Jessica B. Harris on Making Vast Connections Across African American Cooking and Culture
Dr. Jessica B. Harris is renowned as the grande dame of African American cookbooks. One of the world’s foremost historians, scholars, writers, and thinkers when it comes to food—and African American cooking in particular—she has, over the past 40 years, published 12 books documenting the foods and foodways of the African diaspora, including Hot Stuff (1985), Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons (1989), Sky Juice and Flying Fish (1991), The Welcome Table (1995), The Africa Cookbook (1998), and High on the Hog (2011)—the latter of which became a Netflix docuseries and, in turn, a New York Times bestseller. In 2020, Harris received a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation.
Now, at age 75, she’s a professor emerita of Queens College, where she was an English professor for 50 years until her retirement, and she’s currently at work curating a three-year project called “African American Garden,” at the New York Botanical Garden. As a journalist, she served as the travel editor at Essence, from 1977 to 1980, and as the restaurant reviewer at the Village Voice, from 1995 to 2001. Harris is also an avid deltiologist—a postcard collector—with a massive collection of rare and unusual postcards with images depicting a wide range of cultures, from early-twentieth-century Paris, to Dakar around the same time, to Guadeloupean street vendors, many of which feature in a compendium she published called Vintage Postcards From the African World (2020). Through her cookbooks, her work, and her very being, Harris is a living testament to the polyvocal, far-reaching traditions and histories of African American food and culture.
On this episode, Harris talks about her love of West African markets, her disregard for recipes despite being the author of numerous cookbooks, and the widely unrecognized yet critical differences between yams and sweet potatoes.
Harris talks about the immense postcard collection she has amassed over decades, with images depicting a wide range of cultures.
Harris discusses what it’s been like to see her book High on the Hog developed into a Netflix series. She also talks about how the opportunities and attention around African American food and cooking over the past few years are “completely different” than ever before.
Harris recalls some of the most remarkable African markets she’s been to, including the Lomé Grand Market in Togo; the Sandaga, Tilene, and Kermel markets in Dakar, Senegal; and the Treichville market in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
Harris speaks about yams, rice, and okra through the lenses of geography, enslavement, and time.
Harris reflects on the life of her great-grandfather, Samuel Philpot, who had been enslaved. She also talks about her mother, who was “definitely my culinary secret weapon.”
Harris briefly recalls her friendships with the likes of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Nina Simone, and explains why she’s “Senegalese at heart.” “I have not had my DNA done,” she says. “At some point, I might, but one of the reasons that I haven’t had it done is because if I’m not descended from the Senegalese, I’m going to be painfully distressed.”
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Dr. Harris. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
JESSICA B. HARRIS: Well, thank you. Lovely to be here.
SB: I thought we’d start today’s conversation on postcards.
JH: Oh, okay.
SB: Particularly, the postcard collection you’ve amassed over decades, sixty years now, from what I understand, as a—
JH: Amassed is a good word. Yeah, it’s a mass. It’s a mass. [Laughter]
SB: 1963, if I have my facts right, the summer of ’63 is when you first got into postcards, or interested in them, on your first trip to Europe.
JH: I guess so. I probably have written that. Yes, I’m sure that was true. But there are postcards and [then there are] postcards, and the ones that I was interested in in ’63—or the ones that I started to collect in ’63, that I certainly no longer have—were just basically your standard European views, including the now X-rated Michelangelo’s David. [Laughs]
It was a very different kind of postcard collecting from the postcard collecting that I think I started more or less in the early seventies. I’m not even sure of the timing when I started collecting antiquarian postcards, which was a whole different kind of thing.
SB: Yeah. That was really coming out of a visit you had made to a bookstore in Dakar in 1973, maybe ’72—
JH: Oh, that’s good. I was close. I was close.
SB: —while working on your doctoral dissertation, which maybe we’ll get to; it was about the French-speaking theater of Senegal. Could you share a bit about what you discovered on this trip in that bookstore? What were these postcards that so captured your imagination?
JH: Well, actually, I had been taken to the postcard by—let me see if I can get her name right, Carrie Sembène. Carrie Sembène was, at that point in time, the wife of Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese cinéaste that everyone knows, and she was a lover of antiques. This was actually not a postcard shop but an antiques shop, and it had all sorts of things in it.
I am, as defined by one friend, a stuff-ologist. I like stuff. So I think I got a glorious wooden bowl. It was probably a bowl for food, but I used it as a salad bowl. And then a friend of mine from…. Actually, she was briefly interim head of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art at one point, said, “Oh, my God, Jessica, this bowl is really gorgeous because there aren’t trees big enough to make these bowls anymore, or there are very few, so the bowl is kind of rare.”
But with all of that, there were bowls; there were the kind of dresses that were called goréennes that were just beautifully hand-cut. It’s a kind of particular lace that’s called richelieu in Brazil. I don’t know what it’s called in France, but it’s cutwork. You cut a hole out of the fabric, and then you embroider around the hole and you end up with lace. There were dresses made out of this, which Carrie wore. And then in I think a little tray of something, there were one, maybe twenty-five postcards, but they were postcards of old Dakar, postcards of the Dakar that had gone before, deeply in the colonial period.
