HIGH ON THE HOG: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. By Jessica B. Harris. Bloomsbury, January 2011. 304 pages, photographs. $26, hardcover.
It amazes new students of ar chaeology that the most essential insights into a bygone community may be found in the humble section of rubble called the kitchen midden. It’s here that broken plate ware is examined, along with iron pots and pans and broken ceramic jars containing trace elements of oil from which experts reassemble the daily fabric of a past society’s life.
Oak Bluffs (and New York and New Orleans) writer Jessica B. Harris, author of 11 cookbooks, professor at Queen’s College CUNY, and founder of the Institute for Study of Culinary Cultures at Dillard University, has taken kitchen midden studies a giant step further in her new book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (Bloomsbury, $26). Maya Angelou provides the foreward.
It’s the food itself, Prof. Harris maintains, that tells us everything we need to know about a civilization, starting with the nascent society of Colonial America, rife with growth, uncommon creativity and unspeakable brutality, built and fed as it was by an immense slave population.
One of the optimistic notes to come out of Prof. Harris’s deeply honed scholarship is that we in this country would have enjoyed no cuisine any further advanced than, say, the U.K.’s prior to its own African, Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern influx of the 1960s.
Starting five centuries ago, among the many culinary items that the western coast of Africa brought to bear on the limited diet in the New World were cumin, sesame seeds, sorghum, yams and sweet potatoes, okra, black-eyed peas, watermelon and peanuts, yes peanuts — the New World took credit for them but they actually arrived here with a Bantu name, nguba, meaning groundnut, i.e. goober, i.e. peanuts.
Our first New England settlement at Plymouth may have been one of the few European encampments in North America that arrived without slaves. But the first Dutch penetrations into the New York and New Jersey wilderness as early as 1609 simultaneously applied Africans’ slave labor to plantation fields. Further south, the Spanish were no less merciful, nor were the French, long-accustomed as they were to working Africans for cash crops and new economies in the Caribbean.
On a lighter note, Prof. Harris recounts the histories of some of the stellar African cooks. President Washington despaired when his dandy-dressing, genius chef, Hercules, vanished into the mists one day, never to be found again, and Thomas Jefferson brought his mistress Sally Hemings’ brother, master chef James Hemings, to perfect his skills in Paris.
High on the Hog includes a still-wider perspective of what African Americans contributed to the City on the Hill. On a visit with her mother in 1998 to a plantation on Louisiana’s River Road, Mrs. Harris, a lifelong Northerner, was naturally disturbed by the sight of dilapidated slave quarters. But then at a Palladian-style mansion, Houmas House, she stood in awe of the vast white columns and allées of ancient trees. When she realized it was slaves who’d brought both sinews and ingenuity to the building of the estate, she marveled, “What artistry. What beauty they created for people who thought we were nothing but goods, not even human beings.”
We tend to think of African American contributions to the arts, music, movies, sports, food and fashion as a recent development, almost as if a culture needs to acquire a bulking middle and upper class before its creative impulses can begin to electrify all the other tangled threads of society. But Prof. Harris demonstrates how, at every step along the way, from the earliest Colonial homesteads to the post-millennial explosion of African-influenced food, art and culture from Savannah to Stockholm, the boundless originality from the once-named Dark Continent has arguably contributed more to the fabric of our way of life than any other ethnic incursion.
For the first centuries of black habitation of the New World, food was the most direct means of establishing a budding nation’s identity, as slaves fed their masters as well as themselves, addressing the essential problem of sustaining a people in a new land. White settlers had fewer ideas about cultivars and livestock than the African land-dwellers. Additional skills derived from the native populations who had lived off the land for some ten thousand millennia and counting. Prof. Harris discusses the culinary and philosophical kinship between native and slave populations, and the large numbers of the latter who escaped and found seamless acceptance with the Iroquois, Algonquin, Wampanoags and other native groups of the eastern seaboard.
Gracing the pages of High on the Hog are a number of illustrations and vintage photographs, including an upstairs/downstairs portrait of an all black corps of female cooks in white caps and ankle-length white aprons, 19th century African American families standing around a heavily-laden table for their own holiday feast, heart-wrenching depictions of slaves aboard ship in the Middle Passage, slave auctions, and an African marketplace with heaping baskets of produce. High on the Hog reveals a sweeping history of the African influence in the U.S.A. running the gamut from plates of fried porgies to the momentous events of the civil rights movement, and how celebrity black chefs of the 20th century brought together poets, writers, artists, movie stars and presidents in their cachet-studded restaurants such as B Smith’s in the New York theatre district and Georgia’s in Los Angeles.
Jessica B. Harris’s scholarship is intricate, impressive and continuously fascinating. This labor of love stands out on every page, along with her original points of view and her fine, determinedly non-academic writing. She clearly revels in the fact that, as much as she adores to cook (and eat!) and feed lucky friends around her dinner table on Tuckernuck avenue in Oak Bluffs, for the first time in her illustrious publishing career, she is breaking away from the classic cookbook format. Nonetheless, at the back of the books, she smuggles in 12 key recipes.
One of them will surprise most readers. That most American of dishes, Mac ’n Cheese, is actually an African innovation. The prep work for the homemade version is not much more arduous than mixing together packaged macaroni and those sacks of orange powder from the carton: The author instructs you boil the macaroni, then drain, fill a buttered pudding dish with alternate layers of macaroni and grated cheese, sprinkling pepper, salt and melted butter over each layer.
The cover consists of cheese moistened with rich milk (I’m taking this to mean half and half), then you bake it in a moderate oven until the mixture turns a rich brown. This recipe comes from Rufus Estes’s Good Things to Eat and I think he, Prof. Harris and the entire continent of Africa have beat Kraft Foods hands down.