arm's reach. The flavors of home are present along every winding route.

As a young person, I read award-winning writer and activist and fellow Georgia native Alice Walker, who was raised in Eatonton, Georgia, the exact location where I attended Rock Eagle 4-H summer camp (named for a Native American effigy mound on-site). Walker's stories of women, power and gardens paint vivid pictures of rural Black life. The taste of oppression fades with her writing of black-eyed Susans, scuppernongs and "jars of canned vegetables." Walker crafts words that give the courage to grab a giant mixing bowl for a labor-intensive dough or a reminder that sitting still and shining bright is fine too. After graduating first in her high school class, Walker left town for Atlanta and then Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

In 2008, I followed the same path as many African Americans and moved to New York City. Unlike my ancestors, I left behind a comfortable lifestyle for the gritty navigation of hauling grocery bags up to a fourth-floor walk-up apartment. A notable Black restaurateur's baritone voice once said to me, "You move around like a Mary Kay lady." I often reflect on his pointed description of my personality and took it as a flattering moniker—I have perfected getting the most interesting people around a dinner table to believe in one singular vision. As an early podcaster for Heritage Radio Network, and one of the first employees for the Brooklyn Food Coalition, I was an accidental member of a creative group that flocked to Brooklyn and helped transform the language around how eaters spoke about restaurants and dining at home. The blue-collar values of my upbringing provided a roadmap of how to thrive. I lived through the hope of President Barack Obama, rose above the last decade's economic hardships and navigated food's rise to rock-star status.

Nicole A. Taylor

My youth's pantry staples—full-fat buttermilk, pecans, sweet potatoes, dried hot peppers—are highly prized treasures and my forever starting point.

— Nicole A. Taylor
a sweet potato Dutch baby in a blue pan
Jerrelle Guy

Get Nicole A. Taylor's Sweet Potato Dutch Baby recipe.

Today, I remix and interpret (just as I remembered) my familial foods based on experiences exploring farms, markets and specialty stores. My great-aunt Bessie Goolsby's bouncy yeast rolls are converted to cardamom-laced cinnamon buns every Christmas morning. I put on a traditional pot of zipper peas with pork bits or no-sugar cast-iron cornbread to soothe cold weeknights. My youth's pantry staples—full-fat buttermilk, pecans, sweet potatoes, dried hot peppers—are highly prized treasures and my forever starting point. Roasted sweet potatoes become a savory pie with fancy cheeses. And my recipe for a savory Dutch baby flecked with sweet potato bits takes weeknight dinners up a notch and reminds me of the hanging wire basket of potatoes in my Georgia childhood kitchen.

When the scenery changes around me, I spend all my time cooking in the kitchen and making sure I'm stocked with my basics. Not just this month but year-round, my foundation is honored. The journey to a new point puts a value on memories; staying put gets you nowhere. Let's go!

Nicole A. Taylor is the author of The Up South Cookbook and The Last O.G. Cookbook, and has written for the New York Times, Departures, Atlas Obscura and Food & Wine. Follow Taylor on Instagram @foodculturist.

Photographs by Jerrelle Guy. Follow Guy on Instagram @chocolateforbasil.

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