I was captivated. I subsequently discovered that there was a man, and I think his name was Michel Renaudeau, who had collected those postcards and who had actually produced [Souvenirs du Sénégal] a book on them of old Dakar. I, of course, promptly bought the book. Postcards had been kind of a thing for him, and certainly then became a thing for me.
What I liked about the postcards was that they captured a moment in time. We use the word “cliché” in English one way, but in French, “cliché” means just like a snapshot. So they were snapshots of time, of different places in time, different things—and they were extraordinary. So I ended up illustrating my doctoral dissertation with cards of one sort or the other to talk about what Dakar was like in its historical period, but equally, what it became as we got into the period that I was really writing about, which was the period of the Théâtre Daniel Sorano and Maurice Sonar Senghor and all of that.
SB: And it seems to me that what’s also special about these postcards is they’re one of the rare media where images of this time are actually still around, still depicted that hadn’t been lost to time.
JH: I think that’s true. Yeah. I mean, because they are pretty much before moving pictures or just as moving pictures are beginning to move, and so you’ve got a real sense of place. But because there are often people in the cards and in the ones that I collected, while I have a lot that are just vistas and panoramas and views, I have quite a few that are faces, and you wonder, “Who did this little boy grow up to be?” Or, “Wow, I wonder what this person would think if they were brought back to Dakar now.”
On the way over here, I was scrolling through the eight million emails that you don’t want to look at but that are there, and found one from an organization that I’m affiliated with, very tangentially, in Dakar called R.A.W. Don’t ask me what it stands for. But they were talking with two architects, two young Senegalese women architects, and somewhere just casually in the reading of the thing, I read that the Marche Sandaga had been demolished in 2020. I didn’t know that. It’s like, “Oh, my God.” So that’s gone.
It was so much, very much a part of the life of Dakar when I was there in the seventies and eighties, arguably into the nineties, but more in the seventies and eighties. It’s now probably only captured…. Certainly in people’s memories. And because we are in the twenty-first century in 2020, everybody had a phone with a video camera on it as well as a still camera, so people probably have images of it being destroyed. But to go all the way back, you really have to go to those postcards. So you’ve got all of that march of time in a very different way with cards.
SB: Pausing on this trip for a second—the first trip to Dakar in West Africa. Could you share a bit about your memories of it? Also, do you have any potent food memories from that particular trip?
JH: Oh, goodness. Well, my first trip to West Africa, I believe, I’m pretty sure was 1972. I was scheduled to go with a girlfriend, who, as girlfriends do on occasion, backed out at the last minute. I certainly had no intention of going on my own if I could avoid it. My mother, who was always game, said she’d go. So it was very interesting because I ended up with my first impressions of the continent being multigenerational, if you will. I had her thoughts and my thoughts. So we went together. I’m trying to think of where we stayed. I think we initially stayed out at Ngor, which is on the outskirts of town. And then, for one reason or another, moved into the Hôtel de la Croix du Sud, which was, at that point, the big hotel in Dakar.
It was interesting because Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote Le Petit Prince—The Little Prince—had actually stopped at the Hôtel de la Croix du Sud when he was a pilot. It was one of the places where pilots stayed on their way for the Dakar-Rio run. So it was an old, grand colonial hotel with a really good French restaurant and all kinds of things like that. So that was one aspect of Dakar.
The other thing was, when I went to Dakar, I spoke fluent French. Now, there was certainly a community of African American expats—Carrie Sembène was one of them, Elaine—later Elaine Keita—Elaine Charles was one of them, and a variety of French expats in Dakar at that point in time.
But most of them were fluent in French in a different way. I don’t know that they had been French majors. I’m not vaunting my French or anything. But for some reason, and it may have been the fact that it was multigenerational, a lot of the Senegalese took to us—that is to say, my mother and myself, and so we got invited into households. That was a very different Dakar from the de Croix du Sud or the Ngor, because we were able to really see people with themselves as themselves and for themselves. So that was kind of fun and kind of unusual.
This was all taking place, as I like to say, “B.R.,” which means “before Roots.” Alex Haley’s grand and groundbreaking book, Roots, I think was published, if I’m not mistaken, in ’76. I think that the TV miniseries came out in ’77 or ’78. At that point in time, there was a company called International Weekends that was doing what were in the travel trade called back-to-back charters. So a plane would take a load over to Dakar of people, tourists from the States, and then that same plane, after resting and refueling and getting a new crew on, would then take the previous week’s people back. So those back-to-back charters basically changed the view, changed the presence of African Americans and African American tourists in Senegal.
So when I say B.R., this is when African American tourists were few and far between, and fully fluent in French—African American tourists, as opposed to expats, even less so. We were kind of unicorns in Dakar and very, very fortunate unicorns in that we got to meet people and see people and experience a Dakar that post-Roots forever changed.
SB: Were the people who invited you in to spend time with them…. Obviously, I imagine meals were involved?
JH: In many cases, meals were involved. If I was going to someone’s home with mom, always meals were involved. So that was kind of extraordinary. I mean, one of the people that I remember—I now, in retrospect, know—he was probably a griot. He was not particularly highly placed, I think [he] worked in the theater, and just said, “You must come.”
