Top | The Culinate Interview

Jessica B. Harris

(article, Sara Franklin)

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p(blue). Jessica B. Harris has written numerous books about food, history, and culture. Her most recent contribution is 2011's High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, a wide-ranging work of history and stories collected over decades of research. A journalist and a professor of literature at Queens College in New York City, Harris is considered one of the leading authorities on the foods of the African diaspora. 

Why are you interested in food history? 
Well, I was reading these sources, Marco Polo’s diaries and others. And I was really having fun with it. There were these mentions of food. First of all, not that many people were reading these diaries, and even fewer were reading them with regard to food. It was right there, it wasn’t hidden. But I had begun to explore food writing through travel as a journalist, when I was the travel editor at Essence in the 1970s. 

What was food like for you growing up?
Mama was a wonderful cook. She was a trained dietician. In the 1930s, she actually had a course where she was trained in how to keep black people out of restaurants. But we ate very well — both well-balanced and well. A lot of what I do is because of her. 

You travel widely, but rotate mostly between three places: Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Martha’s Vineyard. Does one of these places feel more like home to you?
They’re so different. There’s no place on earth more international than New York City. New Orleans is a pivot — the U.S., Africa, the Caribbean, and the areas to the southwest of the Caribbean. And Martha’s Vineyard is a family home. I was very fortunate.

[%image harris float=right width=300 caption="Jessica B. Harris"]

How did you learn to travel with such ease?
I went to the United Nations International School. It was really just luck; my parents had no international context, but the school was on the way for my mother, so she just dropped me off. I learned “cultural fluidity” there. I speak French better than most French people, I can get by in Spanish, I can make myself understood in Portuguese, and I like to think of myself as a master of hand language, so I can find a way to communicate in most of the \[African\] diaspora.

What about the American South? What is your context for it?
The parts that I’ve experienced as an adult remind me of the North I grew up in. People have manners, and there’s a sense of community. That’s what strikes me the most. But I can only speak for myself. I didn’t take any baggage with me to the South, and those who have baggage deserve to have it. They’ve more than earned that Louis Vuitton baggage.

Do you consider yourself more of a journalist or an academic? Did you set out to be one or the other?
I have always done both, which is why my schedule is so busy like this. I began teaching in 1968 or 1969, and I was already working as a journalist. They’re both different ways of teaching, and I do enjoy teaching. 

You teach literature as an academic?
I did my Ph.D. at New York University on the French-speaking theater of Senegal. I ended up with a very mixed committee, with professors from several disciplines. That was very unusual at the time. Now, we have all these cross-disciplinary fields — queer studies, media studies, food studies. The academy is changing. The problem is, to write as an academic, to be understood, we all created these specific jargons. I have rejected that and gone my own way. 

What about food studies?
Food studies today is where African studies was in the late 1960s. For me, food studies is a deep adventure.

Why do you think food is having such a cultural moment right now?
Because we have so little else to glom on to. And in a world where there are so many things out of control, we can control what we put in us. Well, some of us can. The issue of food deserts is something we really need to pay attention to. I’m really interested in making sure everyone has access to food. Not the coddled stuff, but good food.

When you set out to write your first book, was the intent for it to be a history book or a cookbook?
Well, first there was [%amazonProductLink asin=0062510924 "Third World Women’s Beauty Secrets"], which was not a food book. But for [%amazonProductLink asin=0345335104 "Hot Stuff"], yes, I set out to write a cookbook about peppers and chiles around the world. 

Was one book your favorite to write?
No, but recipes are always the hardest for me. I’m not a picky eater, but I have particular tastes. But I recognize that my taste is my own. Even when I worked as a critic for the Village Voice, what I dislike isn’t necessarily what everyone dislikes. But I have been known to send recipes off to friends and ask them what they think. Mama was my secret before she passed away.

Do you consider High on the Hog a cookbook? It doesn’t feel like one.
No, this is the stories, it’s the headnotes. The headnotes were becoming so overwhelming that I thought it was finally time to give them their own space.

What do you say to people who disparage food writing or oral histories of food illegitimate?
It’s easy to delegitimize things. But it has to be done well. Not everyone with a microphone is an oral historian. The interviews we have from the Depression are better than nothing, that’s for certain, but they’re missing the nuance. And the nuance is everything.

You write in High on the Hog that this book is both a beginning and an end. How so?
Well, there are a lot of other things I want to do. I feel like I’ve had this time, this sort of pause, and now it’s time to do those things. I’m interested in education through museums, I’d like to do television, maybe radio, write about other topics, and I have three other cookbooks I’d like to write. We’ve looked at how the \[African\] diaspora affected the western hemisphere, but now I’d like to look east at three regions.

You wrote that much of your work has been to “untaint” African-American history through explorations of food.
Yes. You know, when we used to learn about African-American history, it was all slavery and Booker T. Washington. That isn’t very empowering. Food is one of those areas that provides another way of being in the world, that spine-straightening stuff. That’s the power of well-told stories and self-knowledge. You learn who you are so we can continue to be who we are in this hyphenated world. 

As I said, we have been hopping over the quilt to get to the kente. But I’m interested in the kente’s effect on the quilt, and I’m interested in the quilt itself. The quilt tells you what you’ve survived.

p(bio). Sara Franklin is a food-systems consultant and writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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