Black History Month: Person of the Week, Jessica Harris

To celebrate Black History Month, I am sharing features about inspirational black leaders in the food community.  Last week I featured Leah Chase, owner and chef of Dooky Chase in New Orleans.  The week before I highlighted the achievements of Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power. This week I want to highlight prolific cookbook author and recent author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America, Jessica Harris.  Ms. Harris is an inspiring culinary historian who shares her enthusiasm for African history through food.

Harris has been teaching about this subject at Queens College in New York City for nearly 40 years and authored multiple books on this subject. She looks at how, not just seeds, but cuisine spread with the movement of Africans around the world, particularly Africans who came to the Americas as slaves. She explores African-American and Caribbean eating cultures as products of the circulation of people from different parts of Africa in new locations.

The scope of High on the Hog, though, extends even further back than the Atlantic slave trade. She looks at everything from African marketplaces in the 14th century, to the exchanges during the harrowing Middle Passage, through the American Civil War, and the current status of African-American cuisine.

An important commentary Harris makes is the way food culture has developed from its origins in Africa. There is no single line of African cuisine in the New World, even not in America. For example, the food African slaves prepared for themselves and for their owners is one distinction. When looking at how African-American cuisine has changed since the Civil War, Harris talks about resulting class structure and other African immigrant groups in terms of food.

Harris has spoken all over the country and even the world on the subject of food and cuisine that owes to its African heritage. Her historical and cookbooks are deliciously enlightening on a complicated  and potentially unpleasant subject. To read more about Jessica B. Harris go here and see a review of High on the Hog in the New York Times.