This Quilt Tells the Story of How African Americans Helped Shape American Cuisine
Renowned author and scholar Dr. Jessica B. Harris has dedicated her career to the study of foods across the African Diaspora. With the opening of African/American: Making the Nation's Table, an exhibition celebrating the vast contribution of Black chefs, farmers, and food and drink producers to American food, she's offering a poignant and powerful visual presentation to illustrate what she has long affirmed: African American food is not solely that—it is far more. To be sure, African American food is American food.
"I have spent more than four decades writing about African American food culture," shares Dr. Harris, who serves as lead curator for the exhibition presented by The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) at NYC's Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall that runs through June 19. "Our history is on the plate. For this reason, we need to tell our story and tell it well. The exhibition is the first of its kind to reveal the depth and breadth of the contributions of African Americans to our nation's food culture," Dr. Harris explains.
Catherine M. Piccoli, MOFAD's curatorial director, says the museum's dream of working with Dr. Harris (who has written 12 lauded books on the African Diaspora's food, one of which served as the inspiration for the Netflix documentary series of the same name, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America), began to be realized in 2017, with the final design and construction of the quilt completed in early 2020. Featuring 400 stories highlighting invaluable contributions to American cuisine by African Americans over 400 years and utilizing hand-selected fabrics specific to the time period that each quilted story hails from, the quilt also six quilt blocks that have intentionally been left blank as a visual representation of not only the until stories of the past but also the future stories waiting to be told. "I want visitors to think about why the stories of people of African descent were lost or not recorded to begin with," says Piccoli. "I hope people continue to add to the Legacy Quilt Project online. African American contributions to our country's culinary landscape did not only happen in the past but continue today. It's important to chronicle as many of these stories as we can, whether from the past, present, or future," she says.
The Legacy Quilt is an awe-inspiring creation that's 14 feet tall and almost 28 feet wide. It encompasses moving portrayals of the countless ways in which African Americans have innovated cooking. "This large-scale, first-of-its-kind exhibition delves into the many ways African Americans have shaped the American culinary experience," offers Nazli Parvizi, president of MOFAD. "So much of what we grow and how we grow it, and what we eat and how we eat it, derives from these invaluable contributions."
Sewn by Harlem Needle Arts, the quilt has illustrations by artist Adrian Franks combined with descriptive blurbs by writer Osayi Endolyn. It tells the stories of hundreds of people who have made irrevocable contributions to the American food culture and cuisine from slavery through the Great Migration to today, but the storytelling doesn't end there. The Legacy Quilt has a virtual interactive component; stories of noted contributors or "heroes" of the African American culinary evolution can be submitted by the public as an ongoing expansion of the quilt and to bring home the point that when it comes to documenting and sharing these rich culinary histories, the work extends far beyond the physical quilt.
For a companion book to the exhibit, Dr. Harris picked 25 of the quilts most compelling images and stories. "I chose images that spoke to me," she offers. "I remember being delighted by the plum's royal purple on the frosted cake that represented the block for Providence, Rhode Island's Charity Duchess Quamino, the enslaved African cook who became the state's 18th century Pastry Queen. Hercules Posey is included because of his image as a dandy and his position as the African American chef of the nation's first chief executive. Victualer Marie-Louise Rosette Rochon made it because I live in a house that she may have owned in New Orleans… Louisiana's Lena Richard is notable as the first Black woman to have a cooking television show and more than a decade before Julia Child. Okra shows up because it is emblematic of the African foodstuffs that have become a part of American Food, and the Black Panthers make an appearance to remind all that they developed a free breakfast program that predates the federal one," Dr. Harris points out.
Those who visit the exhibit and the Legacy Quilt, Dr. Harris says, should expect to "be astonished at the scope and breadth of the African American hand in creating the food of our nation."