So we went, and it was a real traditional Senegalese meal. We sat on a lovely mat on the floor and ate out of a communal bowl and washed hands and did all of the various rituals that are involved in sharing a meal in traditional style in Senegal at that point in time. We were each given a big soup spoon because they knew we were Americans and not really up on eating with our hands, and shared a meal. That is something I will never forget.
SB: This trip seems so catalytic, and I’m sure it will come back throughout our conversation.
JH: It may.
SB: Your postcard collection, though, just to go back to that, generally speaking, you’ve grown it and split it up into these six categories. Or, as it’s grown, I suppose, you’ve focused on these six categories.
JH: Well, it’s not even that. It’s like I keep them in shoe boxes.
JH: So they had to be sort of categorized to go in the shoe boxes. It wasn’t really thoughtfully done in that sense. It was just, Oh, I seem to have a lot of cards about this. Well, let’s call this a collection.
SB: Of all of your collections within the bigger collection, which one stands out to you as your favorite or the one that moves you the most, I suppose?
JH: Oh, I don’t know. We’ve talked about Senegal a lot, but my postcard collection extends way beyond Senegal. I think possibly some of my favorites within the range of them are the ones that they call like “arts et metiers,” the arts and the jobs basically.
There is a series—I don’t have the whole series—but there is a series of cards about vendors from Guadeloupe. I’m not sure if it’s Guadeloupe and Martinique or just Guadeloupe, but where they are probably studio-posed. I’m not sure that they were snapshots, per se. I think they may have been photographed in a studio, but they are just the most extraordinarily, beautifully composed images that can be used on so many levels.
I mean, because they are vendors, many of them are street vendors. So there’s one of an ice-cream maker, which works on the level of food, also on the level of tools. You see her old ice cream machine, the old crank kind, so technology is in it. You see how the ice cream was served, so food is in it. You see what she has on and what the young person who’s buying the ice cream from her has, so you get not only the idea of dress, but you also get the idea of class, because she is a working woman and the person who is buying the ice cream, I think, and I’m not really sure, and it’s different for different postcards, might’ve been a person of a different class. Although they’re both Guadeloupean, African-descendant Guadeloupeans, so dressed slightly differently. You get all of that in one snap, in one moment in time, and that’s extraordinary. That’s what I love about postcards.
SB: I learned a new word while researching for this interview, which was deltiologist.
JH: Deltiologist. I learned that too. It’s like a collector of postcards. Yeah. Yeah.
SB: Do you view your life as a deltiologist in some ways as a jumping-off point for your career as a journalist and then food writer? I’m asking this because it seems like there is a direct link. And do you see this link from the postcards to your cookbooks that would come beginning in 1985 with Hot Stuff?
JH: Well, I mean, I think the postcards…. The actual collecting of the postcards in earnest was an outshoot of the cookbooks. It was the egg before the chicken in that sense, not the chicken before the egg. The postcards were not a propeller of the cookbooks in any way.
But the growth of the collection came as a result of the writing of the books because, I think in ’95, I wrote a book called The Welcome Table and I wanted to illustrate it with antiquarian illustrations. I think it is the earliest of the books that was actually illustrated. So Hot Stuff, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons—what’s the next one?—Sky Juice and Flying Fish, and Tasting Brazil are not illustrated. They are cookbooks as cookbooks were written back then, recipe head notes and whatever marginalia or other stuff you want to have written—but with no images.
The Welcome Table is the first one to use images, and I wanted to because I had had that postcard experience illustrated with antiquarian images. In order to make sure that the rights were all done correctly and everything else, I pretty much went through Bettmann Archive to “rent” the use of the images. And then it came to me in a massive and major epiphany that owning them, because they were in the public domain, meant I could use them. And that’s when I started going, Oh, I can buy some postcards now. So that’s how many of the subsequent books got illustrated.
So The Africa Cookbook, and Beyond Gumbo, and the subsequent books that are illustrated with antiquarian images, I own the images and that sort of blew the collection up another way. I mean, from doing a book called Rum Drinks, I have a collection of rum labels, of old rum labels, and old rum postcards, and everything from strange TWA ads when, “Fly to Cuba and bathe in Bacardí,” kind of thing. So all of that kind of stuff came as a part of the collection as a result of that.
SB: And eventually became a book on your postcard collection.
JH: Well, and then there was eventually a book on the postcard collection itself, which has a very simple title. What is it? Vintage Postcards From the African World or something like that. But the subtitle is what I like or what I absolutely love, which was, in my head, the title of the book: In the Dignity of Their Work and The Joy of Their Play. So that’s kind of what I collect postcard images of.
SB: Looking back now, so forty years later, going back to your first book—or nearly forty years—how do you think about this trajectory since Hot Stuff? I think it is interesting, for example, how you can see a direct line from 1989’s Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons to 2011’s High on the Hog.
JH: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It is a straight line. It is not a curvy line.
JH: In fact, I begin, and I’m not going to be able to quote it verbatim, but I begin Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons by saying that there is a line, an imagined sinuous curve, and it starts in the buff-colored shores of Senegal and goes down, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, crosses the Atlantic into Brazil, comes all the way up through the Caribbean into New Orleans, and then into the barrios and urban centers of the North. Basically, all I have done in those subsequent years is trace that line. So all of the other books are a result of that line, of that trajectory. So that’s what it is.
