Over the course of fifty years and a dozen books, Dr. Jessica B. Harris has uncovered the ways that West African food, and African American people, have fundamentally shaped American cuisine. In 2011, when she published her book High on the Hog, this link had received little attention. Today it’s getting more recognition, including with a new Netflix series inspired by Dr. Harris’s book. We talk with her about her own journey in making these connections between West Africa and America, and she offers advice to the new generation of Black scholars and writers exploring these links: “Look ahead. What do you see ahead?”
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
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- "Mouse Song" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Happy Jackson" by Ken Brahmstedt
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Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Dan Pashman: So I know that your first trip to West Africa was in 1972. What were your impressions of the food during that trip?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: The food was fascinating because it was at the same time familiar and unfamiliar.
Dan Pashman: This is Dr. Jessica B. Harris. She’s the author of many cookbooks that focus on African American food.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I fell in love with the markets of West Africa. It's a love that I hold dearly. Senegal, certainly, at that time was only a decade out of independence. It was a country that was sort of proud of itself and straightening its back and doing all sorts of things. I think some of it showed up in the market, some of it showed up in the people and some of it showed up in the food. There are all kinds of things that come to memory. I think the most important one is my first taste of chicken yassa. Chicken yassa is a chicken that is marinated in lemon juice with onion and then grilled. My stomach is just growling as I'm talking about chicken yassa that tells me something. That's like, ohh!
Dan Pashman: In other words, the passion is still there. I can tell. [LAUGHS]
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Oh yeah the stomach is going, yes, we need something right about now. Whoops, sorry about that. So anyhow, the chicken yassa — don't do that again.
Dan Pashman: This is a safe space for anyone who's hungry. Dr. Harris.
Dr Harris: OK, you know, well, nothing like a mic to rat you out.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Since her first trip to Senegal, and her first taste of chicken yassa, Dr. Jessica B. Harris has written 14 books, most about African and African American food. Her best known work is High on the Hog, which was recently adapted into a Netflix series.
Dan Pashman: A lot of Dr. Harris’s work explores one central idea: Because of the transatlantic slave trade, West African people and their food played a fundamental role in shaping American food. And it’s not just about southern cooking. We can trace that influence from Thomas Downing and his oyster house in 1800s New York, to the Black cowboys of the West. As Dr. Harris has said of African Americans and food in America, “We have planted it, harvested it, processed it, cooked it, served it, cleared the table, washed the dishes, and emptied the chamber pot.”
Dan Pashman: In recent years this history has gotten more attention, but that’s largely because of Dr. Harris’s work uncovering it over the last half century. The link between West Africa and America is one that slave owners and other white Americans have taken great pains to erase. It took decades of traveling, studying, and writing, for Dr. Harris to truly understand it.
Dan Pashman: Today, we’ll talk with her about her own journey in making these connections, and her influence on a whole new generation of Black Americans in food. And that journey started long before her first trip to Africa with a love of food, which she says comes from her upbringing.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I call my mother, my late mother, my culinary secret weapon, simply because she had a most extraordinary palate. She was actually a trained dietitian. So she was trained in food in ways that I am not. She was also just an extraordinary cook. I mean, my mother could bake intuitively as I can cook intuitively. I mean, so she really was extremely good. And part of, I suspect, my career i kind of an homage to her because she never got to have that career because she was of a different time.
Dan Pashman: Dr. Harris is an only child, born and raised in New York City. She describes her upbringing as middle class, but she writes in her memoir that a friend once said, “There was no real Black middle class. Our standards and aspirations were always upper class.” As a child, her parents took her on trips to Europe and North Africa. In high school and college, she fell in love with French and theater, which led her to do a Ph. D. in the French-speaking theater of Senegal. That was when she took that first trip to West Africa, the part of the continent most connected to the slave trade. She visited the markets and ate chicken yassa for the first time. Speaking of which, what exactly was that dish that, 50 years later, made her stomach growl just thinking about it?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: It's chicken that is marinated with lemon juice and onion, then grilled. So you get a little of the smoke from the grilling because it's grilled over wood fire. It would be in Senegal and then stewed.
Dan Pashman: Oh!
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: So when you start to talk about infusing flavors —
Dan Pashman: That's a flavor on a flavor on a flavor.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Yeah, you've got layers upon layers upon layers of all kinds of astounding flavors. And then it's served with white rice. And there's a little bit of heat that comes from what I now know is a habanero chili. And all of that is just that wonderful sort of savory with a little bit of smoke and then that zing from the lemon and of course, you know, onions that just melt in your mouth. So it's not a bad thing.
