There are cookbooks that teach you how to cook and then there are cookbooks that teach you how to live. Cooking in Heels, a memoir-in-recipes by New York activist and prison abolitionist Ceyenne Doroshow, is undeniably the latter. Conceived during her time under incarceration and published in 2012, Cooking in Heels is a deeply personal offering centered around a Black woman surviving compounding systems of oppression. As food became Doroshow’s salvation, each recipe feels like a stone on the path to freedom for herself and her community.
A decade after the book’s publication, those experiences still resonate. “Feeding somebody is one of the most loving things you can do,” Doroshow tells me over Zoom.
Known to many as the fiercely outspoken godmother of the movement for Black Trans Lives—Doroshow has a long history of uplifting New York’s communities of trans people, sex workers, and people facing housing insecurity. As founder and executive director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS), she has created safe housing for queer people in need, led actions against the city’s bigoted policies, and generated relief fund packages for folks facing disenfranchisement. At 2020’s historic Brooklyn Liberation March, Doroshow announced to a crowd of more than 15,000 people that GLITS had raised over $1 million for the Black trans people of New York—a monumental feat that stands as a testament to her commitment to community care.
“So many people have failed me, from employment to friends to family,” she says. “In this world of the privileged and the non-privileged, I’m going to create something that helps the unprivileged get everything they deserve. It’s easy to say ‘I’ll help,’ but it’s difficult to say, ‘I need help.’”
Before Doroshow was the leader of a thriving grassroots organization, she was another Black woman pounding the pavement to make ends meet. Cooking in Heels is a recollection of this period in her life, documenting her experiences navigating houselessness and complicated familial relationships. With her stories come 40 Southern-style recipes influenced by significant people she encountered along the way. The recipes, like Jordan and Jaden’s Potato Balls and Donna’s Wickedly Good Meatloaf, feel both widely accessible and deeply personal.
Years ago Doroshow was quietly making her living as a dominatrix by taking out personal ads in a New Jersey newspaper. Then one night, in the middle of a thunderous rainstorm, she was apprehended by an undercover policeman posing as a client.
The officer couldn’t arrest her for soliciting prostitution despite numerous prior attempts and ended up putting her away on a bogus drug charge. Trans women are often targeted by law enforcement for soliciting sex work, and it wasn’t the first time Doroshow had found herself in this position. “Clearly this wasn’t the arrest they were looking for,” she recounts. “I guess whoever was in [the officer’s] ear told him to ask me if I had marijuana. Of course I did!” As she handed him the small bag of weed, her front door was kicked in and police swarmed her one-bedroom apartment. Because of the storm, none of the neighbors heard her screams.
The next three months were full of mistrials and a media storm from the local press, mischaracterizing Doroshow as a deceitful “man in women’s clothing.” After that she was sent to an all-male prison—an unfortunate circumstance that’s still familiar to far too many trans women. “I was serving 30 days for a $5 bag of marijuana,” she says. “Policing at its finest.”
Suddenly a convict for what should have been a misdemeanor, Doroshow knew that the powers that be were making an example out of her—a Black trans woman living on the margins of a cisgender patriarchal white-dominated society. As she sat in her cell reflecting upon the last quarter of the year, she grew more and more hungry, unable to stomach what the cafeteria was offering. “While I was in jail, I was literally starving,” she says. “I couldn’t eat that food! I had to create.”
To pass the time, Doroshow began writing down recipes on pieces of scrap paper. Many of these recipes came from memories. Some were born during her days behind bars, cobbled together with ingredients found in the prison commissary. “Other people in the jail began interacting with me through the vents,” she recalls. “I looked at the commissary lists and told them how to tweak things to make meals for themselves, and then I started writing down recipes. I carried them around with me everywhere I went.”
During one visit with her lawyers, they noted that her scribbled stacks of ripped magazine pages and pieces of newsprint could be the makings of a great cookbook. The idea intrigued her, but she wanted to do more. She wanted to tell her life story, using food as a lens. “I wanted to be able to indirectly tell people about trans lives,” she says, “and my whole experience around parenting, neglect, and abuse.” At that moment Cooking in Heels was born.
As a young child growing up in Brooklyn, Doroshow had watched cooking shows religiously. Her favorite on-air chef was Julia Child. Whenever she spent time at her grandparents’ Park Slope apartment, she’d observe them closely as they cooked, meticulously taking note of every step, from how to properly chop vegetables to how to season meat. Eventually, her grandfather had taught her everything he knew.
Doroshow recalls with a smile the day her father came home to a pan of spinach and cheese quiche; he’d scarfed down half the pie before his mother-in-law revealed its source. “Your child made that,” she quipped. Doroshow’s father did a double take from his child back to her grandmother. He was bewildered, but he also couldn’t deny how good the food was. From then on young Doroshow prepared dinner each night, honing her budding culinary skills. But her father harbored growing reservations at her evolution, chastising her budding femininity. Eventually, his reservations festered into aggression.
“He was upset because his child was becoming a woman,” Doroshow says. “Cooking taught me how to be a lady.”
Eventually Doroshow left home and spent her adolescence on the streets of New York City, jumping from one temporary living situation to another, like many queer youth are forced to do. But whether sleeping in subway cars or crashing on a friend’s couch, she only grew more resilient, more resourceful. And once she found her own way, she began taking in unhoused queer youth undergoing the same obstacles she once had.
As homage to her firsthand knowledge of life without access to a home-cooked meal, several of the dishes showcased in Cooking in Heels—like “Nya’s Deviled Eggs” and “Ty’s Juicy Pig Pot”—are named after the children she took in from the streets. Children who loved the dishes Doroshow made them. While preparing meals for these kids, she also taught them her cooking methods as a means of empowerment, just as her grandfather did for her all those years ago.
Today, as an active mentor to the next generation of Black trans organizers, Doroshow still sees feeding people as a crucial part of movement work.
“When you’re cooking with your heart and soul, people can take that in,” she says. “Food is powerful.”
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Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit