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Q&A: Jessica Harris on African American food and 'High on the Hog'

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 1:32 PM

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.

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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.

And with that mark of enslavement we've got that denser history with food. Let's start at the beginning. We have planted it. Harvested it. Processed it. Cooked it. Served it. Cleared the table. Washed the dishes and emptied the chamber pot. Which pretty much gives us the full food chain there. With all that, we have another, deeper attachment.

What about misconceptions? What do you think most people think of when they think of African American food? Do you think there is misunderstanding?

The common misconception is that it is fatty, it is unhealthy and it is going to kill you. I think that is part of the bad rap, if you will, that soul food, which is the same term I don't use for that same reason. Because when you say "soul food," people immediately go to that "plate." The "plate" is fried chicken and the greens floating in a wonderfully aromatic pot that is very oily because it has bacon and ham hock and half of last night's leftover ham in it accompanied by the macaroni and cheese. We all know "the plate."

But the problem with the plate is that is the festive plate, if you will. It is not the everyday plate. And it is also the prosperous plate. It is not the plate that people - we are talking about enslaved people who were on rations. And a diet that comes out of that. So what happens if you have been starving, literally? The first thing you do when you can eat is eat, and perhaps overeat, and that is what becomes your diet.

It is also a rural diet, a diet of farm workers. When you look at that American breakfast and the multiple rashers of bacon and pancakes and butter dripping off everything and maple syrup and three and four eggs, that is a farm workers' meal. These are meals originally designed by people who plowed the back 40 before breakfast. When you do that, you can afford a caloric imbalance, if you will. You are exercising.


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