Eating Your Way Through the African Diaspora with Dr. Jessica B. Harris


by  V. Sheree Williams on April 28, 2011

Eating Your Way Through the African Diaspora with Dr. Jessica B. Harris

When we talk about taking a culinary getaway, the choices are endless.  The best part is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money booking a flight or hotel accommodations to jump from continent to continent.  TV, cookbooks, restaurants and cooking schools have allowed foodies to experience every aspect of food from its origins to its modern-day creations.

The origins of food, more specifically the “foodways” of the African Diaspora, have taken Dr. Jessica B. Harris on some of her most memorable journeys around the world and back to her home in New York.  For more than 30 years, Harris, a culinary historian, has traveled around the globe researching and writing about the influence of African foods not just on America, but on parts of the world as well.

Born and raised in New York City, Harris attended the United Nations International School from pre-school through her junior year in high school before graduating from the School of Performing Arts. “I grew up in a world that was wider than the one most folks, black or white, grew up in back in the 50’s when I was a kid,” she shares. “I grew up with a lot of different people eating a lot of different foods.”

As an only child, Harris has created an extended family since childhood with friends from all over the world.  With such an international background and palate, it was only natural that she would also become an acclaimed and highly respected cookbook author with a diverse collection of recipes that are said to be meticulously written.  In addition, those preparing them get not only a new recipe, but a piece of history as well.

In Harris’ latest book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” released this year, readers are teased with 23 recipes and treated to an amazing journey that no history book could ever tell or several culinary tours would be able to show.  In it, she acknowledges that the book was first conceived many, many years ago and is a culmination of experiences both personal and professional with too many contributors to name. Simply put, “High on the Hog” is a history book about African-Americans in the United States and food from Africa to the present.

Professional experiences that contributed to her latest book include being a journalist for more than 30 years.  She has written for publication icons such as Gourmet, Food & Wine, Cooking Light and Saveur.  She was also the travel editor for Essence magazine in the 70’s, which put her on travel assignments to African and Caribbean countries.  During this time she says,” I began to notice sort of similarities and also a connection to the food I grew up with.”  Harris also noticed that no one was talking about foods from the African Diaspora and as a journalist she could open those doors to get conversations started.

With one non-culinary book already published, after finishing her doctoral dissertation in the early 80’s, she was asked about her next book and decided upon a cookbook. Her first would be “Hot Stuff,” published in1985, which provided culinary commentary and recipes about foods made with peppers and chilies from around the world.  From there, she would go on to create a culinary legacy of cookbooks about the passage of foods by Africans to the Americas and beyond.

In addition, as a culinary historian, she has lectured around the world, conducted countless media interviews and served as a consultant for national corporations such as Kraft Foods, Pillsbury Foods and Unilever. Her work has garnered numerous awards and in May 2010, she was inducted into the James Beard’s Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America.

With a demanding schedule that keeps her on a plane and her passport stamped, Harris’ passion for sharing the history of foods from the Diaspora is inspirational. When asked where one should start one’s own journey, she says, “Start wherever you can afford to go.”  She goes on to say, “If you live in Charleston and you go to Savannah, you can learn about it. You don’t have to leave the country.”  And when asked about the first thing one should do, without hesitation she answers, “Eat.  If you know that you are traveling within the African Diaspora, make it your business to go off the beaten path.”

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