Jerrelle Guy doesn’t bake to impress anyone: the kitchen is a space all her own.

By Zoe Denenberg
February 10, 2020
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Jerrelle Guy

Jerrelle Guy is a deeply sensory baker—she pays close attention to the feel, the sound, the touch and texture of her doughs and batters. Guy divides her James Beard-Nominated cookbook, Black Girl Baking: Wholesome Recipes Inspired by a Soulful Upbringing, into sections based on the five senses; with vivid, lyrical imagery, she describes the pop of a biscuit can, the mesmerizing curves of a Bundt cake. Guy now lives in Dallas, Texas, where she runs her own food photography studio (with her partner, Eric, and her cat, Christopher), but she grew up in Lantana, Florida, and many of her recipes pay tribute to the sunshine state’s culinary landscape. In evocative detail, she recalls drives to Little Havana for guava and cream pastelitos and Saturday trips to the flea market that promised speared mangoes, doused in lime juice and cayenne pepper.

Guy’s baking is rooted in childhood memories of food—she finds inspiration in her grandmother’s pound cake, her mother’s banana doughnuts, her Great Aunt Doris’s buttermilk pie. But Guy’s approach diverges from traditional Southern baking in unique, modern ways: Many of her recipes include vegan or gluten-free options. For Guy, the kitchen is a space where she can be completely, entirely herself; inspired by movements like #BlackGirlMagic, Guy finds her voice in baking.

SL: When did you start cooking, and where did you find early inspiration?

I started cooking from scratch around the age of 14. Like a lot of people, I was inspired by personalities on the Food Network, specifically Ina Garten and her bright and warm demeanor and fresh food. I hadn’t experienced fresh, colorful, and extravagant meals like that at home, so it became an obsession to watch.

SL: You divide your cookbook, Black Girl Baking, into sections based on the five senses, and write that, “rules and precision aren’t naturally my thing.” How do you balance the more rigid, scientific aspects of baking with your own inclination towards spontaneity?

Well, first I force myself to let go of the need for perfection. Then I make it my intention to celebrate the process which frees me up mentally and allows me to tap into my natural intuition. Sounds fluffy, but I bake less to impress a party crowd; a lot of the work I do is about self-reflection, self-expression and using the kitchen as a safe space to be completely myself. I can still learn about the science of it all with this approach too, but when I think about it, it’s really unnatural for me to cook with measuring tools when that’s never been how anyone in my family cooks. Everything gets “eye-balled” and you phone another relative to see what secret thing they added to make it so good and usually it’s whatever they had on hand and thought to throw into the mix one day for whatever reason.

SL: From the title of your cookbook, it’s clear that race is a crucial part of your craft. How does being a black woman shape your identity as a baker?

The title and spirit of the book were inspired by the Black Girl Magic movement and hashtag. Being black shapes my experience in America as a person every day whether I want it to or not. I can choose to feel victimized or I can find a way to use what I’ve been given and empower myself with it. Baking is my favorite way to empower and re-center myself. My kitchen is a safe space to reflect on the world, which says a lot—there aren’t a lot of safe spaces for black women untouched by power hierarchies and social expectations.

SL: Many of your dishes are vegan, gluten-free, or both. Has veganism always been a part of your cooking, and what’s your approach to cooking with dietary restrictions in mind?

I’m actually rebelling against diet culture these days. I hadn’t made it to that point when I wrote the book, but I was working my way there. I eat what makes me happy, and it’s a balance between the cravings and expectations in my mind and the way the food makes my body feel.  The reason I started cooking from scratch was because I went vegan at 14 and had to figure out a way to veganize all the things everyone else in my family was eating. My experimental approach to cooking is a consequence of thinking outside the box with recipe development from an early age.

SL: What is the story behind your Orange Peel Pound Cake? What memory does the recipe evoke?

I think of my grandmother whenever I think of pound cake because it was one of the few dessert recipes she kept in rotation, along with her peanut butter cookies and custard pie. Her recipe for pound cake uses sour cream and a lot more butter and sugar. The version I share in the book is about growing up in Florida and my memories of eating the sweet juicy oranges. As kids, we’d always get dropped off at her house, all of us cousins, so there are a lot of memories of us horsing around together, trying to entertain ourselves out in her front yard.

SL: Each of your recipes tells a story, and you write about how baking has helped you find a voice. As a whole, what story does your cookbook tell?

I want to inspire black women to reclaim their kitchens, diets, bodies, and personal power.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.