JH: The bestseller was, I think, as much or more of a surprise than the Netflix. They were all just sort of—I’m gobsmacked. I remain gobsmacked. It has upended and changed my life in a lot of ways. I am massively grateful, and somewhat bemused, and just excited about everything that it has done.
SB: Yeah, I wanted to ask that because taking a sort of thirty-thousand-foot view, in what ways have you seen this conversation around African American cuisine, cooking, and our broader understandings of it shift? And how do you view your role within that?
JH: I don’t know that I view my role within that. I think it is probably a good idea for me to not view my role in that.
SB: [Laughs] Fair.
JH: But I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. I don’t know that I am…. In fact, I do know I am not the only person who started out doing this when I started out doing this. There was an African…. I’ve forgotten, I don’t think it was called An African Diaspora… but there was an African diaspora cookbook. There were a couple of African American cookbooks that looked into food history.
But for some reason, I seem to be prolific. I’ve probably written more—and this is being said very guardedly because it is coming without any arrogance or parti pris about it—it’s just about putting words on paper. I think I may have done more of that than the people who started out with me. Which is not to say I think I’ve done it better. I’ve just done more of it. So as a result, things have happened, have accreted, if you will, around the number of books that other folks may not have had the chance to get, or the ability to get.
I’m also blessed with a questing mind and an ability with language. So I think that I am really very, very fortunate in that I can make connections with people in the various places that I write about because of that ability, the linguistic one. I may not say it well and I may not have five sentences to go before it or after it, but I can usually connect with somebody in a market. I think that that creates another kind of thing—and I love markets.
And as I said, when I was talking about being in Senegal B.R., or not even Senegal because I was with my mother in Senegal in the Ivory Coast when it was still known as the Ivory Coast, before it became the Côte d’Ivoire in English, French, or whatever other language you might speak, Ghana briefly, and Benin, being in those places—and note carefully that I said Ghana briefly because Ghana was English-speaking, and some of my ability to connect with people came from the fact that I was French-speaking.
There were plenty of English-speaking people who could go to English-speaking places and connect with people. But the fact that I could speak French made the French-speaking places another kind of special for me. I also was a French major. I lived with a French family in France. I have a graduate degree from a French university. So if I was dealing with the intelligentsia of those places or, for that matter, with the artists from those places, we had common currency in terms of some of the cultural things. I mean, I knew about Voltaire. I mean, I knew about Baudelaire. I knew about Picasso. I knew I could talk to people who might’ve studied in France because at that point in time, certainly in the French-speaking countries, people who would’ve been my age would’ve had to finish their university education in France. So that’s a whole other thing that made for a connection.
SB: Do you view some of what you do as an act of translation?
JH: No, not necessarily because I don’t know that I’m translating it. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I think in some ways, I’m always translating because I find myself even in English at some points where it’s like, I can’t say that in English, I gotta say it in French. Because there are things you can say in English and there are things you can say in French, and it’s not always the same. Sometimes the nuance is lost in one language or the other as you go back and forth, or you’re making accommodations to render the English or the French in a way. So, it’s interesting.
SB: In High on the Hog, the book, you write, “The cooking of Africa has yet to have its moment on the foodie radar.” This was 2011. So I was wondering, do you think it’s changed since you wrote that? How would you view the past dozen years?
JH: Oh, I think the past dozen years have been somewhat transformational, but it’s not even the past dozen years as much as it is possibly the past four years or five years. What people think of and know about African American food or knew about African American food before Covid and before George Floyd—may he rest in peace—and what people know [now], and who’s writing, and how they’re writing, and what they’re writing about, and the kind of opportunities that have opened [up] are completely different. And that is a good thing.
SB: I did want to bring up your work here as a curator, as well.
JH: I seem to have done an awful lot of stuff. [Laughs] That’s a function of being old. Yeah.
JH: Which is now going to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.
SB: Which I also wanted to bring up, because you’ve worked with them in a number of advisory and different roles from their culinary exhibition to the cafeteria menu. So I think it’s worth pointing out your work does extend beyond the page and the screen.
JH: Oh, well, yeah. It’s actually in real time in a way. I am also working with the New York Botanical Garden, and it’s a three-year project on an African American garden. Last year, on Juneteenth weekend, it opened with…. Well, last year, when I say last year, I’m saying 2022. On Juneteenth weekend, it opened as an African American garden in the Southern sense, Southern United States sense of African American.
This year on Juneteenth weekend—2023—it’s opening as an African American garden in the Caribbean iteration. So it’s got a hundred and forty plants from the Caribbean world that will be in the garden. So that’s been another kind of valent, if you will, of the curation in another funny, wonderful way. I’m working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a dinner that I will [whispers] not say any more about.
SB: Last night, I rewatched High on the Hog, the Netflix series—
JH: Good for you. [Laughs]
SB: —and it features you with the host, Stephen Satterfield.
JH: That’s just the first episode.
SB: Yep, just the first episode. But walking through this incredible market in Benin, the Dantokpa Market, which is one of the largest open-air markets in Western Africa, and you’ve called it the “mother of all African markets.” I was hoping you might speak to your time over the years that you’ve spent in this market and also what it felt like for you to be there that particular time with Stephen, shining a light on it.
