Years ago, as Dr. Jessica Harris compiled recipes for her 12th cookbook, she realized something different at work.
“I noticed that the headnotes kept getting longer and longer and longer,” Ms. Harris said, remembering the growing descriptions of scenes and images, the places and stories that took on a greater significance.
She had set out to write a familiar cookbook but the ingredients were calling out for more.
“There were stories that I wanted to tell,” Ms. Harris recalled in a recent phone conversation with the Gazette, just weeks before her annual pilgrimage to her family cottage in Oak Bluffs for the season. “It was my first kind of narrative journey in that sense.”
And so, with the help of an editor, Ms. Harris transformed her recipes and her stories into a broad, melodic work of culinary history, marrying personal narrative with deep historical investigation as she traced the story of African American cuisine from its routes on the continent to its numerous iterations in the modern American culinary tradition.
“It’s a story that is simple and complex at the same time,” described Ms. Harris, who has the rare combination of being both affable and academic. “It is the story literally, obviously in very brief compass, of the journey of what we think of as African America food from the continent to this hemisphere.”
That was 2011.
Now, a full decade later, and at a moment when many long-told myths of black experience and history have begun to be re-examined, her book, High on the Hog, has been adapted into a Netflix docu-series, which begins streaming May 26. The four-part documentary takes viewers through the vibrant Dantokpa market of Benin, West Africa, to the fiery barbecue pits of Texas, with commentary along the way from chefs and culinary experts like BJ Dennis and Michael Twitty.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams and hosted by food writer and chef Stephen Satterfield, the series, like the book, weaves the sights and sounds of Africa and the American South with historical context, along with plates of mouth-watering Senegalese lamb and crispy fried fish that viewers can almost smell through the screen.
Ms. Harris helped select Benin as the opening location and figures prominently in the pilot episode, acting as a guiding force for the rest of the series.
“Hopefully the big ‘aha’ takeaway moment for many people is just how foundational, just how much of the bedrock of American food is African American . . . and not just in terms of specific dishes,” she said. “Everything from agriculture to animal husbandry to technologies — all of those things are very, very much a part of what we think of now as American food, and yet they owe, in many cases, their inception to African American know-how.”
The foods and culture of the African diaspora have defined much of Ms. Harris’s career and life. In addition to writing over 12 books and numerous magazine articles on the subject, she has been an English professor for 50 years at Queens College. Last March she earned a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.
Her personal culinary journey began as a child, growing up in Queens, N.Y., Ms. Harris said, passing days with her mother in the kitchen. “I grew up eating well . . . My mother was a culinary omnivore . . . and as someone who was trained as a dietitian she could pretty much cook anything. If my mother was in the kitchen, I was in the kitchen, so I probably grew up cooking too.”
As a child, she attended the United Nations International School in New York city, making friends from around the world and encountering the flavors of international cuisine.
“It gave me a so far insatiable curiosity about how and what the world eats,” she said.
After receiving a degree in French from Bryn Mawr College and a master’s degree from Queen’s College, she continued her pursuit of food and culture, working as the travel editor at Essence magazine in the 1970s, where she traveled to various points in the Africa diaspora. In 1972, while at work on her doctoral dissertation at New York University, she finally found her way to the African continent, an experience which set the stage for her work in the decades to come.
“I started making connections,” she said of the experience. “[My work] began to trace a culinary continuum from the African continent to this hemisphere, and most of the books since then have been about that.”
High on the Hog — in its broad examination of African cuisine, the Transatlantic slave trade and present-day American foods — is the culmination of many of these strains, she said. Although, at 73 years old, she said she is nowhere near finished.
Martha’s Vineyard, a second home for over 65 years, has also played a role in this culinary history, with one of the High on the Hog’s chapters set on the Island. Another one of her books, The Martha’s Vineyard Table, also focuses on the Island.
“It’s part of my life and a part of my world and a part of what I talk about,” she said.
The Netflix series owes its origins in part to the Island, Ms. Harris said, recalling an encounter on the Vineyard with the show’s director. She emphasized the timeliness — and poignancy — of adapting the book in the current cultural moment, with black-centered travel shows still somewhat of a rarity.
“I think, as with much of American history, there is much unspoken and much erased . . . about the importance of African Americans in the making of the country. I think it’s important that we begin to think about and acknowledge and maybe be surprised by just how deeply involved African Americans were and are with the making of this country.”
“We’re at the bedrock, we’ve been here for a long time and we’ve done a lot of things,” she continued
Ms. Harris said she hopes for just one thing from viewers of the documentary — openness.
“I’d like to hope that the show will leave people open to being surprised,” she said, a warm laugh coming through the phone. “It would be the most wonderful thing if this would just open some minds and hearts, and in some cases, open some mouths.”