Lazarus Lynch on the politics and healing power of food: It's "the conduit for all beautiful things"

Lynch views his role as chef as innately political, saying "we vote with our dollars, and we vote with our plates"

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published July 3, 2020 6:32PM (EDT)

Lazarus Lynch (Author photo provided by Penguin Random House)
Lazarus Lynch (Author photo provided by Penguin Random House)

This is part one of a two-part interview with chef Lazarus Lynch.

It's been one year now since Lazarus Lynch released his debut cookbook, "Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul." The journey of sharing his soul food bible with the world left an indelible mark on Lynch, and the colorful and vibrant book was unlike any Southern cookbook that came before it. In the process, the chef gained a newfound sense of empowerment and ownership of his own narrative, which includes openly identifying as a Black queer person.

Three hundred and sixty-five days later, the landscape looks not only different for Lynch but also for America as a whole. The nation reels from a pandemic and a recession, both of which have impacted Black Americans at a disproportionate rate. In the wakes of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, America also finds itself confronted with a national reckoning on race.

Lynch is quick to remind us that these struggles are not new for Black Americans. "They are issues that we, as a community, have been given Band-Aid solutions for and have never received true reforms or systemic change," he tells Salon. 

RELATED: Inspired by his dad, Lazarus Lynch's peach cobbler is the dessert you'll want to bake all summer

As a Black chef in America, Lynch views his role as inherently political. The production and sale of food, as well as who has access to it and the land it is grown on all politicize our plates. The history of food in America is intertwined with the history of enslaved people. We vote with our dollars, and so we vote with our plates.

"Who we are is in the aromas of our kitchens. It comes out in our Sazón, in our Lawry's seasoned salt, in our Jiffy cornbread. It comes out in our biscuits, in our fried chicken and in our okra," Lynch says. "We must know not just about where that food comes from — not just about the Edna Lewises, the Leah Chases of the world — but we must also understand that growing our own food gives us ownership in a way that simply just telling the story through cooking doesn't."

Politics aside, food also has the ability to nourish and heal our bodies, which may be needed now more than ever. 

RELATED: We promise you've never had shrimp and grits like these before

"Food has the power to heal — and not just heal bodies — but heal hearts, heal spaces and bring up important conversations around healing," Lynch adds.

When Lynch last appeared on "Salon Talks," he showed us how to make a sweet take on grilled cheese that's ooey, gooey and delicious. You can watch more of Lynch cooking up some of his beloved recipes here after you read a Q&A of our new conversation below, which also includes a poignant discussion about comfort food.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.



It's been one year since "Son of a Southern Chef" came out. First, congratulations on that milestone.

Thank you.

Where has the journey of having your book come out and sharing it with the world taken you this past year?

You know, it's really been a journey about getting to know myself better. It brought me closer and into a more intimate experience with myself, in terms of knowing who I am. I think the book, by nature, is an explorative journey of my history, my story, my roots. And channeling that through food and through the legacy of my father, Johnny "Ray" Lynch, who inspired me to cook and ultimately inspired me to have a career in the food industry and to write this book.

But what I didn't anticipate was how close it would bring me to myself and to really taking me on a journey of self-discovery in ways I didn't anticipate. One of the biggest learnings for me after the book was not just how many people it could reach or how many readers have now become Lazarus Lynch aka "Son of a Southern Chef" fans but the personal realization for me that this is only the beginning of my storytelling. And there's so much more to be discovered.

It also gave me a platform to openly identify as a Black gay man, as a Black queer person. The discussion came about through several interviews and phone calls, which I didn't anticipate. The sort of early responses from the book were, "This is so beautiful, this is so vibrant, this is so colorful. Oh, by the way, this is so queer." And I don't ever remember being on the record saying that I identify as a queer man. But that was the perception — and that was an accurate perception. But that really gave me the platform to openly share my sexuality and to own it in a way that I had never owned it before. 

RELATED: Buy a copy of "Son of a Southern Chef" from an independent book store

And the last thing I'll tell you is the way that I think about career now is very different than the way I thought about my career prior to releasing "Son of a Southern Chef." The way I used to think about my career was that it was like these stepping stones: You get a couple of appearances, you do a couple of shows, you host a couple of shows, you write your book, you write your next book and then you open your own business. And it just kind of builds, and builds and builds.