Dan Pashman: So clearly, you were struck by the deliciousness of that dish but was there something that you connected with on a deeper level?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Well, I think the thing was that I knew onions. I knew lemons. I knew barbecue and grilling. I knew chicken but this was a whole nother way of combining them that was at the same time familiar and yet very, very different. And with a sophistication that we don't necessarily think of as the food of the African continent in the States. And I think that was another aha thing was realizing just how sophisticated the traditional food was that wasn't French food, that wasn't even necessarily French-inflected food. It was traditional Senegalese food. And that, I think was extraordinary.
Dan Pashman: During this period in the 70s, back in New York, Dr. Harris fell in with a crowd of Black intellectuals, including the poet Dr. Maya Angelou and singer Nina Simone. Looming especially large in this group was the writer James Baldwin.
Dan Pashman: You tell a story in your memoir of him reading an early draft. You were sort of in a small group together. He read an early draft to the group of If Beale Street Could Talk to you and the other guests, then he read it again because Toni Morrison arrived, which that seems like the right thing to do in that situation. But he made popcorn.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And there's a million questions I have about this night, but this is a food podcast and, I guess — I, obviously, I never had the experience of meeting James Baldwin, but I think a popcorn is such a sort of a...
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Mundane and prosaic.
Dan Pashman: But also very joyous.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Well, absolutely.
Dan Pashman: I love popcorn. I love making it. I love the experience of listening to the kernels and seasoning them and eating them. It's one of my favorite foods and it is — I think, the day you stop loving making popcorn it's like ...
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Something has gone wrong in your life.
Dan Pashman: Really. I mean, you have lost all joy. And I really enjoyed thinking about James Baldwin as someone who from my distance, I think of someone very serious, doing something that I think of as so joyful.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Well, yeah. Yeah but I think anyone who has seen any kind of image of Baldwin smiling understands that extraordinary capacity for joy that he had, you know, and so I never connected popcorn with joy but it is absolutely appropriate.
Dan Pashman: Did he have a special recipe? Can you tell me, did you remember about the popcorn?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Honestly, I don't. I was not witness to the making of the popcorn. I was just there for the consuming of the popcorn. But it was a time before microwaves. So I'm thinking, you know, heavy pot, oil, kernels that puff up in the pot.
Dan Pashman: At this point Dr. Harris was teaching French at Queens College in New York. And she was branching out into writing and editing. She wrote theater reviews, book reviews. Then she became the travel editor at Essence Magazine.
Dan Pashman: While her job wasn’t explicitly about food, her writing and her travels allowed her to eat all over the world. She even had a regular column called “The Go Gourmet” And she saw culinary connections up and down the Western Hemisphere, from the U.S. to the Caribbean to Brazil. All places where enslaved Africans had brought their cultures. In Puerto Rico Dr. Harris found lechon, a roasted suckling pig, which has ties to whole-hog barbecue that you’d find in the American South, which uses cooking methods that come from West Africa.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I think the Caribbean was for me a connector. And the food in Puerto Rico was again the familiar and yet the different. One of the things in Puerto Rico I had — I have a girlfriend named Patricia Wilson, who is actually Canadian but was raised in Puerto Rico. And you will find no more Rican person than probably Patricia. And she and I used to do wicked things like — Medalla is the beer of Puerto — one of the beers in Puerto Rico, and we put two Medallas in the cup holder of her car, which was purple and was named Barney. So we put Medallas in Barney's cup holders and head to the hills with kind of like our noses out of the window sniffing to see if we could find lechon. That's just amazing.
Dan Pashman: Oh, yes.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: We always found it. And, you know, my stomach is getting ready to growl again. But, you know, but that tlove of the almighty pig was something that that certainly Patricia and I shared and we would go off looking for it. So all of those things — again, the markets. Patricia introduced me not to the large market, but the little market that is in San Juan, not in old San Juan. And we'd go there and, you know, eat our way around it, meet people, and see vegetables. And I'd poke and prod, you know, I mean, one year I came back with sort of like, three-foot-long cinnamon sticks. So, I mean, I am now I think known to the world as a market junkie. I am.
Dan Pashman: You know, what is it about those markets that you find so compelling or attractive?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Well, I mean, I think of “market” in almost the Greek sense of “agora.” It is a meeting place. It is a place where you go for the news. It is a place where you go to find what's going on to really center yourself in a community, because the market is the center of the community.
