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Soul Cuisine By WILLIAM GRIMES

Posted by jcmaziquemd on January 15, 2011

Soul Cuisine

By WILLIAM GRIMES

HIGH ON THE HOG

A Culinary Journey From Africa to America

By Jessica B. Harris

Illustrated. 291 pp. Bloomsbury. $26

In one of the personal vignettes that punctuate “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America,” the food historian and cookbook author Jessica B. Harris takes a trip with her mother to Houmas House, near New Orleans. One of a string of former plantations along Louisiana’s River Road, the estate bears witness to a cruel history. Harris, who is black, speculates aloud that much of the place was built by slaves. The remark draws an unexpected response. “What artistry,” her mother says. “What beauty they created for people who thought we were nothing but goods, not even human beings!”

This observation runs like a golden thread through Harris’s lively if wayward account of how African slaves, thrust into a strange land, carried with them the taste memories, cooking techniques and agricultural practices of their homelands and transformed the way Americans ate.

In the South, slave tastes defined the cooking repertory in a wide arc that extended from the rice and seafood belt of the Carolinas to the Creole and Cajun lands of Louisiana. Elsewhere, blacks brought new flavors and dishes to white America in restaurants and markets, or on the sidewalk from food carts. As the United States expanded westward, they extended their reach, working as cooks on the chuck wagons that accompanied the great cattle drives and on the Pullman cars that carried passengers all the way to California and the Pacific Northwest. In the process, unsuspecting white Americans learned to appreciate African-derived spices and pungent flavors, to regard Southern dishes like gumbo and fried chicken and red beans and rice as part of the national heritage, to elevate macaroni and cheese to a place high in hipster heaven.

It’s a complex story, not easy to tell, and Harris often struggles with it. In her introduction, she shrugs off the burden of writing a definitive history of African-American food: “That copiously annotated, weighty opus has yet to appear and will be the work of another,” she writes in a rather disappointing abdication, given her credentials. Who better to take on this work than the author of “The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent,” “Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking” and “Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food From the Atlantic Rim”?

Instead, Harris proposes a briefer, more personal history, with the accent on character and incident. This must have seemed an easier approach, but it pre­sents its own difficulties. In trying to establish a historical context for each development in the evolution of black cuisine, she commits herself to a retelling of familiar historical events, with much reiteration of the obvious along the way. Too often, food takes a back seat to the larger narrative of slavery, emancipation and the Great Migration. Prominent culinary figures, whose stories beg to be told in more detail, are shoved aside to make room for W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and John H. Johnson, founder of the Johnson Publishing Company.

That means short shrift for Lena Richard, a New Orleans cook, caterer and writer who began cooking on her own television program in 1947, many years before Julia Child revolutionized American tastes on “The French Chef.” With Richard, Harris has struck gold. Inexplicably, she doesn’t give the name of the program or describe it in any way.

Likewise with the restaurants operated by Father Divine during the Depression, although Harris does satisfy readerly appetites when she cites a detailed description of a Father Divine banquet, whose menu included “fricasseed chicken, roast duck, boiled beef, spareribs, fried sausage, lamb stew, liver and bacon, stewed tomatoes, spinach, Brussels sprouts, string beans, asparagus tips, fruit salad, ice cream and chocolate cake.”

Harris does cover a lot of territory economically, offering a tremendous cast of characters whose names deserve wider renown. These include chefs like James Hemings, slave to Thomas Jefferson and brother of the more famous Sally; Robert Bogle, the most eminent of the “public butlers” who presided over fine dining in Philadelphia in the early 19th century; and Thomas Downing, owner of one of Manhattan’s most cherished 19th-century oyster restaurants.

Throughout, Harris handles the cultural politics of black cuisine skillfully. Even for its principal creators and consumers, down-home cooking meant different things at different times. For aspiring members of the middle class, smothered pork chops and collard greens could be an embarrassment, and for purely commercial reasons, many of the best black chefs turned out fancy food in their restaurants. The racial politics of the 1960s would put a premium on soul food as an authentic expression of the dispossessed, even as Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, denounced and warned black Americans to “stay off that grandmother’s old-fashioned corn bread and black-eyed peas, and those quick 15-minute biscuits made with baking powder.”

Crucially, Harris treats her subject as an evolving story. European influences have led chefs to reinterpret classic black dishes, while the African diaspora continues to expand the vocabulary of a cuisine that has always been absorptive and adaptive. “At an African-American party today,” she writes, “it is possible to find the fried bean fritters from Brazil known as acarajé served along with Jamaican meat patties or the Trinidadian roasted chickpeas called channa that originated in India or, yes, fried chicken and a mess of greens.”

The final course has not been served — which is another way of saying that, after more than 300 years, black American cuisine is still vital and thriving.

William Grimes, a domestic correspond­ent for The Times, is the author of “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.”

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