Jessica B. Harris’s Guide to Black Culinary History

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Jessica B. Harris, Dawn Davis
·3 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Bahia, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Martha’s Vineyard, and Paris are the places she’s called home. Erudite, wickedly funny, and droll describe her personality. Who are we talking about?

None other than the culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D.—founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a professional society championing women in culinary fields, an award-winning journalist, podcaster, and author of over a dozen deeply researched books and too many articles to count. (If you’re looking for something that goes down like butter, check out her memoir, My Soul Looks Back, filled with tales about her adventures in New York’s Greenwich Village with friends James Baldwin and Maya Angelou.)

As the foremost expert on the foodways of the African diaspora, there’s no better (or wittier) guide to Black culinary traditions. Here, she shares with us a few of the dishes, books, and ingredients she finds essential to unpacking this long, rich, and ever-evolving history. —Dawn Davis, editor in chief

<h1 class="title">Jessica-b-Harris-JuneBaby-Seattle-01.jpg</h1><cite class="credit">Photo by Suzi Pratt</cite>

Jessica-b-Harris-JuneBaby-Seattle-01.jpg

Photo by Suzi Pratt

Try the Homestyle Favorites

Chef Edouardo Jordan’s JuneBaby restaurant in Seattle is an edible praise song to the genius of African American cooks. The menu offers classic dishes like fried chicken and greens along with specials—like chitlins and Momma Jordan’s oxtails—not usually tasted outside of home kitchens.

Tour the Archives

Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code reclaims and celebrates the heritage of Black America’s controversial “aunt” by documenting 200 years of African American cookbooks from her personal collection. Familiar figures such as Edna Lewis show up alongside unexpected personalities such as activist Bobby Seale and singer Mahalia Jackson in this must-own compendium.

<h1 class="title">Jessica-b-Harris-Gumbo-02.jpg</h1><cite class="credit">Photo by Emma Fishman</cite>

Jessica-b-Harris-Gumbo-02.jpg

Photo by Emma Fishman

Eat Like an Icon

The late New Orleans chef Leah Chase served Gumbo z’Herbes once a year on Holy Thursday. The dense green meaty gumbo is essential to the rich culinary history of the area’s Creoles de couleur. It’s still served annually at Dooky Chase’s, her iconic family restaurant.

<cite class="credit">Photo Courtesy Cuisine Noir/Ilaria Sponda</cite>
Photo Courtesy Cuisine Noir/Ilaria Sponda

Required Reading

Two invaluable resources for those who want to deepen their knowledge: Black Culinary History and Cuisine Noir. Both websites preserve and promote the past and present contributions of chefs of color throughout the African diaspora.

<h1 class="title">SALVADOR, BAHIA, BRAZIL</h1>

SALVADOR, BAHIA, BRAZIL

For The Bucket List

The food of São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos in northeastern Brazil is a linchpin between the food of western Africa and that of the Western Hemisphere. To taste a fish stew called a moqueca or nibble on an acarajé, a street food bean fritter, is to understand the connections.

<h1 class="title">Jessica-b-Harris-Okra-03.jpg</h1><cite class="credit">Photo by Mike Lorrig</cite>

Jessica-b-Harris-Okra-03.jpg

Photo by Mike Lorrig

More Okra, Please

Okra, which originated on the African continent, is a love/hate vegetable. Its detractors hate the “slime” and the lovers delight in the way it thickens a soup or stew and its crunch when blanched. Get recipes, history, and gardening tips, in The Whole Okra by Chris Smith.

<cite class="credit">Photo from <em>Vintage Postcards From the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play</em> by Jessica B Harris,, University Press of Mississippi</cite>
Photo from Vintage Postcards From the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play by Jessica B Harris,, University Press of Mississippi

Share Knowledge

You can find incredible images of African Americans and food on vintage postcards in my latest book, Vintage Postcards from the African World. They not only present the faces of ancestors but also tell amazing, often harrowing, stories of survival and triumph over adversity.

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit