African American heritage, tradition and culture have been reflected on our tables for centuries. Yet the deep and lengthy legacy of African American food within United States culinary history remains fairly unacknowledged.
Most people tend to consider African American heritage cooking through the narrow lens of Southern food, or soul food. However, in the 21st century, African Americans are involved in every aspect of food.
African American heritage cooking is part of a larger continuum, a richer story, which includes the individuals and foods of Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and a variety of points in the Western and Eastern worlds. These food cultures have long shaped the traditions and values of cooking in America – and this heritage is reflected in the innovation that we see in African American food today.
There is still a connection to the land – a rootedness even in the uprootedness of the African American experience. My grandmother Ida Irene Harris, for example, had a slightly-after-its-time Victory garden in New York City in the 1950s. She would grow traditional Southern foods like peanuts and collard greens and okra behind the “projects” where she lived. She was bringing tradition home, in an unlikely environment.
These old practices continue, with innovation. Matthew Raiford and other African American farmers are returning to the land with a classic approach to food harvest, working with heirloom products to create new recipes and opportunities for healthful eating.
The idea of food justice is a newly articulated expression of a practice that has existed throughout African American history. Now, African Americans are on the forefront. Bryant Terry and other leaders are fighting for food equality with a new vigor – and making true change. Alex Askew and fellow mentors ensure that a new generation is prepared to carry the torch.
Entrepreneurship has long been part of African American food culture, and African Americans have continuously used food to create income, if not wealth. Today, individuals like Maxcel Hardy are creating novel, sustainable food-based businesses. Others, like Leah Chase in New Orleans, helm thriving enterprises that have lasted for decades.
With African American heritage cooking, as with all things, it is important to understand the Ghanaian principle of Sankofa, and “look back to move forward.” As the story of African American food continues, we must honor and acknowledge those who went before, upon whose backs we stand. They show the way as we work to claim our rightful spot at the world’s table.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning journalist, lecturer, professor, and renowned expert on the food and foodways of the African Diaspora. She is the author of 12 critically acclaimed cookbooks. Her most recent book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, was the International Association for Culinary Professionals 2012 prize winner for culinary history.
Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an author, editor and translator whose work documents the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora.
Dr. Harris is a founding member of the Caribbean Culinary Federation and for many years was the only American member of the Association des Cuisinières de la Guadeloupe. She holds degrees from Bryn Mawr College; Queens College/CUNY; The Université de Nancy, France; and New York University.
Dr. Harris has authored, edited or translated 17 books, including 12 cookbooks; and has written extensively for scholarly and popular publications. She has lectured throughout the United States and abroad; and consults internationally, most recently for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on their new cafeteria, and Oxford/Brookes University on their Gastronomica Program.
Currently, Dr. Harris is a professor of English at Queens College/CUNY in New York. She is at work on several new projects, including a book about her postcard collection entitled In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play; and A Moment In Time, a memoir about her experience as a member of a circle of friends in New York City that included Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Dr. Harris is series editor for a new series on African Diaspora food, folklore and material culture.
In 2015, Dr. Harris was honored with a doctorate of humane letters honoris causa from Johnson & Wales University and the inaugural lifetime achievement award at the Soul Summit, a gathering of people working in the area of African American food. Learn more at africooks.com.