JH: Well, there’s a lot of stuff. First of all, I love markets. I have jokingly said I am never happier than when I am ankle-deep in pig swill in a market somewhere. I was a travel writer for many, many years, and there are a variety of travel writer’s maxims that one comes up with, but one of them is: Never wear open shoes on market day. Always wear something that’s closed so when you’re in that pig swill, you’re not necessarily absorbing the pig swill.
But with all of that, I, at one point, wanted to do a book called Markets Around the World. But somebody, I think, beat me to that one, and I’m still [makes “argh” noise] about it. Anyhow, the market that I referenced earlier, the Sandaga market in Senegal…. In Dakar, there were three main markets when I first started going to Dakar: Sandaga, which was the general one and it had everything from fabric to jewelry. There was a jewelers section. There was certainly a food section, but it wasn’t particularly a food market, although there was plenty of food in it.
What was the other one? Kermel, which was certainly a little bit more sanitized. It was the European market, the market where the expats would go shop, where that happened. There were wonderful flower ladies who were the most aggressive women I’ve ever seen, but that was because people always wanted to take their pictures, so they decided, Hey, I can charge for the picture as opposed to charging for the flowers. So that was its own little moment.
And then Tilene, which was the real market in the area of town in which people lived, and so you had those three markets and so you could see the difference in things and the way things were, the way things were displayed, the kinds of things that were for sale, the prices, all of the rest of that in that market.
Then, as I came down the coast, Treichville in Abidjan [in Côte d’Ivoire] was an extraordinary market. It seemed to just go on forever and ever and ever, and it was where I would buy things like…. Because Abidjan is sort of adjacent to the Akan countries, I could buy kente [cloth]. So the kente that I own, most of it came from Treichville in Abidjan. You could see beauty parlors where women didn’t have running water and were just doing hair, washing hair with two buckets of water that they brought from a common tap. You had all kinds of fruits and vegetables, and things of that sort, and that was the main market for Abidjan.
I went to two other markets. One was the Marché de Cocody, which was in Cocody. Cocody was kind of the bougie area, so the Marché de Cocody was the bougie market. And then there was Marché du Plateau, which wasn’t really a market as much as it was an African art venue, and it was right in the middle of downtown Abidjan, or what was at that point downtown Abidjan.
So by the time I get down to Benin, I’m kind of market-savvy, but the Dantokpa Market just blew me out of the water. First of all, what happened at the Tokpa was that there is a calendar—I’m not sure if it’s Yoruba, it may be Yoruba, it may be Fon or Ewe, don’t think it’s Ewe, I’m not sure, but there is a four-day calendar. I think it’s four days. It’s not a seven-day calendar, is the point. And on the nth day, whatever that alternance is, there’s a grand marché. So there’s a larger market, and that thing just extends for miles. You really don’t even know what it is and how far it goes. Each little area has its own thing, as you see only a bit of in the [High on the Hog Netflix] documentary. I’m forgetting a market, which is the market of Lomé Togo. And in the market of Lomé Togo….
The markets, in many cases, are the bailiwicks of women. So women entrepreneurs, and Togo [is] particularly noted for its women entrepreneurs because they have a whole group of folks who are known as Nana Benz, because the market women who work in the market, and who you would think could barely afford… go home in chauffeured Mercedes-Benzes because they know exactly what they’re doing. They are, in many cases, wholesalers. They have a grand tradition of working in markets. They are just amazing, and they have political power. So to the point where I can’t say when, or where, or actually, accurately what country, but I think it was Togo, the market women all lined up and pretty much said, “This has to stop. This particular political person had to go.” And the person went. They have real, real power.
So when you get down to Benin, you are at the, not really summum, but you are still in this world of markets and power. And it is just extraordinary to see. First of all, the commerce, the distances people come. It’s hard to understand even how it works, certainly as an American, because you might have an alley with ten different people selling exactly the same thing. So why do you go to this one and not that one? Well, you go to this one and not that one because this one may be related to somebody you know, or comes from the same village you come from, or speaks the language you speak, or actually has the best produce. So there are all of those little subtleties that somebody who just glances and says, “Oh, what a lovely market, how picturesque” doesn’t get. That’s the part that I love about markets.
SB: You’ve written, “The markets of the African continent are timeless.” I find this so interesting. I mean, obviously, some of them do, in time, disappear. But the active ones, could you speak to that timelessness, that sense of the timeless?
JH: Well, I mean, I think the merchandise may not be timeless. The merchandise certainly changes with time, but the bustle, the—
JH: The aura, but also the sense of agora, the very Greek sense of, This is the place where you come for news, this is the place where you come to be at the center of things, this is the place where you come to find out what’s happening, is very present, very real, and very timeless. So I think that’s part of the timelessness of it all, as much perhaps as the layout and everybody selling okra—lovely. But how they sell it and what comes around the selling of it is the interesting thing, and the important thing, and probably the timeless thing.
SB: I’m glad you mentioned okra. I did want to mention that, in the scene with Stephen [in High on the Hog], when you’re at the market, you focus—or the series, anyway, focuses—on three particular foods: okra, yams, and rice. I was wondering how you think about these particular foods through a foodways perspective, or an across-time, temporal perspective.
