On a warm Friday night in October, jazz music mingles in the air with the smell of collard greens at Cafe Coda, a Black-owned music venue in Dane County.
Out front, the Adem Tesfaye Band has patrons dancing, and in the back room, Chef Yusuf Bin-Rella is preparing collard greens for the musicians and VIPs to have at their set break.
Inside a pressure cooker, greens, Scotch bonnet peppers, onions and garlic that were pulled from the dirt at Troy Farm on Madison’s north side by Bin-Rella about an hour prior were blending with bacon and smoked turkey. The result was a mouth-watering scent that lured people backstage.
Bin-Rella hadn’t necessarily planned to cook. He was at Cafe Coda to see friends and unwind, but he can’t resist feeding people.
“Food is the connector that connects everyone,” he said. “I like to cook for my community and feed my community. That’s my biggest thrill.”
Community is a major motivation for Bin-Rella. In a city that is 7% Black, finding, encouraging and celebrating community take work. It’s why he’s cooking foods of the African diaspora — with ingredients he helped grow — in the back room of a jazz club after a full shift as chef at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dejope Residence Hall.
This, he said, is not work. This is fun. This is supporting friends and enjoying the fellowship of his community. Bin-Rella is one of the founding members of TradeRoots Culinary Collective, a Madison-based group that focuses on growing and cooking with foods of the African diaspora.
Seeing and tasting the history
Bin-Rella committed to the mission after a trip to West Africa with a group led by chef and author Michael Twitty in 2018. They spent 15 days in Benin and Togo — places a DNA test told Bin-Rella his ancestors hail from — and it was a life-changing trip. The group met tribal leaders, visited villages and spent time at farms and cooking schools.
Bin-Rella said it gave him a new appreciation for and understanding of why Black people were taken from this part of the world and forced into slavery — they were very good at farming and agriculture. The damage that history of trauma has caused for Black Americans has compounded for generations, and urbanization has made it even more difficult for those who would be interested in farming or even gardening to have the land to do so.
Bin-Rella is working to reclaim the fact that the people who were stolen were brilliant farmers.
“I’d been growing food for the past few years, but when I went to Africa I realized I had to really step it up. We are historically farming people and agricultural people. I had to do my part to help carry on that legacy and learn it and reconnect,” Bin-Rella said. “A lot of things clicked for me. And then I was really dead set on what I had to do when I got back, which is to grow food and help feed the community and engage in my diaspora, and really touched the ground every day.”
With TradeRoots, Bin-Rella and business partner Sei Kidau have joined with Troy Farm to grow produce important to African cooking and the African diaspora.
The Scotch bonnet pepper is one of the hottest chiles in the world. A cultivar of the habanero, the small, spicy pepper named for its resemblance to a tam o’ shanter, is widely found in West Africa and the Caribbean and is one of the primary ingredients in Jamaican jerk spice.
Bin-Rella said he was told that the Scotch bonnet could not grow in Wisconsin, so he was determined to prove it could. The plants have prospered, and the demand for their crop has been high. TradeRoots sold everything that was harvested, almost all to one buyer.
The pandemic adjusted plans for how much TradeRoots was able to grow over the past two years, but Bin-Rella is happy with the start they made with a few crops. While the goal is a bigger yield and more crops, Bin-Rella is also focused on flavor.
“I grow for hedonism. For flavor. For dishes of food,” he said. “My goal is that I want more Black people just to grow that stuff. I just want to grow it all. This is a taste of Africa right here. Our goal is to take chances, grow high-risk vegetables in our climate.”
They also grew a successful crop of garden eggs — a small, roundish eggplant that is categorized as a berry but eaten like a vegetable.
Garden eggs are a plentiful and staple crop for many of African descent, and they hold a spiritual meaning, said to bring good luck, fortune and fertility. They’re difficult to find growing fresh in the United States, and Bin-Rella said some customers break down in tears over finding them in Madison.
Reconnecting with the land
Land access is something that many Black Americans have not had, especially in cities. That’s where the partnership with Troy Farm, through the organization Rooted, has been so important. TradeRoots is growing and selling food, and Bin-Rella is cooking some of it, but the produce has also been included in some of Rooted’s community-supported agriculture boxes and boxes for families with limited incomes.
