If the 2021 Netflix docuseries High on the Hog didn’t do a good enough job at convincing you of the overwhelming impact and influence Black Americans had and have on thisc ountry’s food ways and cultures, then allow the latest exhibition at New York’s Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) to further make the case.
Presented by The Africa Center in Harlem, “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” seeks to celebrate the countless contributions of Black chefs, farmers, and food and drink producers who have laid the foundation for American food culture. Curated by acclaimed culinary historian and author Dr. Jessica B. Harris (who wrote the book that the Netflix series was based on, BTW) and advised by Chef Pierre Thiam (co-owner of Teranga the West African restaurant located inside The Africa Center), the exhibition includes notable highlights like The Legacy Quilt— composed of 406 blocks—sewn into a vast representation of African-American contributions to the fabric of American cuisine, a dynamic digital interactive feature that replicates a dinner table, allowing users to unlock stories about migration, movement, cultural evolution and more.
“We all came up with it together,” Dr. Harris explained to The Root. “And it grew organically. Then it became, ‘OK how are we gonna show this? How are we gonna showcase this?’”
She continued, “We could fill a space probably the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with stuff on African-Americans and food. There is so much and the thing that is rich about the topic is that every day we discover new things. The work is still going on, it’s not static, it’s ever-evolving. The connections are still being discovered. New foods are being added, we are reconnecting with the continent and with the foodways of the continent. There are so many things, so very many things that can be discussed and added.”
Brought to life with the help of 30 additional experts and historians across the Black culinary industry, this exhibition is surprisingly (and unsurprisingly) the first of its kind but hopefully, it won’t be the last. The Root recently sat down with Dr. Harris and Chef Thiam to discuss the importance of “Making a Nation’s Table,” some surprising finds, and the main takeaways they hope the public will leave with after viewing it.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Root: Why was it important for you to lend your expertise to this exhibition and what do you hope attendees walk away with?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: It grew organically, I have been working on and off with the Museum of Food and Drink for probably the better part of the decade. I’ve certainly been in the wings with some of it. This particular exhibition was kind of a no-brainer, I can’t believe no one’s ever done it before. But our culture generally, and here I mean American culture and the larger sense of America and the United States—we are, year by year by year, getting more food-obsessed. Or more and more food savvy or food knowledgeable, if you will. As that we are finding out new things about what we eat, we are eating new things. The world has changed and we are so food savvy that it was kind of like, ‘Wow no one has ever thought about doing a show on African-American food’. And we have such a deep history.
African-American food or African-American labor, let me take it that way, African-American labor—and I do mean enslaved labor—was foundational. Agriculture in the United States, before it was the United States, agriculture in colonial America depended on enslaved people. And so once you start to look at that, you see just how basic and connected African-Americans are with food and this country. And if you really wanna take it out, in this atmosphere. So I’d like for people to come away with a sense of wow, a sense of wonder. A feeling of having learned something and wanting to go deeper.
Chef Pierre Thiam: As a chef from West Africa, I have dedicated my career to introducing the food from my origins to the world. In my very first cookbook, Yolélé! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal, I had dedicated a whole chapter to American foods from West Africa. That chapter was titled “The Middle Passage”. As I was doing the research on the book, it became clear to me that our food was present everywhere our people went. That story needed to be amplified. What I hope attendees walk away with, is the realization that our food is telling a different story than what had been told to us. Captive Africans brought much more than labor. They brought a rich food culture, alongside ingredients and techniques. Our food is alive and well everywhere around the diaspora. It should be celebrated. It offers us an opportunity to be directly connected with our ancestors.
TR: What role does food and Black culinary history play in the nurturing of our relationships with our brothers and sisters across the diaspora?
DRJBH: I think one of the things that I think has happened because of the Netflix series, is [the realization] that there’s a lot of stuff that we share. Here, we eat Hoppin’ John: black-eyed peas and rice. Where do they eat beans and rice? Pretty much, damn near everywhere in the diaspora, and in the continent and Africa has its own indigenous rice that’s native to the African content. So we get all those kinds of connections. We have a connection to leafy greens that people don’t really look at. It runs throughout. We’ve got a lot of things that connect us. Taste profiles may differ, we have some over-arching ones that connect us. We like our food well seasoned, we don’t like bland foods. It doesn’t always have to be hot, spicy hot but it should always be well seasoned. There are a lot of connectors that operate not only in North America but in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and in the motherland itself.
TR: In compiling resources for this exhibition, were there any facts that you were surprised to learn about?
DRJBH: An African-American gentleman, Frederick McKinley Jones, basically invented the apparatus that allows us to have refrigerated trucks. If you think of all of the food that comes to market in refrigerated trucks—around the world, not just in the United States—when you think about how that invention changed the world basically. We’re still getting so much of our food with refrigerated trucks. That’s amazing. The number of patents African-Americans from everything from ways to better shuck corn to ice cream scoops, all sorts of things. We don’t even think of. Not necessarily inventing “the thing,” but improving on it. We’ve been in the kitchens for so long, we’ve done so many tasks. And a lot of us have used our skills to refine, make easier or make more efficient the tools. So I think a lot of the patents and kinds of things that were invented were somewhat of a surprise to me
CPT: Working on this exhibition was an education in and of itself. I found the shoebox story quite fascinating. All sorts of hurdles were put in place to make it difficult for blacks who wanted to leave the south in search of better living conditions. One significant challenge was that trains and restaurants along the way wouldn’t serve food to black people. Ever resilient, our people turned shoe boxes into lunch boxes. This to me is a testimony of our resilience and determination.
“African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” runs at MOFAD from Feb. 23-June 19, 2022. For more information on how to get your tickets, visit theafricacenter.com.