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America's History in the Making

Mapping Initial Encounters

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Jessica B. Harris.


Q: Please introduce yourself.

Harris: My name is Jessica Harris. I am a food scholar, and a culinary or food historian. I deal with the history of food.

Q: What is a food scholar?

Harris: Well, what I do is look at history through a lens focused on food. We don't always realize it, but what we eat tells us quite a bit about who we are.

I'm an African American, and if we look at the paradigm of the plate, we might find collard greens, we might find pig, we might find cornbread, but all those things—or the lack of those things—tell us something about who we are.

For example, pig isn't something that we had in Africa. It's something that African Americans encountered in the New World. In fact, pigs aren't even indigenous to the New World. They were brought to the New World from Europe. So if we find that African Americans were eating pig, we can see that as part of our history.

Q: What first interested you in culinary history?

Harris: In the 1970s I had the good fortune of being the travel editor of Essence magazine. As the travel editor, I would find myself in Guadalupe, and then three months later I would be in Senegal, and three months later I would be somewhere else. My taste buds started telling me something. It was like they said, "wait a minute, you tasted that before." I knew I hadn't been to that region before, But it was like my taste buds were saying, "Ooh, you know me. You know me." and so at some point, I started drawing connections between different foods and places.

Q: What did you find in terms of American History?

Harris: I learned about the ebb and flow of this whole culinary continuum between West Africa and this hemisphere—you begin to see how people moved and how foods moved.

If you go to a market in New Orleans, you'll find okra. You'll find tomatoes. You'll find corn. You'll find hot chilies. But, you'll find many of those same things if you go to a market in West Africa. You'll find many of those same things if you go to a market in Brazil, and when you start putting all of those pieces together, you begin to weave a tapestry that's pretty amazing.

I mean, people eat corn. If you go to South Africa, people eat Mealy Pop. Mealies are ground corn, but the corn is not indigenous to South Africa. It is indigenous to the Northern Hemisphere. In this marvelous city, we eat gumbo. Ochingombo kingombo are Bantu words for okra. If you want okra in any part of the French-speaking world to day, you ask for gombo .

When you start putting all of those things together, you begin to see how the larger picture develops. Then you add some more information to that picture before you take anything away, and you realize that the native peoples in this particular of the United States called sassafras kombo. So did gumbo get its name from kombo from the file (a table condiment commonly used on gumbo) that referred to sassafras, or from the ochingombo and the kingombo that referred to okra, which is also one of the main ingredients used in gumbo.

You get this marvelous sort of weaving and interplay from studying foods. Just about every discipline you can think of is in food—from chemistry to material cultural objects, to history. So, when you start to think about all of that stuff, it's all there, and it's all on the plate.

Q: How can we learn history through the study of food?

Harris: I think learning history through the study of food is extraordinary because it gives people an immediacy and an easy way to relate—we all eat. This whole hemisphere was discovered because Columbus was looking for food. If it weren't for his search for food, he might still be over there, and Isabella might not have had to pawn her jewels. But think about how our stomachs are great motivators for so much, especially in the period known as the Age of Discovery, it's all there.

Marco Polo searched for silk, but also for food. People moved for food more than they moved for anything else. Columbus was looking for the riches of the Indies: spices.

Everybody just gets it. You don't have to be a graduate student. It's not that kind of issue. We all eat, and we all, to greater or lesser extent, are involved in what we eat, and when we start to look at it and we start to see it.

Q: What disciplines are involved in culinary history?

Harris: Food history is fun because it's about reading between the lines. Many disciplines are a part of food history. You need a little anthropology. You need a little sociology, and absolutely history. You need a little chemistry. You need a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants as well, and when you get it all happening together, it really works.

Q: Does food influence larger cultural movements like war or demographics or disease?

Harris: One of my favorite examples of that is the Napoleonic Wars: canned food grows out of the Napoleonic Wars. The army's rate of movement depended upon its stomach, but if soldiers could have canned food, they could move farther without having to stop and get fresh food.

The thing that's so fascinating about food history is that we all have to eat. If we do not eat, we die. And so most human development, in one way or another, comes back to food. The whole notion of how food works into human development is another part of the great light bulb and the surprises in studying food.

Q: What is your process in studying a subject like sugar?

Harris: I wish I had a process! I'm very peculiar about how I research. I will   work in the library. I will search through bookstores. I will talk to people, and look at objects.

With sugar, I'm reading everything from texts on sugar production, to books about the Code Du Noir (how the French colonial system dealt with its African slaves), to diaries of slave traders, to memoirs of sugar planters. Once you put it all in the pot and stir it around, different ideas begin to form.

I try to find questions, and then I try to find answers to those questions. And then I look to see if there is an order. I ask if there is a schema. How does it work? Where does it move?

