Photos courtesy of Jerrelle Guy
Chocolate for Basil blogger Jerrelle Guy can pinpoint the precise moment she realized food was more than just sustenance. At four years old, she recalls perching on her mother’s knee, trading bites of a “yolky egg” sandwich.
“It’s a fried egg yolk put between two pieces of white bread, and [my mother] would squeeze ketchup on it,” Guy told Yahoo Food. In retrospect, she admits that it doesn’t sound like the most appetizing meal of all time. But the sandwich’s appeal is more about its underlying meaning than its taste. “This was her introducing her flavors from her home [in the Pacific Islands] to me,” Guy said. “She’d use her fork to cut through the sandwich and feed it to me. And we’d go back and forth, sharing the sandwich. It was this thing that was really special.”
Yolky egg sandwiches aside, food didn’t play a central role in Guy’s early home life. Both parents worked long hours, so dinner was usually quickly thrown together — or defrosted. That’s partly why, Guy says, she suffered from weight issues at a young age.
“I was a pretty heavy child,” she said. “Then around 14, I just started thinking about food differently — I wanted to control what I ate more.” So Guy started watching Food Network shows after school — Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa and Tyler Florence’s Food 911 were favorites — and picked up a copy of The Joy of Cooking cookbook. Then she tied on an apron and ventured into the kitchen herself.
"I would watch [Garten and Florence] and get really inspired,” she said. “I wanted to recreate those things, so I started asking for more vegetables. I [wanted to] cook more things that were comforting to me, but from scratch.”
Soon, Guy was conjuring fancy feasts for her folks and pretending their kitchen table was the best corner table at a fine dining eatery. Her menu comprised the classiest dishes her teenage self could muster: Creamy Parmesan and potato soup spiked with fresh herbs, followed by marbled cuts of filet mignon draped with a mustardy rosemary sauce.
“I actually bought the wheel of cheese and shredded it myself,” Guy recalled. “Watching it on television and then doing it in real life, it felt magical because we didn’t do those things.”
But Guy didn’t contemplate a career in food at the time. Instead, she went to the Rhode Island School of Design and earned a bachelor of fine arts in illustration. Still, Guy found a way to incorporate food into her art pieces. “I would draw food or photograph food, or try to make some type of commentary about food and explore my relationship with it,” Guy explained. “But I didn’t know where it was taking me.”
One of Guy’s illustrations.
In 2012, things became a little clearer. Upon college graduation that year, she started the blog Chocolate for Basil, an attempt to document her kitchen escapades and better understand her connection with food as the daughter of an African American father and a Pacific Islander mother.
Guy’s culinary style tends toward healthy (or at least healthier) comfort food — think brown rice-stuffed mushroom caps and cilantro-laced salmon burgers — and includes dishes inspired by her Pacific Islander roots, like bonelos aga, a type of banana-based doughnut. Additionally, Chocolate for Basil often features vegetarian dishes to appease her meat-eschewing boyfriend.
“I could eat a big juicy steak every day of the week!” Guy admitted with a laugh. But she acknowledges that less meat is probably a good thing, plus she doesn’t mind eating vegetarian. “My food is very flavorful with very bold flavors, so you don’t really miss the meat,” she said. “I need to make sure I don’t feel deprived!”
Guy’s future is still a work in progress. She’s been working toward a masters in gastronomy at Boston University, a program that digs into why people eat the way they eat. “Right now, my research focuses on African American food ways,” Guy explained. “I’m learning so much about my food — why I eat what I eat, why my dad eats what he eats, and how it’s so tied into my identity. It helps me understand myself and my relationship to food.”
For now, Guy is content to focus on school, her blog, and a handful of food-inspired art projects, like an illustrated kitchen cocktail chart for sale on Chocolate for Basil. But she has aspirations and they excite her.
“I think I wouldn’t mind being a food writer,” she said wistfully. “I would like to explore other cultures and understand them.”
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