Dan Pashman: Dr. Harris seeks out the center of a place because she’s always looking for connection points, the ways people are linked together. So when she traveled back to West Africa, she was interested not only in the food, but also in connecting with the painful history of slavery. More than one of these trips took her to Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I went to La Maison des Esclaves, which is one of the places from which enslaved Africans were sent to the United States. And it's a house. It's a house with a very sort of interesting, kind of horseshoe-shaped stairwell in the courtyard. And under the stairway, you can look through it and see what is called the door of no return, which goes out to the sea from whence people were put on to what would have been the sailing ship that was at anchor.
Dan Pashman: Enslaved Africans were held in several places like Goree Island’s Maison Des Esclaves. Many people didn’t make it out of these houses. They died at the hands of their enslavers before they could even attempt the horrific journey across the ocean. When Dr. Harris visited, she was the only Black person on the tour. Everyone else was white.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: It was just so extraordinarily moving that I, you know, really broke down and a lady who I have maybe not seen or heard of or from in at least 50 years, whose name was Yaya Mboupa, I will never forget her name, said, you need to be with your people.
Dan Pashman: Yaya took Dr. Harris to the house of Souleymane Keita, a Senegalese painter who was born on the island. He and his wife Elaine were hosting a few other Americans.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I ended up that night spending the night on Goree. But when the last ferry leaves, it's a very different community. It was so quiet. You hear people wore a lot of flip flops. So you'd hear this feet on the sand because nothing was really paved. You smell the wood fires, the wood smoke of the fires in various people's houses as they were cooking over wood. It was just an extraordinary moving thing. So I always think of Goree in that kind of bittersweet way. It was just an amazing place for any number of reasons. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
Dan Pashman: Dr. Harris wrote about that experience for Essence in 1976. She also kept writing her Go Gourmet column, which eventually formed the foundation of her first cookbook, published in 1985, called Hot Stuff: A Cookbook in Praise of the Piquant. Basically, a love letter to spicy food. Then, in 1989, after decades of traveling and observing, Dr. Harris published her next book, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking. This is the first book where she crystallizes the idea that enslaved West African people brought their food to the Americas.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: When I started to write Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons, which was in the late 80s, somewhere along there, I realized, hmm, there is a continuum. There is something that goes from this place through other places to this place where I am. And I think that was conscious and formulated and in fact, is part of that introduction to Iron Pots And Wooden Spoons how there is an umbilicus that connects the African continent with the American hemisphere, if you will. And so I think that all of that is part of what happened, but I think it was more organic than aha.
Dan Pashman: Over the next twenty years, Dr. Harris would develop her ideas one step further. West African people and food are not only connected to American food — they form the basis of it. That’s coming up, stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week on the show I talk with the comedian and Nailed It host Nicole Byer. We have a big debate whether Sebastian from The Little Mermaid is a crab or a lobster, which leads Nicole to look up what a whole shrimp looks like for the first time in her life.
CLIP (NICOLE BYER): Okay, whole-ass shrimp is what I’m googling. Ahh! These are wild!
Dan Pashman: This is a really fun one, you also gotta hear what not safe for work chocolates Nicole sculpts for her co-host, Jacques Torres. That episode is up now, check it out. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to the show. After Dr. Harris’s book, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons, came out in 1989, she continued to explore West Africa’s influence on America and much of the Western Hemisphere. She wrote a few more cookbooks diving deeper into African American food. And then, in 2011, she published High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.
Dan Pashman: This was the book that cemented her ideas about the role that African Americans have played in creating American food. In it, she writes of Black Americans, “Involuntarily taken from a homeland, molded in the crucible of enslavement, forged in the fire of disenfranchisement, and tempered by migration. We all too often remain strangers in the only land that is ours. Despite all this, we have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other.” High on the Hog does include a few recipes, but it’s mostly a blend of deeply researched history with Dr. Harris’s own personal narrative. I asked Dr. Harris why she chose not to do it as a cookbook.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Because I think writing recipes is the thing I hate most in the world.
Dan Pashman: But I also get the impression that — you had been interviewed. You said something to the effect of that cookbooks don't get the same level of respect.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Oh, OK. I don't even remember saying that. I mean, you have obviously read more about me than I've read about me. But my thing is really I don't cook with recipes. So trying to codify something is not what interests me. That's not was razzes my dazz. I'm interested in the back story. And one of the reasons that that High on the Hog happened was because the head notes, the back story for the recipes got longer and longer and longer. And it was finally like, well, maybe I should just tell the story.