Sugar arrived here in 1493. It transformed the complexion of the Caribbean. Most folks don't know that it originated in Barbados. But what most folks really don't know is that before it was in Barbados, it was in northeastern Brazil. People will talk about the Dutch in Permanbuco, but most people don't know that those Dutch were in fact Sephardic Jews out of the kingdom of the two Netherlands, which existed back then. So, when you start connecting all of those dots, you end up with a complete picture, and that's then the story that I try to tell.

Q: What is the role of personal interaction in what you do?

Harris: I like to talk to old people in markets. Contemporary food history, as opposed to deep, ancient food history, is simply dying out. I mean, we don't talk with our grandmothers. We don't cook with our grandmothers. The whole notion of being able to talk to, say, in New Orleans, someone like a Leah Chase or a Willie May, who has a wonderful restaurant, or any of the great chefs of maybe 20 years who may still be cooking but who are not always going to be cooking.

A lot of my early recipes came from being in marketplaces around the world and talking to people whose children didn't talk to them or whose grandchildren didn't talk to them. And there's a certain kind of commitment to securing the knowledge that we have, not the deep knowledge of the past, but the knowledge of the present that's disappearing as we speak.

Q: What is "creolization"?

Harris: The word creole is an interesting word here in New Orleans. Talking to different people, you'll find you get so many different definitions. I mean, it's something that quite literally will change its definition from block to block in New Orleans. I tried to come up with my own definition for creole . When two or even three cultures come together and mix and mingle, the resulting culture often becomes more overarching and powerful than either of the two or three that went into the mix individually. For me, the mixture of Africa, Europe and the New World expands the definition of creole. It kind of blows the roof off of it.

I always like to tell people in New Orleans that New Orleans is really not part of the United States; it's the northernmost point in the Caribbean, and part of a cultural curve that goes from New Orleans, through Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti which was then San Domangue,   all the way down through Barbados, the Yucatan peninsula, Merida, into Brazil, South America, across the Atlantic to the coastal regions of West Africa. When you look at that African rim—we talk about Pacific Rim food. There's an Atlantic Rim as well, and the food of that Atlantic Rim, is what I call creole .

Q: How can creolization be traced through food?

Harris: You take something like a classic New Orleans dish: gumbo. There are certainly any number of West African antecedents for gumbo. You can look at soupe kanya, which is an okra stew in Senegal. You can look at the souris pei, which are leafy-green stews in any number of the French speaking places. You can look at the kalaloos of the Caribbean: leafy greens, okra, crab, shrimp, sometimes, even ham. You can look at the laroloo and if you start to think of the etymology—kalaloo, kalaroo and it probably goes back to a Bantu word. But as you come around that culinary curve, then you get to New Orleans. Here, it's made with a roux . The roux is French dead-on, straight-up, no questions about it: France. It may be topped with a file, which is Native American.

So when we talk about creole, I have a very personal definition. I'm talking about what happened when Africa and Europe met up in this hemisphere.

Q: What role did Native Americans have in this process?

Harris: Specifically in the Southeastern, United States, there were so many points of intersection. When enslaved Africans ran away, and became what Jamaicans would call "maroons," the people that they ran to were the Native Americans. There was an awful lot more mixing and mingling than people really know, and not a lot of research has been done on it. Recent studies seem to indicate that the Seminoles were really almost a creolized group of African-Americans and Native Americans.

When you start to look at that, you find some dishes like pones, the various kind of apone, which is a Native American word but then became things like sweet-potato pone and these different things that then cross into African-American tradition. So you'll see how the two groups join not only as people, but also on the table.

Q: Describe how some foods indigenous to the Americas were incorporated into African cooking traditions, and then returned to the Americas by enslaved people.

Harris: A lot of people thought peanuts were native to Africa. They are not. They are indigenous to Mexico. They're indigenous to this hemisphere. The peanut, or ground nut, as the British called it, went to western Africa, supplanted the Bambura ground nut, which was used in exactly the same way, and then came back to the northern part of the hemisphere with the Africans. People thought the peanut must be from there, but they're not. They just took that journey.

Tomatoes are fascinating because they were originally eaten in the Caribbean, and in New Orleans. They were only eaten in the northern parts of the hemisphere very much later, because of the Africans, who reintroduced their use. So we get confused. We're not even necessarily sure where things come from until we start then getting into the ethnobotany of different foods.

Q: How did slavery influence food history in the Americas?

Harris: Enslaved Africans came to the Americas with knowledge, and it was frequently that knowledge for which they had been enslaved. For example, Africa has its own indigenous rice, oriza glabarema, which is a specific rice that's grown a specific way. The great Carolina planters knew exactly where to go to find the Vai and the Menday people from Sierra Leone and Liberia, and other folks from up as far as the Diola in Senegal, and brought them to the low country to grow the rice. The rice was grown entirely according to African agricultural techniques.

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