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2020 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Dr. Jessica B. Harris

Rachel Tepper Paley

September 23, 2020


Jessica B. Harris photo Rog Walker
Photo: Rog Walker of Paper Monday

The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, or think about food in America.

“It was love at first slurp,” writes 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dr. Jessica B. Harris of the chorizo-spiked northern Spanish soup caldo gallego in her lauded 2017 memoir, My Soul Looks Back. A food historian and cookbook writer who spent decades mingling with New York City’s Black intelligentsia, Harris is a chronicler not only of flavor, but its ability to transport one through time and space.

“I was thrilled to discover it on the menu at El Faro, where many chowed down on shrimp in green sauce and other shellfishy delights,” writes Harris, conjuring up a favorite haunt now long-shuttered. “It rapidly became my go-to order: comfort in a bowl. Even today, one spoonful takes me time-traveling back to the scarred wooden booths in the restaurant’s back room and reminds me of my youth.”

Born in Queens, New York, Harris’s childhood was punctuated with European travel, trips to Lincoln Center, and balmy escapes to the family summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. Though her parents were far from wealthy, they were aspirational—by design, these excursions sought to transform Harris into a woman of culture and substance. It worked.

From day one, food was a subject of pleasure and fascination to Harris. “I think the person who most influenced me—and who is most important to me—would have been my mother,” Harris recalled. “She's the one who taught me how to cook.” A trained dietician, Harris’s mother ensured that the family was eating “balanced” things that nonetheless “had taste and importance.”

Indeed, as Harris grew—graduating in the late 1960s from Bryn Mawr and entering the orbit of luminaries like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison—feeding others was a constant theme. As Harris details in My Soul Looks Back, much of her early life centered around her friend Sam Floyd, a writer with a flair for cooking. His apartment became known as “Club 81”— named for its location at 81 Horatio Street—and was the setting for star-studded dinner parties. Amidst mind-expanding conversations, quickened by the plentiful drinks Floyd eagerly poured, platters overflowed with dishes like roast goose and turnip greens.

The food—and the company—made a lasting impression: After an early career as a journalist writing book reviews for Essence Magazine and theater critiques for the New York Amsterdam News, Harris became a food writer. Over the course of her career, Harris would go on to pen a dozen critically acclaimed cookbooks, many of them centered on the recipes and foodways of the African diaspora. Throughout, she taught English at Queens College at the City University of New York.

Harris’s longtime focus on cuisines, ingredients, and techniques that, in one way or another, trace their lineage to the African continent is largely rooted in a desire to “make sure that that record is kept and is acknowledged and is understood.” Her books, which include Sky Juice and Flying Fish: Traditional Caribbean Cooking, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from African to America, and Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking, are required reading for anyone seeking to understand why we eat what we eat.

“It's been such a long journey,” she said, musing on her career path. “I knew Julia Child, Edna Lewis, and Leah Chase. I was inducted into the Les Dames d'Escoffier at the same time as Betty Fussell. A lot of this is just stuff that you learn from being out there with people that you respect. You kind of labor in the trenches.”

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Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.