Interview: Jessica Harris on African-American Food and 'High on the Hog'

Author Jessica B. Harris (Juana Arias/for the Washington Post)
Author Jessica B. Harris (Juana Arias/for the Washington Post)

By DeNeen Brown

African-American culinary historian and cookbook author Jessica B. Harris says her latest book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America (Bloomsbury), is more about narrative than recipe. In it, the Queens College (CUNY) English professor and founder of the Institute for the Study of Culinary Cultures at Dillard University in New Orleans explores how African cooking has transformed the world.


Harris, who will turn 63 next week, was in town recently to lecture during a special dinner at Eatonville restaurant, where her fans were served a menu of Harris-inspired dishes that included West African shrimp-and-spinach soup, sweet-and-spicy curried goat, smashed plantains and banana fritters. She sat down with Washington Post Staff Writer DeNeen Brown to talk about the traditions of African cooking and the stories behind the food:

What was your inspiration for "High on the Hog"?

This is book 12. As I wrote the other 11, what I became more interested in was narrative, more than the recipe. I am an intuitive cook. I take all those spices and play with them. The stories and the people and the events and the chain of events were all part of something fascinating for me. With that, the idea of writing something not recipe-based, rather narrative, became the thing. I also have a tendency to want to go back and revisit things. Beyond Gumbo is in some way a revisiting of Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons. And clearly High on the Hog has a kinship with The Welcome Table.

What role does food play in the lives of African Americans?

Generally speaking, it plays dual roles. First of all, it plays the role it plays in anybody's: any Americans or Europeans or Asians or Austrians. Or Africans. It is nourishment. It is sustenance. It is history. It is culture. It is all of that for all African Americans.

Now, specifically, because of our history — and when I speak of our history, I am speaking of what I have taken to calling Up-From-the-South, formerly enslaved African Americans. My father used to have a term that was interesting, and I suspect one used by others in his generation. He would say, "Aunt Hagar's children," which makes you think of Toni Morrison and 'Song of Solomon Hagar.' So those of us who are descendants from Aunt Hagar's children also come with the mark of enslavement.

Read the rest of this interview at the Washington Post.