JH: Okay, well, let’s start with the yams because I just wrote an article about yams and sweet potatoes. We are all very confused in the United States about yams. We call sweet potatoes yams, and it annoys me. We do a lot of things where we don’t really know what we’re talking about.
The primacy of the true yam, Dioscoreaceae—I’m probably mispronouncing it—species is very different from the… Not species, genus. Because it’s a genus, not a species. And then Ipomoea or pomoea, which are the sweet potatoes. Yams are old world. Sweet potatoes are new world. They don’t look alike. They don’t taste alike. They don’t have anything in common other than that they are starchy root vegetables.
That being said, why do we get the difference? Because for the West Africans from certain zones on the continent, on the West African part, yams are totemic in the real sense of that word. They are representative, in some ways, of death and resurrection. New yams come from old yams sprouts. Old yams are sprouted to produce new yams, and so you get that never-ending cycle, so that in Ghana there are yam ceremonies where the harvesting of the first yam basically has religious significance, and that first yam is offered to the ancestors. You get all of those things that happen with yams.
Because of the importance of yams, including an etymological importance, where there are varying verbs meaning “to taste,” or “to sample,” or “to eat” that have the word yam in some way, and even today in the Gullah Geechee dialects—not dialects, the Gullah Geechee language of the Carolina Lowcountry or of the Sea Islands—in that whole zone that is the Gullah Geechee zone, food nyam, “food to eat,” is a real expression. So that nyam, “to eat,” it means the same thing in Jamaican. In deep Jamaican patois, food nyam, means food to eat. So this nyam, yam, yam, yammy, all of that speaks to the importance of that root vegetable, which is a tropical vegetable.
So the enslaved Africans get here—no yams. No way to grow them because they are tropical. What do you do? This is me. I don’t know there’s any way to prove it, but I profoundly believe what you do is you take the thing that’s closest to it and call it by the thing you know. So sweet potatoes become yams for people of African descent. That then gets conflated again in, I think it’s around the 1930s, when in Louisiana they come up with a type of yam that is different, its skin is smoother, it’s not as fibrous, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you notice I said “yam”; I meant sweet potato. That sweet potato, they then baptize [as] the “Louisiana yam,” hopelessly confusing us unto generations.
So the idea is…. And the confusion doesn’t exist anywhere except in the United States, which probably means that climate and lack is what was driving it. Because, even in the English of the Caribbean, there is a difference between a yam and a sweet potato, and everybody’s clear. It’s only in the U.S. So in the U.S., we can have candied yams and then at dessert have sweet potato pie, and they’re both being made out of the same vegetable. So, there it is.
SB: With climate change, do you think yams will eventually come to the—
JH: Oh, no, no, no. They are being grown commercially in Florida now.
JH: They’re here. They are here, but they are here not traditionally. They’re here implanted as another kind of way.
SB: So while we’re on it, I did want to stick to okra and rice.
JH: Okay, sure.
SB: I mean, those are two other subjects that I would be fascinated to hear you unpack through this lens. I mean, hearing about yams, I just felt like I went through a time machine and got to travel across time and geographies with you. I feel like that’s sort of what this work is. I’m wondering how you think about okra and rice in that sense.
JH: Well, I’m going to take rice and end with okra because it’s in some ways probably the simplest. Most people think of rice and you first think of Asia, Oryza sativa, which is Asian rice, and it’s the rice that we basically know. But there is also an Oryza glaberrima, and glaberrima is a native African rice. I will say that again because most folks don’t understand: a native African rice. It is indigenous to Africa. It is not transplanted sativa; it is African.
So it grows in an area that was sometimes called the “Grain Coast,” although whether or not that was for grains of paradise or for the grain that is rice is debatable. But it grows [in] southern Senegal all the way down through and to Liberia, Sierra Leone, around there. People are noted for their abilities to do this and to grow rice. It is grown; it is still grown. It has been in some ways, unfortunately, supplanted by sativa, which has easier growing conditions or can grow more easily. But it’s still very much there and very much ritually used. It is certainly ancestral rice and rice that is a part of religious tradition.
What we forget, or don’t know, or didn’t know, or don’t want to know, is just how—I hate the use of the word smart—but how informed European slave traders were. They very much knew about the rice. They very much knew about the expertise of the people growing the rice, and they made a particular point of kidnapping and enslaving those people for their rice-growing knowledge. Those people are the people who are the basis of the Gullah Geechee people. Those people are the people on whose backs the wealth of the Carolina colonies was created, because the Carolina colonies were the richest of the British colonies, and it was all based on rice. So that’s the rice story.
It wasn’t glaberrima; it was the technology. There may have been and there probably was glaberrima, but that wasn’t the rice that was growing. So when people say Carolina Gold, they’re not talking about glaberrima. They’re talking about a form of, I believe it’s sativa. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure it is. So there’s that.
Okra is simpler. It has multiple uses. It’s a thickener. One of the reasons people don’t like okra is because it’s slimy. Or my favorite okra word—it’s mucilaginous. So the mucilaginous pod enables a thin soup to become a thick soup. It has qualities that enable it to thicken things and, as such, was valuable, and versatile, and something that was much to be desired.
