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2019 Cookbook Hall of Fame: Jessica B. Harris

Scott Alves Barton

April 26, 2019

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Jessica B. Harris photo by John Pinderhughes
Photo: John Pinderhughes

First and always to my late parents…To the Ancestors who slaved, served, survived and created a cuisine from a sow’s ear…to the African American cooks, chefs and culinary entrepreneurs now and yet to come who honor the food, serve it proudly, and keep the circle unbroken.

This dedication excerpt from her book High on the Hog (2011) identifies how Dr. Jessica B. Harris has championed the heretofore invisible African-American/African culinarians, rendering them visible and in plain sight. In the opening to her second book, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking (1989), Queens native Harris quoted slave-owner, politician, and Confederate sympathizer, Charles E.A. Gayarré:

The Negro is a born cook. He could neither read nor write, and therefore he could not learn from books. He was simply inspired; the god of the spit and the saucepan had breathed life into him; that was enough — Harper’s Magazine, 1880.

This quote, like many aspects of cultural and culinary history mined by Harris, literally refers to food, cooking, and innate skill; yet inherently not to cuisine, and with little attribution to the personhood of the “Negro.” Dr. Harris’s 12 books have restored personhood, respect, and credit to the legacy of “Negro” peoples. Harris refers to family meals, those quotidian commensal repasts served in joy or sorrow to African-descended people as ‘just food.” Often these same or similar refections were concurrently destined for the tables of their masters and/or employers. Engaging with the legacies of unsung African Diaspora foodways and cooks has wrought a wide arc in Jessica B. Harris’ literary career:

I’ve ridden on the back of a motorbike from the Hilton hotel deep into the souks of the Chellah in Rabat in search of spices and eaten blood sausage in the open market in Kenya on a dare. I’ve sipped champagne served by white-gloved servants in the homes of high government officials in Côte d’Ivoire, been served cool water in a chipped enamel basin by tattooed co-wives in Benin. Danced to high-life music under Accra’s stars, and saw the Indian Ocean for the first time with an old man who had never been there.*

Methodically and lyrically, Harris interrogates a wide-ranging matrix of cuisines, cultures, and ethnicities that chart the migration of people, plants, (diseases), and ideas, previously popularized by Alfred Crosby’s revisionist history, The Columbian Exchange. Crosby referenced the transfer of foods from the African continent to the Americas, yet he did not identify the culture and the indigenous knowledge that came with the Africans, whether as enslaved or free people of color. It is this lacuna that Harris has filled, focusing her life’s work and journey on and from both sides of the Atlantic:

The dappled green light filtering onto the water through the overhead network of leaves and vines, the tinkling sound of the waterfall, and the conviviality of my new friends combined to give this meal a special Brazilian magic. How could I not come to love the food of Brazil after such an introduction?**

A multilinguist and an alumna of Bryn Mawr, Dr. Jessica B. Harris received her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University, writing on the French-speaking theatre of Senegal. Her four decades of writing, researching, teaching, lecturing, and organizing as a historian, journalist, editor, and cookbook author come with numerous meritorious bonafides. She has written nationally and internationally for periodicals, including Essence, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur, German Vogue, Travel Weekly, Eating Well, and Cooking Light. On television, Harris has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, Sara Moulton’s Cooking Live, and B. Smith with Style. Within the hospitality industry she has served as a consultant for national and international organizations including Kraft Foods, Pillsbury Foods, Unilever, and Almond Resorts in Barbados and St. Lucia.

In addition to being the first African-American woman to address a graduating class at the Culinary Institute of America, Harris has won many other accolades. She is a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF), board member of both the Caribbean Culinary Federation and the New York chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. Harris has chaired panels and given presentations at the Fancy Food Shows, at Chef Magazine’s Chef des Chefs, at IACP, and AIWF conferences too numerous to note. For six years she gave the keynote address at the Caribbean Culinary Federation’s annual Taste of the Caribbean. She is currently a contributing editor at Saveur and American Legacy; an advisory board member of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, the New Orleans Afrikan American Film Festival, and the New Orleans Edible School Yard; a life member of the College Language Association and the Advisory Council of the Museum of Food and Drink (MoFaD); and a member of the Kitchen Cabinet at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Some of her awards include an appreciation award from Walt Disney World Epcot Center, the Heritage Award from the Black Culinarians, the Food Hero award from Eating Well, Philadelphia’s the Book & the Cook’s Toque award, the Lafcadio Hearn award by the John Folse Culinary Institute in Louisiana as a southern Louisiana Food Icon, and a PEN Open Book Award finalist. In fall of 2007, Harris took a sabbatical leave from Queens College to become the first scholar to hold the Ray Charles Chair in African-American material culture at HBCU Dillard University in New Orleans. The Ray Charles Chair has a specialty in the Food and Folklore of the African diaspora. In 2012, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture invited Dr. Harris to conceptualize and curate the cafeteria of the new museum. That same year, her book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, was the IACP prizewinner for culinary history. In 2018, she retired from teaching at Queens College after 50 years, having left an indelible mark in the 1960’s era SEEK program, designed to reach and teach qualified high school graduates who might not otherwise attend college.

When The HistoryMakers Digital Archive asked about her favorite food, she replied:

I said okra. Why? Because okra is indigenous to Africa, and wherever you see okra in the world, Africa has been—that includes southern India where they call it bhindi…the Middle East…that includes the world; and so looking into this whole migration of foodstuffs and how this stuff gets out and gets into the ebb and flow and how it starts to transform things is really a way of looking at history.

To paraphrase Dr. Harris—she has chosen the plate as her portal to study history. It is through her lens, as well as that of her friends and colleagues Leah Chase, Vertamae Grosvenor, Edna Lewis, Karen Hess, Lolis Eric Elie, John Egerton, and many others that we have a clear sense of African Diaspora foodways and the contributions of these peoples to world cuisines.  

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Scott Barton is the member of the James Beard Foundation Book Awards Committee.

*Jessica B. Harris, 1998. The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, p 3.
**Jessica B. Harris. 1992. Tasting Brazil: Regional Recipes and Reminiscences. New York: Macmillan.