Years ago, when Dr Jessica Harris compiled recipes for her 12th cookbook, she achieved something different at work.
“I noticed that the top notes got longer and longer,” Ms. Harris said, recalling the increasing descriptions of scenes and pictures, places and stories that took on greater significance.
She had set out to write a familiar cookbook, but the ingredients demanded more.
“There were stories I wanted to tell,” recalls Ms. Harris in a recent telephone conversation with the Gazette, just weeks before her annual pilgrimage to her family cottage in Oak Bluffs for the season. “It was my first type of narrative trip in this direction.”
And so, with the help of an editor, Ms. Harris transformed her recipes and stories into a vast, melodic work of culinary history, marrying a personal narrative with in-depth historical investigation while tracing the history of African American cuisine. from its itineraries on the continent to its many iterations in modern American culinary tradition.
“It’s a story that is both simple and complex,” described Harris, who has the rare combination of being both affable and scholarly. “It is the story literally, obviously in a very brief compass, of the journey of what we consider to be African American food from the continent to this hemisphere.”
It was in 2011.
Now, a decade later, and at a time when many long-held myths of black experience and history have begun to be revisited, his book, High on the Hog, has been adapted into a Netflix documentary series, which begins streaming on May 26. The four-part documentary takes viewers through the bustling Dantokpa market in Benin, West Africa, to the fiery barbecue grills of Texas, with commentary from chefs and culinary experts like BJ Dennis and Michael Twitty.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams and hosted by food writer and chef Stephen Satterfield, the series, like the book, weaves the sights and sounds of Africa and the southern United States with historical context, as well as plates mouthwatering Senegalese lamb and crispy fried fish that viewers can almost smell across the screen.
Ms Harris helped select Benin as the opening location and features prominently in the pilot episode, acting as a guiding force for the rest of the series.
“I hope the big ‘aha’ moment for a lot of people is how fundamental the foundation of American food is, how the basis of American food is African-American. . . and not just in terms of specific dishes, ”she said. “Everything from agriculture to ranching to technology – all of these things are very, very much a part of what we now think of as American food, and yet they owe, in many cases, their creation to the United States. African-American know-how. “
The food and culture of the African diaspora has defined much of Ms. Harris’s career and life. In addition to having written over 12 books and numerous magazine articles on the subject, she was an English teacher for 50 years at Queens College. Last March, she won a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.
Her personal culinary journey began as a child growing up in Queens, NY, Ms. Harris said, spending days with her mother in the kitchen. “I grew up eating well. . . My mother was a culinary omnivore. . . and as a trained dietitian, she could cook just about anything. If my mom was in the kitchen I was in the kitchen so I probably grew up cooking too.
As a child, she attended the United Nations International School in New York, making friends from all over the world and discovering the flavors of international cuisine.
“It has given me a hitherto insatiable curiosity about how and what the world eats,” she said.
After earning a French degree from Bryn Mawr College and an MA from Queen’s College, she continued her quest for food and culture, working as a travel editor at Essence magazine in the 1970s, where she traveled to various points of the African diaspora. In 1972, while preparing her doctoral dissertation at New York University, she finally found her way to the African continent, an experience that set the stage for her work in the decades to come.
“I started to make connections,” she said of the experience. “[My work] began to trace a culinary continuum from the African continent to this hemisphere, and most books since then have dealt with this.
High on the Hog – in her broad review of African cuisine, the transatlantic slave trade, and current American foods – is the culmination of many of these strains, she said. Even though, at 73, she said she was far from done.
Martha’s Vineyard, a second home for over 65 years, has also played a part in this culinary story, with one of the chapters of High on the Hog taking place on the island. Another of his books, The Martha’s Vineyard Table, also focuses on the island.
“It’s part of my life, my world and what I talk about,” she said.
The Netflix series owes its origins in part to the island, Ms. Harris said, recalling a meeting on the vineyard with the show’s director. She underlined the desirability – and the poignant nature – of adapting the book into the current cultural moment, with black-centric travel shows still somewhat rare.
“I think, like so much of American history, there is a lot of unspoken and a lot of erasure. . . on the importance of African Americans in the building of the country. I think it’s important that we begin to think, recognize and maybe be surprised at how deeply African Americans were and are involved in the creation of this country. “
“We’re at the foundation, we’ve been here a long time and we’ve done a lot,” she continued.
Ms Harris said she only hopes for one thing from viewers of the documentary: openness.
“I would like to hope the show leaves people open to surprise,” she said, a warm laugh crossing the phone. “It would be the most wonderful thing if it only opened minds and hearts, and in some cases opened mouths.”