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

By DeNeen Brown
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.

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.

Part of the difficulty comes with the fact many of us are still eating that and then sliding into our Mercedes with our ever-widening backsides, wondering what is wrong. That really is the case.

I looked in my cupboard last night and realized I have been cooking from your books for years. What is your favorite recipe?

I have a recipe I call my good-luck recipe. It is not something I cook often, but it is a recipe I found a way to craft that has turned up in almost every book. And it's chicken yassa.

That is the dish you first tasted in Africa?

Exactly, and that is the reason I try to fit it in, in one form or another, in my books. It's been in "Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons." It is in "A Kwanzaa Keepsake." It's certainly in "The Africa Cookbook." And I think it is in the back of this one, "High on the Hog."

What about chicken yassa do you love?

It was a connector for me. I like to make connections among people. I like seeing connections, the idea of putting together a taste with another taste or a recipe with another recipe.

With the chicken yassa, it is a key, if you will. It opens the door for some people. A lot of people are afraid of the food of the African continent. . . . With this dish, it is the familiar turned into something that is at the same time strange and wondrous.

It's an old recipe. It infuses flavor three ways: It is marinated, it's grilled and it's stewed. At each level, it gets more flavorful. If you leave one level out, you might still have a chicken yassa, but you won't have all the flavors.

Can you describe the setting in which you first tasted it?

I was with my mother on my first trip to West Africa in 1972. . . . I was working on my doctoral dissertation. I was going to the Motherland, the continent. . . . So the thing about my mother and the trip that was interesting was that my mother was a trained dietitian, although she worked at it only briefly. But she had an extraordinary palate, where she could taste and say, 'Ah, aha, aha, that, that, that.' One of the things that was fun was eating with her.

We went somewhere outside downtown Dakar at a place called N'gor. . . . We had thieboudienne, which is the national dish of Senegal. It's a red fish-and-rice stew, made red usually with tomato paste, people contend.

But for me, yassa was the combination of things I loved. I also loved the citric, something-slightly-acid something that has that citrus bite. I love onions. I do have days where I absolutely crave white rice.

That put it all together for me, three of my favorite things in a dish on a continent where I wasn't expecting to see that.

What is your earliest memory of food?

I am an only child. I was under 6. We are in the kitchen of a house that I was born into. My mother, when she cooked, I was in the kitchen by necessity because she had to keep an eye on the baby. I must have been old enough to play with dough. She was baking a pie. She must have given me some of the crust and some sugar. I know there was red food dye because I came up with something pink and round, and flat and sweet.

My wonderful, dutiful mother baked it along with the pie crust and the pie. When it came out, we ate it and decided to call it "Coo-pie-cake." It wasn't a cookie, it wasn't a pie, it wasn't a cake.

When my first book, "Hot stuff," came out, I remember signing my mother's copy and it said, 'We came a long way from Coo-pie-cake.'"

These are not spices, but I would certainly need those lemons and onions and black pepper. I could probably live without salt, but if I were on a deserted island I could dry the salt. I would need ginger. Curry is a mix, which does include ginger. I don't necessarily know I would necessarily need the turmeric that is the in the curry, but I do think I would need some of those other spices. I would need coriander.

There is a wonderful, ancient grocers in Paris called Hediard. They have their own spice mixtures. One is Melange Alexandrie. The other called the Melange Hediard. They are different spice mixtures that are not quite curries. I think I need to stop right there, or I would sink my island.

I would have cumin, rosemary, herbes de Provence. This assumes I would have lots of food. There would be chickens running around my island, and the occasional lamb that runs into my garden.

Recipe

Senegalese Chicken Yassa

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