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Jessica Harris, Culinary Historian and Sleuth, Explores African-American Foodways

This remarkable scholar shows us the influence of the foods of the African disapora.

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Photography by: John Pinderhuges

It’s hard to sum up Dr. Jessica B. Harris in just a few words. She is best known as a culinary historian and the author of 12 books, primarily on the foods of the African diaspora. But delve a little deeper into the life’s work of this remarkable woman, and you soon realize that she is guided by many passions and curiosities, shaped by countless experiences and accomplishments, and distinguished by more than a few titles. She has been at once a scholar and a sleuth, a reporter and a raconteur, a cook and a critic, an anthropologist and a keen observer of the way that food is intrinsically linked with history. 

 

(READ: About Other Important Women in Food)

 

Harris excels at connecting the dots between food and place as a way of understanding who we are, how we got here, and most importantly, where we may be headed. When I first read her work, I thought of her as a preservationist, but after listening to a few lectures and interviews, I realized that she’s not interested in looking backwards to preserve the past. Rather, she’s a forward-thinking educator, determined to document the past so as not to forget it. 

 

Born in Queens, Dr. Harris is a lifelong New Yorker. She has been a professor of English at Queens College, in New York City, for several decades. Her interest in food and its relation to culture began when she was a child. As a student at the United Nations International School, she was introduced to children from disparate countries and regions. As she shared their native foods and traditions, her curiosity was piqued.  

 

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Photography by: Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

Harris wrote her first cookbook ("Hot Stuff: A Cookbook in Praise of the Piquant") in 1985. It was the publication of a few later works, namely "The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking" in 1996, "Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking" (1999), and "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America" (2011), that helped establish her as the world’s foremost authority on the foods of Africa and the Americas (including the Caribbean and Latin America, importantly). Throughout each, she sheds light on stories that round out and fill in many more well-known narratives in the history of slavery. She works to dispel the myth of a monolithic African cuisine, introducing many recipes that were overlooked, buried away, or simply forgotten. Collectively, these recipes serve as proof of more complex, often nuanced flavors and techniques. All the while, Harris provides context to this rich history, by way of foods and tradition—the ones that were brought by slaves, or introduced to them, or forced upon them, or grown by them, or kept from them.

 

Most recently, Dr. Harris published a memoir, "My Soul Looks Back", chronicling her coming of age at the tables and salons of some of the brightest literary lights in 1970s New York City, notably James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Again, she looks back less with a sense of nostalgia than as an examination of her path forward. Today, Dr. Harris divides her time between Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Martha’s Vineyard, and welcomes guests to dine and linger at her table. There, they are no doubt treated to flavorful food, lively conversation, and a wealth of well-told stories.

 

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