Exactly 50 years ago today, The New York Times Book Review asked Toni Morrison to write an essay on a subject she knew intimately. Was it Black American History? Nope. Literature? Guess again! The struggle to relate fully and humanly to one another in a culture that defines love in proximity to ownership? Absolutely not! The Times asked Toni Morrison to write about summer cookouts.
Morrison was game. The article she dished up was less an essay about food and more a love letter to it—to a long summer day broken down into its “splendid parts: a ham, fried-potatoes, scrambled-egg, breakfast in the morning air; fried fish and pan-cooked biscuits on the hind side of noon” and an evening of oozing peach cobbler.
Today, Toni Morrison is identified as a national treasure, a literary genius, author of 11 earth-shattering novels, and the recipient of practically every international honor short of sainthood. But in 1973, The Times identified her…a little differently: “Toni Morrison, the author of The Bluest Eye, cooks on a proper stove in Spring Valley, NY.”
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Was Toni Morrison a secret foodie?
Morrison was fairly tight-lipped about her personal life. She vehemently urged her students against writing from their own personal experiences and tended to follow her own advice. But her fiction betrays a chef’s intimate knowledge of food: the process of making it, the pleasure of eating it. In Sula, Morrison likens a mother’s love for her child to “a pan of syrup kept too long on the stove, had cooked out, leaving only its odor and a hard, sweet sludge, impossible to scrape off”—an image only accessible to someone who has had to do their fair share of dishes. In Beloved, a character serves “bread pudding, murmuring her hopes for it, apologizing in advance the way”—Morrison knowingly observes—“veteran cooks always do.”
I started reading Toni Morrison novels around the same time I started cooking. I was in high school—maybe 16—growing fast and famished constantly. After school, I would eat peanut butter straight from the jar and rummage through Yahoo Answers for advice on how to manage my impending adulthood, the overwhelm of first love, and the general brutality and tedium of teenaged girlhood. Needless to say, I needed a better form of nourishment.
Since 1970, readers have been devouring Morrison’s books, hungry not just for great stories but also for wisdom—on how to love responsibly (“Love is not a gift. It is a diploma”), live fully (“Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage”), and quit while you’re ahead (“Good is knowing when to stop.”). I was floored by these insights but not entirely surprised; this was Toni Morrison, after all. But I also found something else in those pages, something I wasn’t expecting: practical dispatches from a clear culinary master.
In her writing, Morrison doesn’t just reflect her knowledge and love of food. She shares it. My first Morrison novel—read during a time period when I could not so much as boil an egg—was Song of Solomon. Toward the beginning of the story of homecoming and self-discovery, Morrison practically interrupts the narrative to provide (through the character of Pilate) this detailed and foolproof guide:
Now, the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing. One can’t get the upper hand over the other. So the temperature has to be the same for both. I knock the chill off the water first. Just the chill. I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see. Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling. When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles. Well, right then you take the pot off the fire. You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off. Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation. Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch. I generally go to the toilet. Nor for a long stay, mind you. Just a short one. If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft-boiled egg.
You could argue that this is a metaphor—but it’s also a real recipe! Having boiled a decade’s worth of eggs by this method, I can confirm: Just as the narrator promises, the whites are cooked through every time, and the yokes are “soft, but not runny…like velvet.”
Toni Morrison taught me that a goose “should be cooked on its breast, not its back,” to always “beat air into batter with a spoon instead of a machine,” and that chocolate melts most evenly in a wet saucepan. But rereading her summer cookout essay on its 50th anniversary, I am reminded of Morrison’s most profound cooking lesson—one that has nothing to do with poultry, appliances, or heat. In the essay’s final lines, Morrison writes, “We were all there. All of us, bound by something we could not name. Cooking, honey, cooking under the stars.”
Food is not just a source of individual nutrition or pleasure but a source of communion; nothing brings people together like a well-cooked meal. This idea isn’t exactly revolutionary, but at this moment—with the rise of meal delivery and in the wake of Ozempic’s promise (threat?) of a “life after food”—it bears repeating. We lose more than pounds when we stop relishing in the ritual and skill of cooking; we lose connection.
Good food, like good writing, has the power to shake us back into our bodies and out of our individual experience. Morrison’s description of fall foliage “smearing everything with oil paint” will pull goosebumps out of my skin just as surely and automatically as my uncle’s chili lime shrimp will pull water out of my eyes; both connect me to something universally human and both owe their richness to specific human histories, exchanges, and experiences. I am reminded, while eating and while reading, that I am not a brain in a jar but a human being in history and in community.
I first came to Toni Morrison’s fiction craving self-improvement: a recipe on how to live my life. But through her books (and the secret cooking lessons they contained), I learned that language is not simply a vehicle for transmitting information any more than food is simply a vehicle for transmitting calories. A meal, like a novel, is an experience—something to be savored and shared.
Charley is a Books Editor at Oprah Daily where she writes about authors, writing, and reading. She is also a freelance writer and audio journalist whose work has been featured in the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review, Agni, and on the Apple News Today podcast. She is currently completing an MFA in creative nonfiction at NYU and working on an essay collection about the intersection of grief, landscape, and urban design.