Rapper Coolio passed away on Wednesday at the age of 59. Most of us know him for his main banger, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” along with other beloved tracks including “1,2,3,4" and “Fantastic Voyage.” But did you know that Coolio was also a passionate cook? He even published a cookbook, Cookin’ With Coolio: 5 Star Meals at a 1 Star Price, in 2009, along with a web video series of the same name.
I bought a copy of Cookin’ With Coolio in 2016; by chance, a friend gifted me another copy for Christmas that same year. I purchased it because back then I just thought it was funny: Here’s someone who dropped a truly iconic track during my formative years, and here he is 15 years later, messing around in a thrifty kitchen. As soon as my fiancée and I heard the news of his death, we immediately blasted “Gangsta’s Paradise” and I ran over to my bookshelf.
I’m sure your first question is: Is this cookbook any good? Well, it depends on the angle from which you consider it.
“Who is The Ghetto Gourmet?” the intro to the book asks. Coolio says up at the top that there’s one thing he’d been doing longer than rapping, and that’s cooking.
“I was making thirty-minute meals when I was ten years old and I haven’t ever looked back,” the intro reads in part. “I’m the ghetto Martha Stewart, the black Rachael Ray. I am the kitchen pimp who won’t hesitate to fillet Bobby Flay or send my posse after Emeril Lagasse.” Pure poetry.
Coolio goes on to explain that he grew up poor, which shaped his relationship with food—it required navigating the piecemeal, sometimes disparate ingredients in his pantry. Many of us understand that some of the greatest triumphs in the kitchen come from coaxing delicious dishes out of the bare minimum available, especially on hard days.
“I want people to know that just because you’re poor, you don’t have to eat fast food every day,” Coolio writes. “People always try to tell you that you have to have money to eat well... Hell, when I was growing up, I could make a meal out of a package of Top Ramen and a bottle of Windex. All you need is a little bit of food and a little bit of know-how.”
That reassurance sets the stage for the rest of the book. But as I’m sure you can tell from that intro, it’s not a serious one. Cooking With Coolio is filled to the brim with nonstop jokes. You can feel his rapper’s persona come through, complete with lots of wisecracks about chasing after women. (Much of the content would probably raise eyebrows in 2022; his dextrous use of the word “pimp” as both an adjective and a noun is incredible.)
But Coolio manages to be pretty encouraging to everyone reading his book. He challenges the men to wise up and get in the kitchen, the ladies to sharpen their culinary skills, and families to feed their kids using his approachable recipes.
As for the culinary content, well, it’s... something. You probably know what you’re getting into when you scan the table of contents. One section of the book is notably called “It’s Hard Out Here for a Shrimp,” and the dessert section is titled “Sweet Treats for That Sweet Ass.”
I wouldn’t exactly say these are great recipes, but they are all very accessible, with ingredients you either already have in your pantry or ones that you can get at the most basic of stores. These dishes could generally be called comfort food, like caprese salad (this version adds onion), chili mac, a slew of steaks, chicken (one recipe is called KFC, or “Kompton Fried Chicken”), and seafood (“U Can’t See My Bass” and “Oil My Mussels”). Okay, okay, can’t forget “Chicken Lettuce Blunts” either.
The quantities of each ingredient are pretty straightforward, but notably, the salt and pepper are measured in dime bags. Do you have any idea just how much salt you can fit into a dime bag? At one point Coolio clarifies that half a dime bag is about a half tablespoon’s worth of dry seasoning, which means one whole dime bag of salt is a fucking tablespoon. That is a lot of salt, considering almost all the recipes call for a whole dime bag.
Shortly after I got the book, I made one recipe called Fork Steak (which I happily documented back in 2016, and I’m glad I did). I was especially curious about it because it calls for your steak of choice, then instructs you to bake it for an hour at 400 degrees Fahrenheit with various other ingredients, including beer.
Considering I like my steak medium rare, this was quite a departure from my usual cooking methods. The end result had delicious flavor but was simultaneously terrible because the thing came out bone dry, even though the name “Fork Steak” implies that it’s supposed to be tender.
And if you think I’d pass up something called a “Hot Fruit Sandwich” then you apparently don’t know me that well. It’s... hot fruit served between slices of sandwich bread. This recipe ended up tasting like warm jam, plus the four tablespoons of olive oil the recipe somehow calls for. It inspired some mixed feelings, to say the least.
The recipe header notes that Coolio made this for TV executives he was having over for dinner, but came up with the idea off the cuff since he hadn’t had anything planned for dessert. I respect a culinary Hail Mary. Especially one that landed, at least according to Coolio.
Okay, so the food’s mostly hit or miss. But as a cultural figure, Coolio looms large in my household—not just because of his cookbook, but because his was the last concert my fiancée and I attended prior to the pandemic. I saw an ad on Facebook that he was coming to Chicago, and the tickets were only $15 each, so are you fucking kidding, of course we were going. I was working in a restaurant then, and it was rare for me to get a Saturday off, so I was extra excited to have a night out.
We didn’t know what to expect when we got to the venue; there was barely anyone there when the doors opened and not many more people showed up after that. We sat through opening act after opening act—there were six of them, one of which was a DJ who started his set by talking about how many hot dogs he had eaten. We watched the couple in front of us fall asleep. Coolio finally showed up on stage at midnight.
He was supposed to perform all of the Gangsta’s Paradise album in its entirety, but at one point he forgot the lyrics to one of his songs, so he and his backing band scrapped the idea. A woman rushed the stage, a move Coolio embraced, and things got weird once she started grinding on him. But man, when he did “Gangsta’s Paradise,” he put his heart and soul into it. He must have performed that song a million times, but if he was sick of it, he didn’t show it one bit. The small crowd lit the fuck up, including me, and for a whole four minutes, I was a teenager again.
Coolio wasn’t happy with his own performance, though, because after the show as we waited for our rideshare home, he poked his head out of the venue’s second-story front window. He apologized for ruining the show by forgetting the words. He offered everyone tickets to come see him again, which we never got and never will.
This week, after the news broke, my fiancée looked up the details of that 2019 show, for memory’s sake. It turns out it had been exactly three years ago, to the very day. Rest easy, Coolio. Perhaps I’ll make your recipe for Pimp My Shrimp this weekend in your honor. Hell, maybe even a Hot Fruit Sandwich.