Home for Dinner: Andrew Young, former U.N. ambassador and civil rights leader

Young recalls dining with Martin Luther King Jr. and the time his mother-in-law made a home-cooked Southern meal for visting Chinese delegates in the 1970s
Andrew Young

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

“Normally, it’s pizza,” Andrew Young jokes. That’s not exactly true. Pizza boxes might sometimes grace the table at regular family get-togethers, hosted by his son, Andrew “Bo” Young III, in his six-bedroom home in Buckhead. Most of the time, though, it’s platters of home-cooked meat and vegetables made by Bo’s wife, Angelica.

At 85, Young still looks stately, even in a loose linen short-sleeved shirt and matching slacks. An early leader in the civil rights movement, he was known as Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest confidant. “We’d start our day at Busy Bee or Paschal’s,” he says, referencing their days at the SCLC in the 1960s. “But you didn’t go so much to eat as you did to find out what was going on.” Young went on to serve as a U.S. congressman and the first black U.S. ambassador to the United Nations before becoming the mayor of Atlanta from 1982 to 1990.

Tonight he’s fresh off of a plane from Nigeria, where he attended the opening of chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidential library. Tomorrow he’ll work a 10-hour day—as he does six or seven days a week—at his Andrew J. Young Foundation. For now, though, he’s taking a moment for prayer and then supper with his wife, Carolyn; Bo, one of four children with first wife Jean; and his grandchildren, Abigail and Andrew Young IV.

What’s on the table: Angelica is from Venezuela, and the family often enjoys dishes typical of the country, like asado negro, or beef roast. She rounds out the meal with mashed potatoes, lemon- and garlic-roasted cauliflower and broccoli, and a fresh arugula salad.

What we talk about: Conversation often turns political, especially when Young’s eldest child, Andrea, who runs the Georgia branch of the ACLU, is at the table. “The challenge right now is an economy that’s inclusive,” says Young.

When the dishes are cleared: After dinner, the family likes to hook up the karaoke machine. “I sing Ray Charles,” says Young. “Ray Charles and Muddy Waters. I sing low-down dirty blues.”

More from our evening with Young below:

Do you cook?
I used to do a lot of cooking. I’m from New Orleans originally, and so my specialty was always gumbo. I don’t like to make greasy, rich gumbo. I make it out of mostly vegetables and seafood. When I was growing up, [gumbo] was everything that was left over. We didn’t have refrigerators. We had an icebox. So if there was anything left, we put it in a pot and kept it cooking on the back [of the stove]. And then when you got ready to have company, you seasoned it and put the meat it in—fish or shrimp or oysters. But that was really kind of poor folks’ gumbo. They would make a roux and put grease and flour to thicken it. I don’t do that—I use just crushed tomatoes and okra. And I put enough shrimp and crab meat and seafood in it so that it’s thick without being greasy.

Is anywhere in Atlanta making good gumbo?
There was a French Vietnamese chef at the Red Snapper over on Cheshire Bridge. They used to make a really good gumbo. I haven’t been back in a while, because we don’t go out to dinner a lot. If Carolyn’s grandmama didn’t make it, she doesn’t eat it.

What kind of things does Carolyn cook?
She insists that I have breakfast every morning, so she fixes my breakfast. Usually it’s a kind of fruit and vegetable smoothie with a scoop of protein. But I like bacon, so she’ll make a couple slices of bacon and toast to go with it.

Atlanta’s sort of known for its food scene now. What it was like when you were the mayor? How have you seen it change?
There were always some good restaurants. I still think that the best barbecue I’ve ever had was Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven. Atlanta was known for its barbecue then—at least in the black community it was. And there was competition over sauces and styles.

Where did you like to dine out then?
A friend of mine on the staff used to say that all the decisions are made in Atlanta by eight o’clock. So if you didn’t get to Paschal’s before 7 a.m. . . .

Is there a particularly memorable decision that was made over a meal at Busy Bee or Paschal’s?
In January 1968 we decided that the one thing we had not done was attack poverty. But poverty wasn’t just black, so we had 23 different ethnic groups’ organizations meet at Paschal’s and discuss how we would begin to put an end to poverty: black organizations from the cities and from the rural areas; the welfare rights movement; the senior citizens movement. They were half a dozen different Latino groups: the Mexican Americans from Colorado, the Chicanos from California, the Cubans and the Puerto Ricans from New York. We had about 10 different Native American tribes that all had grievances, and coal miners from Kentucky and West Virginia.

I’m sure there were many memorable meals you had with Dr. King, but does any one stick with you in particular?
My favorite restaurant is probably Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami because that’s where [King and I] went to dinner just before he went over to write his Nobel Prize speech. A couple of friends of his took us to Joe’s Stone Crab—that would have been in 1964. We were not three-meal-a-day eaters, but when we had a chance to eat, we really ate well. There was always somebody important that wanted to take Martin Luther King Jr. to his favorite restaurant.

Did you ever make your gumbo for him?
No. In fact, when we ate, it was usually at his house. Coretta and my first wife, Jean, were from the same little town in Marion, Alabama, and went to the same high school. They both were country cooks, cooking from their own gardens.

Actually, when I was at the U.N. in 1971, [China joined the United Nations]. All of these sophisticated diplomats didn’t know what to talk to the Chinese representatives about, and vice versa. It was a very awkward, hostile kind of gathering. Jean was sitting in the corner by herself and the foreign minister went over and introduced himself to her. He asked her, “Where do you find good Georgia foods?” And she said, “Only at my house. When are you coming to dinner?”

So the whole Chinese delegation—about 15 of them, plus their children and family members—came to dinner. At that time we were living was on the 42nd floor of the Waldorf Tower [in New York City]. I said to Jean, “Baby, how are you going to get Georgia food to the Waldorf?” And she said, “It won’t be from Georgia; it’ll be from Alabama.” Her mother drove up to New York in a station wagon, brought corn on the cob and greens from her garden, black-eyed peas, and cornbread mixings. She had a freezer chest full of ribs her friends had slow-smoked for her. She must have been 75, 76 at the time, but she went down into the Waldorf kitchen, and she cooked a good Southern dinner.

More from our conversation Andrew Young, where he discusses Donald Trump, Kasim Reed, and fighting poverty

This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.