Now, I don't care about any of those things. Like, I don't care about that. And when I say I don't care about that, I mean I feel so connected to the path that I'm on. This path is the path that feels the most right to me. It's the path of social justice. My work, by nature, is political, because my existence in this country is political. It is the path of I don't have to bow before anybody's throne or anybody's position to fulfill and live the life that I have to live as an artist, as a creator, as a Black gay man in this country. That I can reclaim all those titles, and that I can express what I want to express at the level I want to express it without the permission of what people expect. Or without that pattern of, "You must do this before you do that."

I think that's maybe why I'm seen as a radical in the field of cooking, especially amongst the Black chefs or amongst people of color. Because I just don't GAF. You know, I just don't. And I think that sense of liberation, and that sense of empowerment and that sense of really owning my own narrative is very powerful. And it is connected with the past year.

We're seeing a pandemic and a social justice movement unfold before our very eyes. Did recent events also influence you along this journey of self-discovery and gaining confidence in yourself?

Well, the truth is that these events have always been here. They are not new, and they are not new for the Black community. They are issues that we, as a community, have been given Band-Aid solutions for and have never received true reforms or systemic change. And so what we're seeing now is this emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and activism. And, to be honest with you, if you're Black in America, you are an activist. And if you care about these issues, you are an activist. But what we're seeing — the emergence of these voices now coming up and saying, "It's not just enough to tell us that affordable healthcare is a thing. It's not just enough to tell us that we're going to get a little bit of a check because of what we're going through. It's not enough to just say that we're going to reform the police department. It's not enough."

The conversation we are having today really revolves around the change in institutions, even in the literary space. There have been real conversations brought up about, "How do we change the system?" Again, approach is not enough. You have to change the system so that Black Lives Matter, all lives matter, all Black Lives Matter. And that's the conversation you have now.

So I think that where I've sort of been able to define the space for me is as simple as my Twitter platform. You know, as simple as my Instagram platform. Those are ways of communicating ideas to people, to help people or support them in doing the individual work of confronting their own biases, of confronting their own racism, of confronting their own phobias. That is sort of the immediate daily work that I get to do with both an audience and a platform on social media. Attending a protest, getting involved in a local organization or community that is fighting for these issues in the struggle for liberation.

Coronavirus impacts African-Americans in this country at a disproportionate rate. It's not the result of the coronavirus. It's the result of underlying systemic issues of poverty and healthcare, etc. Which, again, has been here before the coronavirus, has been here before the death of George Floyd, has been here before 2020.

I read your incredibly moving Washington Post column which marked Juneteenth. You discuss how food is an essential part of Juneteenth celebrations, and you affirm that food is political. Why do you view food as political? And do you thus view your work as a chef through the lens of politics and activism? 

From the beginning of time, the production of food, the growing of food, the nourishing of the ground, the tilling of the land, the production in all facets of food is a human practice. It is an ancient human practice. Now when we put that practice into the context of American agriculture, and put that into the context of American capitalism and we put that into the context of the enslavement of Black people, what we start to see is that the basic human techniques and practices of growing food have become politicized. That the production, and sale and who has access to what has become politicized. It has become a market. It has become a tool of wealth for usurping authority and taking advantage of an individual who grows that food and produces that food. In the context of this American culture, food has always been about who it belongs to, who it doesn't belong to, who has access and who doesn't have access.

The ownership of land in this country is huge. It's a huge conversation. And where I see myself in this conversation as a Black American, as a Black chef, is that the very grounds that are growing and producing this food to serve humanity are the very grounds that my ancestors worked on and built and laid the foundations for.

So land ownership is where my heart is right now. And how I go about that? What does it look like to grow my own food? This is a serious issue that came from the pandemic: where people were panicking, people were living in scarcity, people were living in fear about what's going to happen to the food supply. That's why we saw people shopping like crazy, and people in my family were guilty of that.

For me, it comes back to this conversation of ownership, of who owns the land that food is grown on. Black people don't own the land. And so what's important for me as a thought leader, as a Black person in this country, as a chef, is to really think about how do I invest into the larger issue here, which is about ownership.

