Classic American cooking in Californian heartland

What could be more delicious and traditional than light crisp waffles dripping with cider syrup, made to order in the vibrant Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland?   Learn with me how to make them (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdd0ud-8ny4) and check out the recipes at www.bakingblind.com

Tanya Holland of the Brown Sugar Kitchen has built the reputation of her great Brown Sugar Kitchen restaurant on the traditions and community of West Oakland: across the Bay from San Francisco where African Americans working on the railway thrived, built homes and established their own culinary history.   Now everyone with a taste for authenticity travels from far and wide to share great food cooked with passion and pzazz.  No wonder Tanya is already looking to expand her Brown Sugar Kitchen.

Tanya explained the background of her food, “Soul food is the cooking that developed from what the Africans brought to this country, what ingredients they found in the South and what they brought with them.  The fusion of cultures that, over time, has produced dishes, such as fried chicken, gumbo, corn bread or Mac and cheese, that are associated with an African American cuisine.”

She allowed me to take part in a lunch time service: an open kitchen full of hustle and bustle, happy cooks and even happier customers.  There was huge pace, noise and boisterousness amongst the fellow chefs working in the galley-style kitchen – to the great amusement and entertainment of their clients.

Last week I shared Tanya’s shrimp and grits, this week it is a wonderful waffle that gains its lightness from both yeast and baking soda – so light you’d hardly guess that there’s a calorie in sight!  And the recipe is readily adapted to the home kitchen.

Tanya is rightly proud of the Oakland heritage and has commissioned local artists to capture the history and culture in the restaurant’s art works.  But, like any community, people and cuisines change: Tanya is at the forefront of embracing the current demands for organic and seasonal food which, in turn, attracts even more diverse and discriminating customers.

I also enjoyed the excellent homemade hot chocolate topped with their own marshmallows and a red velvet cake but missed out on the intriguing peanut butter cake which had all been sold.

This was a really terrific cooking experience that brought great American cooking alive for me – I’d had too much muddled fast food over previous days so it was a delight to be amongst real cooks again.

And all thanks to the Holman prize awarded by San Francisco’s LightHouse for blind and visually impaired people.

Penny

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Ben and Blanche saved us

Genuine friendship and generosity was the hallmark of my baking Blind tour (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90jr_YL1Fbs).  It made all the difference right from the very start when, by complete chance, I met Ben and Blanche over dinner in San Francisco.  They were fellow guests alongside myself and the two other winners of the Holman prize for blind people hosted by the city’s LightHouse organisation who were funding and running the competition.  I’d been staying in the LightHouse accommodation throughout our induction week – it is very geared up to their training function with the sort of communal washing facilities and shared accommodation that took me straight back to my days as a new entry trainee in the royal Navy in the 1970s.  Then I needed to move to a hotel in the city for the start of my project and what a rude shock that turned out to be!

Keeping costs down was a priority so I’d found an economic hotel through my travel company, Bridge the World.    But the request for an accessible disability-friendly room had clearly got lost in translation mid-Atlantic!  The bathroom was almost too hazardous to use at all and there was no possibility of me leaving the room for the 36 hours before Toby, my videographer, arrived.  Top marks go to the reception staff who volunteered to bring me food as there was no restaurant –  but I did get a bit fed up with pizza every time.  The hotel management simply didn’t understand the concept of disability accessible at any point from the very steep entry steps, the risky corridors and the ancient lift (or should I say elevator?).

It was simply a matter of staying put, barely moving around the room and waiting for the chance to escape.  And what a relief that Ben and Blanche had spontaneously offered us accommodation just a day earlier.  We were due to move our activities across the San Francisco Bay next day and their home was going to be much more sensible for locations in Oakland and Berkeley.

If you have seen the two videos of me cooking with Luis at China Live in the city, you saw me at rather a low spot: tired after two days in the miserable hotel, despondent about the accommodation and desperate to escape.  Which is exactly what we did within an hour of completing the session: bags packed, in to a taxi and over the Bridge to the warm and genuine welcome of Ben and Blanche.  He is also visually impaired, hence his connection to LightHouse, but a great sailor who regaled us with his tales of the sea.  Blanche was the hostess with the mostest kindness and care.  It felt like coming home!

So, by the next day, after a decent night’s sleep and supper of real rather than processed food cooked by foodie Ben, we were raring to go at the renowned Oakland Brown Sugar Kitchen.  This gave me a glimpse of the traditional Southern food – this week I’m learning about Creole shrimp and grits and chef-owner Tanya Holland (www.brownsugarkitchen.com  www.tanyaholland.com) has shared her Creole spice mix and recipe (www.bakingblind.com) with us.  Next week, her waffles and fried chicken for those who want the real American versions.

Penny

Letter from America.

Am I going to survive this adventure?  So far, it has been pretty touch and go with about 12 hours of activities every day, still not sleeping much due to the time differences and trying to keep up with all the information and new experiences (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQXRXfOINO8).  But hasn’t it been fun and exciting meeting the Holman prize co-winners Ojok and Ahmet plus all the LightHouse team!  A wild round of meetings, breakfasts, lunches, briefings, trips, video shoots, interviews, catching up on the washing, technical IT training and lots more.

Drama of the first week was Ojok struggling to make his trip from Uganda after passport difficulties but he finally got here four days later and still was an absolute whizz when we visited one of the local bee farms.  He brought samples of his own honey which was completely different: smokey and spicey.

We’ve had lots of San Francisco food and the most odd was being offered a salad of “massaged kale”.  I had visions of Swedish-style cooks giving the reluctant leaves a good rub down in the kitchens so it was a bit disillusioning to hear that all they do is toss the kale in to brine.  But massaging is all the rage and a bit more authentic elsewhere: scrunching up the kale once it has been dressed with oil and vinegar to soften up the stems etc.

I’ve already posted the honey cake recipe I made while Ahmet and Ojok were sailing in the San Francisco Bay – I get too seasick to have joined them.  And there are lots more recipes to come from all the restaurants where I’ve been cooking once we have managed to edit the videos: peach galettes from One Market, seagrass cake and passion fruit mousse from China Live, barbecued shrimp and grits plus fried chicken and waffles from the Brown Sugar Kitchen, a bounty of different sourdough focaccia breads from the Cheeseboard Collective – and you wonder why I don’t sleep much!

My top drama of the week was escaping from a truly awful hotel where I spent the weekend solo and where they didn’t have the slightest idea about disability or accessibility.  I was rescued by Ben (another blind sailor) and Blanche who’d I’d met last Friday.  They welcomed Toby and I in to their Oakland home and have given us a real taste of wonderful, heart-warming American hospitality.   In a city of fast-action, hipster development and energy, there’s still the great friendship and kindness that has given this trip an outstanding start.

Finally, there is still that difference in language (the old potato and tomato “let’s call the whole thing off” song).  I was really taken aback to be called “bad arse” – not quite the done thing in the UK to have one’s posterior the subject of adverse comment – but it seems to be rather more positive here:   tough, competent and relentless!

Thank you to the LightHouse for all of these fabulous images and the experience itself!

 

Penny