It comes as does the rice, as does the—well, as don’t the yams—in the bellies of slave ships. There are accounts about, actually, yams were on board. They just weren’t transplanted, per se. But that’s how it happened. Okra comes into the United States probably through the Caribbean. But remember there was certainly a point in U.S. history, and we don’t talk about this point very much, where there were simply the Northern colonies and the Caribbean colonies, and everybody was a colony of Great—well, I’m not sure it was even Great Britain, of England, at that point. So there it is.
SB: Hearing this, I did want to bring up this present moment because I think it’s worth stating how vital this moment in American history is in the sense that—particularly African American history, because we’re now having this last generation of people who are in their nineties who can remember their grandparents who may have been enslaved as children.
SB: Do you see this as a pivotal moment in history, this sort of generational shift, this—
JH: Oh, absolutely. I think that that’s a generational shift with every generation. I mean, we may be…. And I am not sure what those numbers are. Or those…. I don’t know how it goes. In my family, my mother knew her great-grandfather. No, my mother knew her grandfather, my great-grandfather, and he had been enslaved.
SB: Samuel Philpot.
JH: Yes. Um. You did way too much research.
JH: But I say that to say that I’m not sure how many people are around who have that memory. People who were in their nineties were born in—
SB: The thirties.
JH: Right. So if they were born in the thirties and you take a thirty-year generation, their parents would’ve been born in the 1900s, or even, arguably, the 1890s, and then their grandparents possibly, but very, very tenuously in the 1860s. So that— I don’t know that there are many of those folks around. I don’t know.
SB: In your own family history—you mentioned your mother knew him. I understand you have a few photographs as well—
JH: Oh, I do, yeah.
SB: —of Samuel. How has the story of Samuel then passed down generationally?
JH: I don’t know that it has been. I am very fortunate on any number of levels. My mother was one of…. Well, ten children survived to adulthood, I believe, so it’s a large family. I don’t know. I’m not particularly close to my cousins. The cousin with whom I was closest has unfortunately faded to the veils of dementia, and so I can’t ask. But it’s interesting to note that he did exist.
I know because when I was born, my grandmother, at the behest of my uncle on my father’s side of the family, wrote down the family history. My uncle on my father’s side wrote down the family history from his side, and my grandmother wrote down the family history from her side. So that’s how I know, other than through my mother, I mean. But my mother, probably through prompting, through discovering the photographs, which I certainly didn’t grow up with, but all of that.
So just this whole idea that there is this connection—and a very vivid one—is pretty extraordinary. Then the story about Samuel Philpot is harrowing. I mean, there are few things that are more horrific. His mother was sold South when he was 2 years old. So, as my grandmother writes it, and she had gone to a Baptist seminary, so she put things in almost biblical terms, her last words to Samuel Philpot were, “Be a good boy, Sammy.” And that was that.
But then she goes on to say, “He preached, but he did not pastor,” meaning that he was probably an itinerant preacher who didn’t have a home church. As a result of that, that was his way of being a good boy. It’s just— That breaks your heart. There’s nothing else you can say.
SB: He lived to be over a 100, isn’t that correct?
JH: He lived to be over a 100, yeah.
SB: I also wanted to bring up your grandmothers. In High on the Hog, you write, “As this book is the direct result of my knowing them, I wrote it as if they’d survived to read it.” I wanted to ask, what is it through the writing of that book you hoped to relay to your grandmothers?
JH: Well, I mean, I think that particular quote was more about speaking about language and informality. I didn’t want it to be an academic book. I wanted it to be an approachable book.
JH: Well, personal on some levels, but approachable, and approachable in language, approachable in lack of footnotes, approachable on all sorts of levels. So that’s specifically what I meant when I said that. Because I’ve read books that are dedicated to people’s parents and grandparents, and you read the book, and my eyes cross and I have an earned Ph.D. So it’s like, No, no, no. Grandma might’ve loved knowing you wrote it, but would she have gotten into it? Maybe not. So I wanted to write something that my grandmother, [on] either side, could read and understand.
JH: Well, they lived it, so they definitely would feel it.
SB: You learned to cook early on from your mother. I was hoping you might share a bit about that. You’ve described her as your “secret weapon.”
JH: Oh, well, she was very definitely my culinary secret weapon. My mother was actually a trained dietician. She had an A.A. associate of arts degree in dietetics from Pratt [Institute in Brooklyn]. So I grew up with all of the home ec. There was always a meat, and two, at least, vegetables, and probably a starch, and some bread, which was probably Wonder Bread. But it was all there. My mother, if we ran out of Wonder Bread, would go whip up biscuits because she was an extraordinary cook. Unlike most cooks who are either left brain, right brain—either you cook intuitively or you bake well, and at some point when you’re really good, intuitively, my mother could do both.
She also had an extraordinary palate. I did restaurant reviews for the Village Voice for six years. When I was doing those, she was my favorite dining companion because she could eat and say, “I think there’s a little cardamom in this.” Or, “This tastes like this,” whatever. She just had the most extraordinary palate. She was my secret weapon. Because she came out of home ec and everything, she could say things like, “Nah, you got that wrong. You don’t need this. You need that. And put it this way and make that spin around and do that.” I miss that deeply.
