Story by Will Workman
Photography by Joe Laedtke
Yollande Deacon is on a mission: carrying the message of African food – and its smells and tastes – to a Milwaukee audience.
Deacon grew up on a farm in Cameroon, dubbed “Afrique au Miniature” (Africa in miniature), because of its incredible diversity, especially culinary, with 181 tribes, a wide range of climate and agricultural zones, and a prominent port, Douala, for shipping abroad foodstuffs from the African interior.
Cocoa, coffee and sugarcane all played significant roles in the country’s history, while the slave trade carried its food culture to the Caribbean and beyond.
Her family of two girls and five boys farmed near the city of Mbouda, dubbed the “avocado capital” of the country.
“What the women of the region are famous for is each has their own blend of spices,” she said, adding that their ability can affect their marriage prospects.
“I had this emotional need of wanting to get people to discuss a culture that I feel they don’t know well – or only know through the lenses of media that don’t necessarily present it authentically – and to do that through a language that is universal, and that is food.” – Yollande Deacon, Afro Fusion Cuisine.
She came to Milwaukee 11 years ago to get her MBA at Marquette, the first recipient of a scholarship that encourages African students to study in the U.S.
Deacon found herself part of a gourmet group, cooking frequently to fill a gap otherwise missing from her studies.
“I had this emotional need of wanting to get people to discuss a culture that I feel they don’t know well – or only know through the lenses of media that don’t necessarily present it authentically – and to do that through a language that is universal, and that is food,” she said.
Now a full-time finance manager for a local company, Deacon initially taught cooking classes on the side until she launched her own business, Afro Fusion Cuisine, last year.
She says she’s been combining locally-sourced ingredients from Wellspring, Alice’s Garden and other suppliers, with reliable African sources, “looking for ways to blend spices to get a flavor profile that gets to the flavor I knew as a 15- or 16-year-old cooking in my mother’s kitchen.”
The results are a line of Afro Fusion Cuisine spice blends and, this fall, sauces landing on shelves at Metcalfe’s Market in Tosa, Outpost Co-op, Riverwest Co-op, Good Harvest Market, Sendik’s and Whole Foods, as well as the Tosa Farmers Market.
Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan, her organic blends range from joloff & thieboudienne, a savory tomato herb blend used to make traditional Senegalese rice and fish dishes, to piri piri, a fiery sauce based on the African bird’s eye chili.
For more information, visit afrofusionbrands.com
Will Workman has accumulated a wealth of print journalism experience. First, he spent several years covering government, education, religion and the emerging internet as a reporter, features writer, and columnist for two newspapers. He later moved to New York City and covered the television industry for trade magazines, then served as editor for MediaView, a Chinese-language magazine covering international trade news for Chinese media executives. After moving to Wisconsin a decade ago, Will has continued to write freelance for several publications. A lifelong foodie (he secretly longed for an Easy-Bake Oven as a child), Will has traveled, and eaten, extensively in 26 countries.
Joe Laedtke has been a life-long food enthusiast, starting when he was still a kid growing up in Washington Heights, watching his grandma Shirley intently as she taught him her secret recipes for onion dip, turkey gravy, and rouladen, and even through college as he delivered pizzas throughout the greater Ripon area in a 1978 AMC Pacer. These days, he proudly represents the unique combination of freelance photographer and licensed funeral director, and has garnered national attention with his website, Eating Milwaukee, including a segment on CBS This Morning. He has absolutely no willpower whatsoever around essentially any Asian cuisine.