“Not only was it great for TradeRoots, but it was great for (Troy Farms) to be able to learn about those crops. We’ll be able to offer those crops to some of our members,” said Paul Huber, farm director at Troy Farm.
Working with TradeRoots has also helped Troy Farm build trust in its neighborhood and provide access to land to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
“Our mission is collaboration rooted in food, land and learning. It’s a community space, truly, in every sense of the word. This land, Troy Farm, has been seen as a white space. People don’t necessarily feel welcome. We really want to change that. It’s a start just to get people to know us and hopefully build some trust,” Huber said.
More: Chef, gardener and entrepreneur Artaynia Westfall teaches children how to ‘feed themselves with knowledge’
More: Madison chef and legislator wins a Bon Appetit magazine award
More: When her Madison cafe closed, woman turned the recipes into a cookbook
Trust is a vital part of conversations about land access and food sovereignty. Bin-Rella said he’s learned a lot from Indigenous leaders in Wisconsin and around the Midwest who have been doing work on food sovereignty, seed keeping and reclaiming foodways for much longer than he has.
“We all have a story about why we exist, and a lot of it has to do with the food and the things that nurture us that we put in our stomachs and we give to our babies,” Greg Johnson, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said at a Harvest Dinner Bin-Rella took part in. “Food sovereignty is important. It gives us an identity. Without food sovereignty, we’re just descendants of people who used to have it. Living it and breathing it every day is a very, very important part of being here on Earth.”
Indigenous people and members of the African diaspora have common experiences in colonization.
“The Black experience in the Americas and the Indigenous experiences in the Americas are intertwined. When we have conversations and when we recognize the intersectional experiences of BIPOC folks in the United States, and can share with each other and support each other, that’s a very powerful thing,” said Shelley Buffalo, a member of the Meskwaki tribe and food sovereignty consultant who has worked numerous pop-up cooking events alongside Bin-Rella.
Bin-Rella made connections with Indigenous chefs after helping at a Madison-area fundraiser for the Standing Rock protests in 2016 and then visited North Dakota to help deliver supplies. There he cleaned and chopped vegetables, anything that was needed, he said.
He met Brian Yazzie, a well-known Indigenous chef and activist from St. Paul, Minnesota. When Bin-Rella returned to Madison, he took part in pop-up events at the invitation of Yazzie, where he met and became friends and collaborators with Dan Cornelius. Bin-Rella works with Cornelius regularly on events.
Recently, the two were part of a group that included Wisconsin state Rep. Francesca Hong that hosted a Harvest Meal on Cornelius’ farm in Stoughton put on by REAP Food Group. Proceeds went to Feeding Wisconsin’s Tribal Elder Food Box Program.
Bin-Rella said he has learned from Indigenous food sovereignty advocates.
“They’ve really fought hard to reclaim their traditional ways,” Bin-Rella said. “They’re more concentrated on that effort than we (Black Americans) are as a people, but it won’t always be that way.”
One way he works to ensure change in the African diaspora is to invite Black chefs, farmers and other members of the food supply chain to pop-up dinners and food summits. He said he feels like a lot of Black food sovereignty work is academic and can feel theoretical. When he invites people to summits or pop-up meals, they are getting hands-on experience.
Bin-Rella invited Qwantese Winters, a curator of culture and farmer at Troy Farm, to an event, and she continues to come back to support him.
“It’s important to me that I’m a part of these pop-ups because I believe that they are a part of creating a new story for BIPOC culinarians and culture preservers in Madison. Being able to help Yusuf create and share his meals is like being able to help him share his stories. And these stories (meals) and the beautiful process of creating them are all a part of drawing the Madison community into a relationship with the land, and a new passion for food autonomy,” she said.
Meals for the ages
Trying to recreate stories drives Bin-Rella. We cannot bring back our ancestors, but we can come pretty close to understanding what their life was like and capture their experience through food.
Bin-Rella calls this culinary genealogy. He uses ingredients, recipes and meals to bridge time and space so he can relate and connect to his ancestors.
