Of the many industries affected by COVID-19, the culinary industry has proved one of the most vulnerable, as social distancing runs contrary to the very nature of the restaurant world. The James Beard Foundation, which fosters and celebrates the industry’s leaders, is no exception.
Since the coronavirus crisis hit, the famed organization has postponed its annual May awards ceremony to an undetermined date in the summer, as well as its nomination announcements. But the current crisis hasn’t stopped JBF from bestowing one very special honor. Earlier this month, the foundation announced that culinary historian, cookbook author, educator and memoirist Jessica B. Harris is the recipient of its 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Harris, who was inducted into JBF’s Cookbook Hall of Fame last spring, has been at the forefront of preserving and highlighting culinary traditions of the African Diaspora for decades. She has authored nine books, including 2011's High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, which featured a foreword by her friend and contemporary Maya Angelou, and her riveting 2018 memoir, My Soul Looks Back, which was a Pen Open Book Award finalist that same year.
In 2016, Harris spoke with Aetna about her multifaceted career, saying “there are probably as many different strands of African-American heritage cooking as there are African Americans...It’s a long history; it’s a much wider history than people give us credit for, and it’s a very deep and profound history. But the thing that I think is the most important misconception is it not a monolithic history.”
Thanks to the James Beard Foundation, Harris has now earned her own well-deserved place in history as a culinary icon, recognized by the most prestigious entity in food culture for her life’s work and ongoing contributions. We can’t help but note that this honor was appropriately conferred during Women’s History Month, and we look forward to celebrating Harris’ latest milestone when the awards hopefully resume this summer.