SB: Did you ever imagine food would become your life, your career, the way it has?
JH: In a word, no. No. That’s very simple. I can say that. No, not in a lifetime would I have imagined this. I mean, because I’m an intuitive cook. I have a disregard for recipe, which is horrible for someone who sometimes has to write them.
SB: And makes cookbooks.
JH: Well, yeah. But I don’t believe in the primacy of recipe. I think that cooking has the ability to be more creative than many people make it by locking it into recipe. I know I’ve got people who go, “Oh, but can’t you appreciate a beautifully written recipe?” It’s like, Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, sure. Absolutely. But I can’t follow it. I can’t follow my own recipes.
So there is all of that. It’s not a thing for a cookbook person to say, but it’s the reality for many cooks and many of them who write cookbooks. So we’ve come up with this thing where it’s a tablespoon or it’s a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, but is it sea salt? Is it kosher salt? Is it Diamond Crystal? Is it Morton’s? Because Morton’s is a little saltier than Diamond Crystal. Is it sel de mer? Now, you have to get into all of those specificities of the salt to make the recipe work.
At that point, why? I’m going to use what I’ve got in the kitchen. So why should I feel guilty because it calls for sel de mer from Gironde, as opposed to pink Himalayan salt or whatever. So there’s all of that.
SB: Before we finish, I did want to touch on the memoir you published a few years ago, My Soul Looks Back. It gets into this extraordinary period of your life, in particular in the seventies and eighties, and time you spent with this extraordinary cast of people.
SB: Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Nina Simone. Reading the book, it almost felt to me like this mythical time, if I could say that. I mean, at the very least, it was certainly magical. Is that how you see it?
JH: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I have been extraordinarily fortunate. My introduction into that incredible world or the rabbit I was following down the rabbit hole was a colleague who became a dear friend, “boyfriend,” large quotation marks, named Samuel Clemens Floyd III. Had it not been for him, I could’ve lived through that very selfsame period and not known any of those folks. So it is the luck of the draw. It is the intensity with which you go into things. It is, I guess in some ways, just plain karma.
SB: We could’ve done a whole episode talking about that period of time, but I wanted to keep it for the end because I feel like, in a way, your life is as rich as the lives that they lived. Maybe it’s hyperbolic to say, but that’s what it feels like, understanding the decades and time you’ve spent engaged in the way you have. So I guess if there’s a question out of that, it’s how do you feel specifically about the time you spent with them, and how do you see it in the context of where you are now?
JH: Okay, well first of all, thank you. Second of all, I had a major birthday. I turned 75 last month. No, two months ago at this point. And had a birthday party at which my youngest friend, well, my oldest friend, the person I had known for the longest because she lived on the block I grew up on, gave a toast.
And then my youngest friend, who is an extraordinarily brilliant young man named Yahdon Israel, who is probably the youngest senior editor at Simon & Schuster and for sure probably the youngest Black senior editor in publishing, period, no matter where, maybe one of the very few Black senior editors, young, old, or otherwise. Yahdon got up and offered a second toast. Yahdon is extraordinarily thoughtful and knows me quite well—and met me as a result of the memoir. He said that the memoir had attracted him, and [he] had reached out [to me] because what he realized was that I was a kind of link between that generation and his generation, or the then and the now. Quite honestly, I’d never thought about it. I’d never thought about it one way or the other, but he insisted that that was the role that—whether or not I knew I filled—I filled. Because Yahdon always tells me stuff about me I don’t know or see, I believe him.
SB: —“Senegalese in my heart, Beninoise in my stomach, Bahian in my soul, and I guess maybe French in my head.” [Laughs] Within that “American by passport” phrase, I guess we could include three key homes: New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, and New Orleans. I was wondering if you might talk a bit about your time in each of these places and also just how you think about this sort of bouillabaisse, I guess we could call it, of place, which includes Senegal, Benin, and Bahia.
JH: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that pretty much still holds true. That was the nineties. Here we are, what, forty years later, thirty certainly, and I am still American by passport. I just renewed my passport, so I’ve got an American passport till they take it away.
But I am profoundly American in many ways. Senegalese in my heart: I haven’t been to Senegal in quite a while. I do need to get back. But there was just a thread, a string that vibrated at the right tuning-fork level. It was: I have not had my DNA done. At some point, I might, but one of the reasons that I haven’t had it done is because if I’m not descended from the Senegalese, I’m going to be painfully distressed. But there it is. You’re from where you’re from.
“Beninoise in my stomach” because I find that the food of Benin—and it’s one of the reasons that I suggested that High on the Hog go to Benin—because there were two places mentioned in the book, Senegal and Benin, and I said Benin because the food is actually in some ways closer to the food that I grew up eating, the African American food that I know. And so that was the reason, among multiple others that I won’t go into, for choosing Benin.
What’s the other one? “Bahian in my soul.” That’s because I am—and it’s a subject that we are not going to get into because it would be a whole other podcast—I am the first American to be initiated into one of the oldest houses of Candomblé in Salvador de Bahia de Todos Santos, better known as Salvador, Brazil. So that’s my connection with Bahia. I am a daughter of Casa Branca. And there it is.
SB: Jessica, this was a pleasure. Thank you so much.
JH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on May 8, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Rog Walker.