New Bookshop Focuses on Black-Authored Cookbooks (and More!)
A Q&A with owners Gabrielle and Danielle Davenport.
Howdy cookbook fans!
For today’s issue, I spoke with Gabrielle Davenport and Danielle Davenport, the sisters behind the just-launched (two weeks ago!) BEM Books & More. Call it a bookshop plus: as the Davenports tell me in the interview below, BEM is a digital (for now) space that celebrates the cookbooks and food books of the African diaspora. And they have plans for so much more. You can follow them on Instagram or Twitter, or check out their website.
Below, the Davenports talk about the diversity of Black food, a childhood spent cooking with their mom, their plans for the future, and some of their favorite cookbooks.
Let’s start by introducing the project: what is BEM Books & More?
Gabrielle Davenport: BEM Books & More is an online literary home for all things related to food and Black folks, and celebrating the way that we eat across the diaspora. It was started to serve as a resource, because [while] we had our favorite places to get cookbooks, we hadn't yet come across something like this, that was specific to Black folks and food.
Danielle Davenport: We're both passionate readers and deep lovers of food—eating and cooking and thinking about food and talking about food—and that permeates everything we do. So we were thinking about a way to bring together some of the things that we're most passionate about, or that mean the most to our culture, the broadest way of connecting across the cultures. What are the things that we have in common, in terms of centering on the African diaspora? And bringing together food and words, even at the outer edges of that Venn diagram? I love a cookbook about Black people, I’m 100% for it. But there are also things like that novel that has just a few lines that evoke something culinary in a way that’s a big part of what you remember about the book years later. That's also worth sharing and celebrating and bringing into the conversation.
What’s your background like, what led you to launching BEM?
GD: We are sisters. There's just the two of us as siblings. Before we started this project, we spent a lot of time talking about food and cooking and what we were eating and what we were reading. And so it seemed like a sort of natural outgrowth from there. We both live in New York now, but there are enough years between us that we almost have a generational gap between us. And so our reference points, we hope, are different enough that we really are able to invite a really wide range of folks into the project, into the world of BEM. We come from a family where food is very important. That's very much like so many families, it’s what we gather around, having organized ourselves around the holidays and so forth.
I remember some of my happiest weekends as a kid, trying to make the pies or whatever, be responsible for certain things in the kitchen. As the baby of the family, I remember being very frustrated, that I couldn't do certain things or I couldn't make it look right or whatever. So it's always been a thing that I had to strive for, in a way that I've appreciated. Learning how to cook and feed myself is a lifelong project that I really appreciate and value, and so it's really exciting to be putting something like this out as part of that process.
What is important to you about providing a space specific to the cookbooks and food books of the African diaspora?
DD: It’s about having a space that’s not about anything but celebrating the diversity of all of what we are. When it comes to food, we go in so many directions. There's often... the word “maligning” seems strong, but let's say it’s slightly more than just ignoring [Black food books]. It’s a space that doesn't always get the attention and celebration that it should. Of course, that's changing and more and more. [In our about letter] we talk about the ecosystem we're joining, because over the past few years it has been so wonderful to see all of the energy around Black food cultures, all of their diversity and interesting projects and resources. There are these amazing books out there that we're excited to be able to bring together at BEM. It just feels like a really important thing, to have this space that’s not narrow, you know, not just the most digestible version. What happens when we just bleed into all of the complexity, all of the diversity? What is and has been and can be, in this zone of thinking about, talking about, reading about how cook and eat?
GD: Something I'm still realizing—we're just about two weeks post launch, but I feel like there are so many folks in Black food that I follow their work online. And now that we are in the world of cookbooks in a different way, I'm realizing it's not as big of a community, I guess. When I first started finding a lot of these folks online, I was like, amazing, look at all these people doing all this fabulous work. Which is true! But in the grander scheme of food and cooking in general, and in cookbooks, it's actually still a relatively small group holding the torch for this. At least in the US. It's really exciting to just be able to shine a spotlight on them, in the small ways that we can, and help spread the word.
What is BEM, concretely? You're selling cookbooks online. What else do you see as the work of this project?
GD: Yes. So right now we're selling cookbooks and other texts related to food and Black folks. And we are really excited to branch out into products as soon as logistically possible. We want to carry, eventually, merch and also BEM-branded olive oil and spices and honeys and things like that, to help to stock the kitchen or pantry. We’re two weeks in and just trying to get our sea legs and trying to figure out what would be the next best step, where to put our energy next. We definitely have a vision for other arms of this project, we started thinking about opening something together a long time ago. At first it was supposed to be a homewares store, and then it developed into this idea. And we were really moving toward opening up a physical storefront when the pandemic hit. And we were like, "Oh no, we have all of this momentum and we're excited to make this thing happen. And it would be sad to just pause indefinitely while we figure out what's happening, health-wise around the world." So that's how we ended up starting it online. And we're very happy to be in the sort of setting that we're in, but it's also a dream to eventually actually open a physical bookstore where you can see and touch these things in person and get a great coffee and a pastry and hang out. So hopefully that's also in the cards for us down the line.
You mention on the website that you're taking a broad definition of what you consider a food book. I was especially interested that you included a lot of books for kids and young adults under that umbrella.
GD: It was really important to us that we had books for younger readers and eaters and cooks. Some of my earliest memories of things that I really enjoyed was either reading or spending time in the kitchen with my mom and sister. And I remember maybe one or two cookbooks that were really oriented toward kids that I was very excited about. We definitely wanted to make it part of our mission, to gather any books that dealt with food that might tell a young person a story about what it means to grow up through those lenses. There’s a series called Akata Witch and Akata Warrior [by Nnedi Okorafor], people have described it as like if Harry Potter were a girl, and Nigerian. The way that food plays into those books is a big part of her family and her story in general, so we’re really excited to offer that.
Finally, let’s talk cookbooks! What are you loving right now? New, old, anything in between.
GD: I'm really looking forward to Michael Twitty Rice book coming out. I'm really looking forward to checking that out. This is cheating a little bit, but one of my favorite books with recipes in it —not quite a cookbook, but it is a book with Black recipes and food in it—is If I Can Cook/You Know God Can by Ntozake Shange, who wrote the choreopoem, For Colored Girls, and it's just beautiful. I think I first read it in a class in college about food, race, and globalization. I still harken back to that class regularly in thinking about this project. But anyway, this book, If I Can Cook, it's interwoven with personal history and fiction and poetry, and the recipes that are tied to specific life moments and it's just wonderful. It's a book that I go back to often. When people ask me about books with food in them or cookbook, that's always the first one I think of.
DD: When I think about favorite cookbooks, I think about some of the ones that we grew up with as well. Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine by Norma Jean and Carole Darden, that our mom had a copy of, that was a gift from her mom. And B. Smith and Patty Labelle cookbooks. I can see the kitchen corner now, the stack of cookbooks. Those are some of the ones that were in heaviest rotation. And those always hold a special place in my heart. Recently I got In Bibi’s Kitchen [by Hawa Hassan], which I'm so excited to get into and cook a little more from, for sure. And I also do a lot of baking—two books that we carry are New World Sourdough [by Bryan Ford] and The New Way to Cake [by Benjamina Ebuehi]. So those are just a couple of things that I've been getting into. I'm excited.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.