Dan Pashman: So that’s what she did. The first part of the book is an exploration of West Africa, where Dr. Harris visits the markets, of course, and sees okra, watermelon, leafy greens, and starchy porridges — many of the ingredients we associate with the American South. The rest of the book focuses on specific African American communities and people. She writes about Black cowboys, about the enslaved people who brought rice to the American colonies, and many more.
Dan Pashman: You tell the story in the book of several Black entrepreneurs, Thomas Downing, who built an empire with oysters in New York City. There's Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was a hotel owner, one of the richest Black women in 19th century California. Barney Ford, who ran the People's Restaurant in Denver. It's incredible to think of what they accomplished, the obstacles that they overcame and also, like you say, the fact that so little of them is known today. When you first started reading about the work of these Black Americans in food throughout the centuries, what impact did hearing those stories and learning more about them have on you?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Gosh, I really — I don't know. I mean, I think my spine may have straightened a little bit more. I might have, you know, walked a little taller and been a little bit prouder. I think that that this whole notion of hidden heroes and we've got so many hidden or stolen or strayed.
Dan Pashman: Or erased.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Erased. African-Americans in all realms, not just the culinary that deserve, that cry out for reestablishment.
Dan Pashman: I don't know if you ever heard of this gentleman. So I grew up in New Jersey. I moved out to Long Island near where my wife grew up when he left New York City. And we ended up in this small town called Greenlawn that we didn't know very much about. The one thing Green is known for, if it's known for anything besides being the birthplace of Mariah Carey, is pickles. And there is a pickle festival every fall. Well, it turns out the reason why Greenlawn is known for pickles is because there was a gentleman named Samuel Balton, who was enslaved and escaped slavery, broke his wife out of slavery. They walked from Virginia to New York and settled in Greenlawn. And he was such a talented farmer and expert in agriculture that he grew more cucumbers for pickling than anybody else in the area. He set the record and he was nicknamed the Pickle King, and he used the money from selling the cucumbers to pickles and became a landowner in Greenlawn, an entrepreneur, a business owner. He built houses that are still there to this day. When a blight attacked cucumbers in the area. He was the one who identified which strain of cucumbers would be resistant to the blight and not only grew them himself, but taught others in the area which one and how to grow it. And he is now getting some recognition in this small, mostly white town in the suburbs of Long Island, which is not a place that I — like, not a place I would have thought of to have found that story.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I mean, I think the thing that's so fascinating is that he is in the suburbs of Long Island. Because I mean, if you begin to think about it in those terms, when we start talking about these hidden heroes and so on and so forth, that if they can be found in this town Greenlawn in Long Island unexpectedly, then how many other stories are there? I mean, and I think that that's the thing that was so astounding for me. I also like the fact that he did pickles, because pickling is something that African Americans were noted for. Abby Fisher, who for many years was thought to have written the first African American cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking was a pickle maker in California. So that whole notion of pickling and preserving is something I haven't looked into but that I may be looking into in the future.
Dan Pashman: It's just amazing to me. One of the things that I learned when I read Michael Twitty’s book — you know, when I was growing up, my understanding of the way slavery worked. I had this idea that, like, these boats pulled up to the beach in Africa. A bunch of Europeans jumped off the boat and threw a giant net over the closest Africans they could find and put them in the bottom of the boat. I had no understanding of what a methodical...
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: And diabolical.
Dan Pashman: And diabolical system it was.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Economically based.
Dan Pashman: Right. But just the people who were running the slave trade understood how much expertise the African people had and preyed upon and use that expertise. That it wasn't just we need strong people to lift things and plow things.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: No.
Dan Pashman: It was, we need expertise to grow these industries.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Well, it's all of it. It's all of it's all of it, you know, intertwined together.
Dan Pashman: In the 10 years since High on the Hog, Dr. Harris has started to get more recognition for her work. In 2019, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. That was the first time, more than thirty years into her writing career, that the foundation recognized her. Now comes the Netflix adaptation of High on the Hog. The four-part travel documentary came out in May, and it’s hosted by Stephen Satterfield, a writer and entrepreneur. Here’s Stephen, in the opening minutes of the show.
CLIP (STEPHEN SATTERFIELD): Benin, West Africa. It was strange to come home to a place I’d never been. Fragments of a lost memory were everywhere, in the sounds and smells and tastes. Deciding to trace the origins of the food that had come to define America was one thing but being on the continent and feeling it, that was completely another.
Dan Pashman: Dr. Harris only appears in the first episode. She visits Benin with Stephen, acting as his guide. The first place she brings him, of course, is the market. She literally holds his hand as they amble through.
CLIP (STEPHEN SATTERFIELD): One of the largest open air markets in Africa And my feet are on the ground here and it feels incredible.