“Cooking Grandma’s cornbread, that’s culinary genealogy. I’ll never hold her hand again, but I can taste that cornbread, make it the same way she made and pass that down. It’s Evelyn O’Kelley’s cornbread,” Bin-Rella said. It’s “just really connecting to your roots and making those foods that are from your DNA, from your foodways. And then recording that pilgrimage, for yourself and your diaspora.”
For him, it’s never just about what’s on a plate. Food is nourishment and encouragement. It inspires and it helps set the scene.
Studying food can tell you about location and economics, era and class. Recreating recipes using the ingredients originally used to make them — down to the right strain of corn or okra — is as close as we can get to time travel, Bin-Rella said.
“It’s so much easier for me to navigate my genetics through food. Food, to me, is my relatives. That’s the connection that I want to reestablish and give people a taste of it. It’s the only way that you can really” relate to history, he said.
By his own admission, Bin-Rella needs to find work-life balance. He rarely says “no,” and he often is looking for ways to get involved and learn.
Saying “Do you need a hand?” has taken him all over the world. It’s given Bin-Rella entree to events and kitchens and helped him meet chefs and make connections.
“He knows that understanding where our food comes from is how we understand ourselves and how to better relate to one another, and that’s why weaving in these different cultures is such a passion of his …
“It’s really beautiful. I’ve watched him evolve as a chef. For him to really come into his own now but still make it about other people is what makes Yusuf a beautiful human being,” Hong said.
Bin-Rella takes it all in stride. He loves what he does. It’s hard work, and most of what he does comes in the evenings after he’s spent all day preparing meals for thousands of students.
Most of the money he makes goes back into TradeRoots to buy new equipment to aid in future projects. He’s hoping to buy a commercial dehydrator and wants to do more canning and pickling of vegetables from the garden.
But there is plenty Bin-Rella loves about the life he has created. Cooking outside all the time in austere environments with incredible chefs is a dream, he said. He gets access to fresh, unique and delicious ingredients and then he gets to feed people.
There’s a freedom to his lifestyle. He has a front-row seat to some amazing meals and events.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s me, that people are here to see me. I’m still blown away by that. It’s definitely a labor of love. It’s very rewarding. It’s the dream. It’s a challenge. I’ve been fortunate,” he said.
The trip to Africa was filmed and is intended to be turned into a documentary, but that has been held up by the pandemic. But that’s OK with Bin-Rella, who sees that trip as a starting point.
Everyone on that trip has the mission to go finish their own documentary, he said. The story isn’t about what they did but where the trip leads them. There is no completion, he said.
His documentary is in progress.
Food sovereignty: A group effort
These are some Madison-area groups that support each other, put on events and collaborate on issues of food and land access, food sovereignty and ancestral foodways.
TradeRoots is made up of farmers and chefs who have roots in both Wisconsin and West Africa. They focus on growing and cooking with crops of the African diaspora, as well as hosting and taking part in pop-up culinary events.
Rooted is an organization that supports Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, School for Urban Agriculture and Troy Farm, among other initiatives. Rooted is “committed to collaborations rooted in food, land, and learning so that people can grow and thrive in healthy, equitable, and sustainable neighborhoods.”
REAP Food Group
REAP’s mission is “to transform communities, economies and lives through the power of good food.” The group envisions “a thriving local food system where all people have access to good food, grown well.”
Programs include farm-to-school and farm-to-business initiatives, as well as the Farm Fresh Atlas, which features Wisconsin farms, farmers markets, restaurants, stores and other businesses that sell local food and use sustainable practices.
Feeding Wisconsin Tribal Food Security
Feeding Wisconsin “works with Tribal partners to support programs that increase nutrition security to ensure that all Tribal members have the food that they need and desire, and Tribal food sovereignty by expanding support and capacity of Tribal producers.” The Harvest Dinner raised money for its Tribal Elder Food Box Program.
Wild Bearies “is an educational, community outreach nonprofit that strives to bring ancestral foods to communities in a nurturing and nourishing way.” It provides mentorship opportunities and works “in cooperation with the Indigenous Seed Savers Network as well as Dream of Wild Health in continuing the stewardship of ancestral seeds.”
Credit: Source link