And the other reason why it's inherently political is because we vote with our dollars, and we vote with our plates. And who we are is in the aromas of our kitchens. It comes out in our Sazón, in our Lawry's seasoned salt, in our Jiffy cornbread. It comes out in our biscuits, in our fried chicken and in our okra. We must know not just about where that food comes from — not just about the Edna Lewises, the Leah Chases of the world — but we must also understand that growing our own food gives us ownership in a way that simply just telling the story through cooking doesn't.

Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate. Black Americans like George Floyd are dying in the custody of police. At a time when there is so much loss, does food also have a healing power?

Yes. Yes, it does. I mean, food is the conduit for all beautiful things like joy, and love and harmony. And when we sit at a table, as I say in the [Washington Post] article that was built by our ancestors and Black people, and we come together, we draw strength from each other. And food has always been the central way of doing that.

The other part of this is that food is literally medicine that's sustainable. Food has the power to heal — and not just heal bodies — but heal hearts, heal spaces and bring up important conversations around healing. And I think that's what the future of my social justice work, as I'm calling it, looks like. It's about gathering people. Not just another dinner party, right? We know what that means. It's not just another time for people to come together.

But it's really about elevating discussion and conversations that would be transformative, and allowing the food to speak, metaphorically, for those different conversations and for those different kinds of forums. And so it is about sort of understanding the ancient practices of — my friend was explaining to me her grandmother used okra as a Band-Aid for her growing up, because they didn't have enough money to buy Band-Aids. So they used the slime from the okra, which is a ucilaginous vegetable or fruit, and would apply that to her cuts. And it would heal her in several days, compared to the Band-Aid, which would might take several weeks. So we know food is medicine. We know it can be applied that way.

And on Juneteenth, particularly, I was very elated that people were acknowledging it this year. I mean, I remember last year, I went to a Juneteenth party, and I felt like I was the only person in Brooklyn celebrating Juneteenth. And this year, people were out of work. I was getting out of office responses, "I was getting I'm not available in honor of . . ." And so this is progress. And I heard a lot of people say that, "I cooked your jerk chicken. I made your cornbread. I made your shrimp and grits. I made your this, or your that." That made me feel good. It's a starting point for all people, particularly people who are not Black or people of color, to begin to do the work of doing the research and to educating their mind around issues that affect Black and brown people in this country.

I've been thinking about comfort food lately, and your Food Network series actually has the word "comfort" in its name. In the context of the pandemic, publications have heralded the return of comfort food. My roommate is from Mexico. When he wanted comfort food one day, he said: "I want a really good caldo tlalpeño." I replied, "I have my abuela's recipe for that. I'll make it." I ended up sharing it on Salon's website, however that's not a recipe I saw on any other website's list of comfort foods to make while social distancing. So it made me ask, "What is comfort food, and who decides what comfort food is?" 

It's a very interesting question. It's sort of like saying, "Who gets to define what your favorite meal is? Who gets to define what your favorite song is?" I mean, it's always about what you want. It's always about your palette and your ability to discern for yourself what that is. But I think a sort of larger issue here is that people think of comfort food as disconnected from holistic living. Right? People think of comfort food, often, as an escape from, as a vacation from, as something that you should not enjoy all the time.

And I think that that is a very dangerous sort of association that we make when we talk about comfort food, because at it's core, comfort food is that what comforts you. It doesn't necessarily need to look like what comforts me. And sometimes that's a bowl of gumbo, and sometimes that's a salad and sometimes that's a fruit that is just ripe and ready to eat. It's what speaks to my heart and soul at that time. And that brings me back to a space of safety, or a place of home.

The negative associations — the connotations that are often derived from comfort food — don't encourage people to really go inward. But that's what comfort food is meant to do. It's meant to bring you closer to that internal space of what brings you safety — what brings you a feeling of home — rather than an escape from yourself. Does that make sense?

Ready to get cooking some comfort food? Click here to purchase a copy of Lazarus Lynch's "Son of a Southern Chef."

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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Black Lives Matter Cooking Food Juneteenth Lazarus Lynch Politics Recipes Southern Food