CLIP (DR. JESSICA B. HARRIS): This is where you come to be in the center of the kind of throbbing life of the place...
Dan Pashman: The Netflix show tells some of the same stories from Dr. Harris’s book, and it adds new stories from a new generation of Black Americans in food. There’s Omar Tate, who’s recreating the dishes made by Black caterers in the early 20th century. Juneteenth-inspired cakes created by Jerrelle Guy. And Ben Harney, who’s selling oysters on the streets of Harlem. Food writer Osayi Endolyn wrote in The New York Times that the show, “Does what so few have been willing to do: give Black people space to explore and express our own joy.”
Dan Pashman: The series also brings together different generations of Black Americans to talk with each other about their history. Dr. Harris is 73. Stephen Satterfield is 36. At the end of the first episode, they travel together to a place in Benin similar to Goree Island. Another place where enslaved Africans started their journey across the Atlantic. As they stand there together by the shore, Stephen begins to weep, just as Dr. Harris did on Goree Island. She comforts Stephen, hugs him, talks him through the experience. I asked her how she felt being there with him, and how that relates to her role in helping the next generation continue her work.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: Well, I mean, I don't think I'm inured to the emotion of the place or the time, but I have been to many of the places and I had certainly been to that place in Benin at least three or four times prior. So that there was, you know, I can't say an emotional disconnect. You cannot help feel something there. It's palpable. But with all of that, as Yaya Mboupe was there for me, there is always kind of a necessary imperative that someone help someone through it and then maybe you get your help the next time. If everybody breaks down, no one can get anywhere because we're all just heaving masses. So I think that's part of what was driving my reaction there. It's not at all that I am stoic by any stretch of the imagination. I have cried there, I have wept there, I have placed some of my father's ashes along the beach there. I have communed with that place and so it was time for me to help Stephen.
Dan Pashman: You write in the introduction to High on the Hog that you, "know that the food of the African continent and its American diaspora continues to remain a culinary unknown for most folks." 10 years later, here we are. How much do you think that has changed?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I think it may be changing now. I'm not sure that it has changed. I think people are more sensitized to — I think people are – and, you know, God bless Netflix and the series, are coming to a kind of realization of some things. You know, I think that that really is not something that has changed as much as one might think it might have. I like to hope that it will.
Dan Pashman: I know that there are a number of Black Americans today, who are working in a similar direction, in terms of getting more recognition for the contributions that have been made. What advice would you have for the next generation of people who want to pursue a similar path?
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: I guess my advice would be do your work, don't do mine. Do your work. Don't look at left and right. Look ahead. What do you see ahead.
Dan Pashman: The expression “high on the hog” comes from a folk tale about an enslaved Black man named John, and his master. The story goes that John helps the master slaughter hogs, and his payment is the pig’s head, feet, and ears. In other words, the least desirable parts of the animal. But then John gets his own hogs without the master knowing, so John can eat spareribs, pork chops, all the best cuts. The next time the master asks John to help him, John first wants to know what he’ll get paid. The master says, “I’ll pay you like I always did. I’ll give you the head, the ears, the feet.” And John says, "No thanks, I’ll pass." He tells the master, “I’m eating higher on the hog than that now.” I asked Dr. Harris why she chose that expression as the title for her book.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris: It spoke to a need and a desire and something that John actually gets by his own wit and wisdom, because the reason that he's eating higher on the hog is because he's gotten three hogs of his own. Interestingly enough, they have translated it in a variety of different ways, in the 32 different languages that it seems to be available in. And the French translation is le part du lion: the lion's share. And I'm not sure I agree with that, because it speaks to a slightly different way of looking at that. I don't necessarily want the lion's share. I want my share. I just wanna be higher on the hog.
Dan Pashman: That was Dr. Jessica B. Harris. She has written many books over the years, including High on the Hog, which came out in 2011, and My Soul Looks Back, a memoir published in 2017. The TV show High on the Hog is available on Netflix and it’s really fantastic. You should check it out.
Dan Pashman: Also, High on the Hog host Stephen Satterfield has a great magazine called Whetstone, and he announced he’s launching a network of podcasts called the Whetstone Radio Collective this fall. For more info and to donate, you can visit whetstonemagazine.com. That’s, whetstone, W-H-E-T, stone magazine dot com.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, Kristen Meinzer and Rafer Guzman, hosts of the excellent podcast, Movie Therapy, will come by to prescribe some food movies for your problems. While you're waiting for that one to come out, you gotta to hear Nicole Byer in last week's show. She's hilarious.