Jerrelle Guy is standing in her Fenway studio apartment, the warm smell of baking in the air, a view of the Citgo sign out the vast windows. The light streaming in is Instagram-perfect. This is where Guy, 27, shoots the vibrant photos for her popular food blog, Chocolate for Basil: vegetarian pho, cashew kale Caesar salad, “The BEST Gluten-free, VEGAN Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe EVER.” It is also where she lives with her boyfriend (and hand model), Eric Harrison, an IT consultant, and a gray striped cat named Christopher.
Today Guy is making charcoal banana bread, a recipe from her new cookbook, “Black Girl Baking: Wholesome Recipes Inspired by a Soulful Upbringing,” her first. (She has also contributed recipes to the Globe.) In a flowered dress, turquoise leggings, and a worn-in pair of house slippers, she measures ingredients: mashed, super-ripe bananas, which act as a binder, meaning there’s no need for eggs; the activated food-grade charcoal powder she includes to throw this homiest of recipes just a little bit off kilter. It’s a trendy ingredient, but that’s not why she’s using it: “The whole point of the book is to make commentary on our relationship with food through the senses, and how altering certain things or enhancing certain things can change our experience,” she says. (Chapters have titles like “Sight: Shapes, Colors and Patterns” and “Sound: Snap, Crunch and Music.”) “I was trying to make people a little uncomfortable.”
The slate-gray banana bread is sweet and subversive in the same way as Guy herself. She is creating and presenting beautiful, healthy food with an art-school aesthetic, the kind of recipes and photos that play well on social media: smoothies stained ocher with turmeric, carefully yet casually styled sheet-pan suppers, hands holding bowls of butternut-miso soup and ice cream cones filled with scoops of oat-and-macadamia cookie dough. But what seems at first easily categorized isn’t: Instagram’s ubiquitous hand shots don’t usually put the focus on black skin. The food is vegan-esque but not vegan.
“I contradict myself a lot, but labels are what I want to move away from, because there’s self-righteousness in them sometimes,” she says.
Guy is reflective, open, with an easy laugh. She and Harrison have made this tiny apartment into both home and a working studio, filled with succulents growing in Mason jars, cookbooks and cushions, and kitchen equipment and styling props carefully shoehorned into nooks and crannies. There’s a loft for sleeping. A wall covered in chalkboard paint helpfully reads “BOOZE,” with an arrow pointing toward the bottles and shakers. On the wall hangs a framed poster with the words: “You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé.”
Guy learned about food styling working as a production assistant for a food photographer in Dallas; she came to Boston to attend BU’s gastronomy program. But she first fell under the spell of food as a child in Lantana, Fla., a small city in Palm Beach County. She grew up eating her paternal grandmother’s practical Southern fare, heavy on meat and canned goods. And her mother, who is from Guam, introduced her to the Chamorro food of the island: spring rolls filled with cellophane noodles and ground meat; chicken kelaguen, made with coconut; Spam over sticky rice; everything splashed with soy sauce and vinegar. “I was interested from a really young age,” she says. “I was just really open to anything. My mom loved that and she used me as her guinea pig. That was how we bonded. I accepted her food.”
Her sister was a performer, a singer who landed a part in a Los Angeles production of “The Lion King” at age 11. But Guy was an introvert, dreamy and expressive. She found refuge in art and poetry. Food, too.
“I had a weight problem because I loved food so much and that was my safe space,” she says. “I was never comfortable with myself. I never fit in because of my skin color, everywhere, with my own family. My mom didn’t fit in with my dad’s family, and I saw that affect her. I felt her discomfort. What do you do as a little girl? You see your mom. I never felt like I belonged, and I wanted to really badly.”
She wanted to feel in control, so she started controlling what she ate. Before heading off to the Rhode Island School of Design for college, she became a vegan. “I started trying to put all this stuff on my body, labels and material things,” she says. “I thought it would make me love myself more — how many awards I got, how successful I was. When I got those things, I realized that I felt empty still. It made me stop and realize: What am I doing it for? Who am I running from? Because she keeps coming back.” She stopped worrying about adhering to a rigid diet, and started eating what felt right to her.
“I’m enjoying my process into whatever the definition of health for me flourishes into. Everybody’s definition is their definition,” Guy says.
And so “Black Girl Baking” was born. Recent years have seen the success of cookbooks and blogs that rework African and African-American dishes for vegan audiences, like Bryant Terry’s “Afro-Vegan” (which Guy cites as an inspiration) and Jenné Claiborne’s “Sweet Potato Soul.” That might be closer to what publishers initially expected from Guy, she says (and the book does include many vegan and gluten-free recipes). Instead they got something looser, less traditional, and charming.
Food is complicated and integral to our identities, Guy says. She is still working through all that. “The process I’m going through is being OK with exactly who I am right now,” she says. “That’s what the book is about. I’m beautiful as I am. I don’t have to follow your rules. I can bake however I want, I can do whatever I want. I’m not saying I’m there yet. I feel I’ve come a long way.”
The book is dedicated “to every black girl who creates her own power, in her own way.”Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.