For decades, Jessica Harris has been an authority on African influences in our food, spreading her culinary wisdom through a dozen cookbooks. However, her newest book is not cookbook at all. My Soul Looks Back is a captivating memoir about Harris’s youth in the 1970s in New York City, when she found herself in the company of the most important writers and artists of the generation: Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and others. As the baby of the group, Harris cooked and ate alongside these African-American icons. She talked with host Francis Lam and shared some memories from that era in her life. Harris also shared a recipe for Ten Boy Curry, a dish inspired by a curry dish cooked for her by Maya Angelou.

[Ed. Note: Listen to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s 2008 interview with Jessica Harris to learn about the late great musician Ray Charles’s effort to support the preservation of African-American foodways.]

Francis Lam: Early in your career – in your early 20s – you were a literary critic, you were a theater critic, you wrote for Essence magazine. You hung out with Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, literally the finest minds of a generation. But your best-known work is writing about food, particularly the food of the African diaspora. When did it become clear to you that writing about food could be as interesting or fulfilling as writing about art?

Jessica Harris pic
Jessica Harris
(Photo: John Pinderhughes)

Jessica Harris: It was a gradual thing, a gradual process. I've always been interested in theater. I've always been a reader. But even before I was interested in theater and reading, I ate. I've always been interested in food. Essence was the place at which it all started to come together. At one point, I was the travel editor. We were trying to vary things so it wasn't, “this is what I did on my summer vacation” 105 times. We decided that, on alternate months, we’d do travel and food. That was back in the 1970s; it was fairly revolutionary. I became the Go Gourmet. On alternate months, I would travel and where I went, I would write about the food culture of that place. Because it was Essence, a lot of the places I went were within the African diaspora or the African Atlantic world. That was the genesis.

I was working on a doctorate on the French-speaking theater of Senegal. I had spent time in Senegal. I had been to Western Africa. Then this started taking me down to the Caribbean and into South America. I began to taste things and make connections. My taste buds started talking to me. They talked me into the first book, which was Hot Stuff: A Cookbook in Praise of the Piquant. Then they talked me into the book that I wanted to write, which is the book that started the whole journey, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa's Gifts to New World Cooking. It wasn't just that my taste buds were saying this, they were also connecting the dots with that that I tasted last month, and maybe that that I tasted three months ago. It began to form a certain kind of continuum. The thing about Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons was I started linking things up in my mouth as much as in my mind.

FL: Its sounds so ahead of its time. When we talk about “American food culture” and how we came to the foodie culture that we're in today, people look at the 1960s and 1970s. They look at Julia Child as being instrumental and opening America's mind to French cuisine and to looking at the larger world. We talk about James Beard opening American eyes to American regional cuisine. But what were your readers thinking when they were reading about cuisines of Brazil or the Caribbean and linking them to culture? Was that something that the readers were expecting?

JH: I honestly don't know. The readers didn't write anything saying, "What's up? Why are you doing this? This is crazy." But remember it was also time of a heightened African-American consciousness of Africa. I interviewed Alex Haley when Roots came out. Roots was informational; I don't think it is possible to overestimate the importance that Roots had for the African-American community at that time. It was like, “Oh my goodness, we have a place we're connected to. And it is the South as well as what came before the South.” That was a tectonic shift. Things changed in the way that people thought about things. While it was perhaps visionary – or being in the avant-garde – in terms of the food world, it absolutely springs out of a particular moment in African-America culture where we were open to it.

FL: In this book, My Soul Looks Back, you write about meals you shared with the most known, renowned, and esteemed people in the African-American intelligentsia. A lot of that food that you describe is very international; it is very global looking. You write a story where Maya Angelou prepared you a meal and you describe it as a performance.

JH: It was very much a performance. It was chopping and maybe an anecdote. It was certainly a running monologue. Maybe a little snippet of a song. Maybe a little dance step and a hip to close the oven door. It was the most extraordinary thing. But that was 40 years ago, we were both much younger. As that progressed to my very last meal with her – which was a very simple meal at her house in Winston-Salem – it was a very different kind of, not necessarily performance, but she had exacting taste buds; she knew exactly what she wanted. She had a whole mise en place that was called for. She organized and adjusted and everything was tasted, sampled, and mixed together. She loved food, she reveled in it, she enjoyed it, she loved eating. Almost more than eating, she loved entertaining. She set an extraordinary table and always had the most amazing people around it. But she could do it for wacko reasons too. I remember once going up to her house in Harlem for a Super Bowl party. That's not something anybody would connect with Dr. Angelou. But there it is, and that's part of the joy that produced the work that created the icon.

My Soul Looks Back by Jessica HarrisMy Soul Looks Back
by Jessica Harris

FL: You mentioned a gentleman who introduced you to her, Sam Floyd. He was your partner or boyfriend. You describe the sort of world that you walked into as being centered around his living room. Which had a name…

JH: We used to joke and call it Club 81 because he lived on Horatio Street in the West Village at 81. And you never know who you'd find. You could walk into the living room one day and there would be sitting Maya Angelou. Walk in another day it might be James Baldwin. Another day it might be Stokely Carmichael or Rip Torn and Geraldine Page. It’s staggering to think about that world and how those people had a certain kind of connective tissue. Those folks not only knew each other but interacted in ways that were extraordinary. I like to not claim that I was “all up in it like that,” as they say. I was very privileged. I was literally “the kid.” I was 15 years younger than Sam, 20 years younger than Dr. Angelou. I can’t say that I was in that world by their sufferance because they were much kinder to me than that. But I was there with a sense of like, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

FL: Yet you had a sense of the gravity of being there.

JH: By the time I was in the room with them, we all knew who they were. I was very conscious of that.

FL: As someone who's been writing about food, who do you look at today and think, "I really like what they're doing?”

JH: That's a hard one because I think that you're framing it in such a way that I'm going to talk about a younger generation as opposed to my contemporaries. I don't need to tell you Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Paula Wolfert or any of those folks because they're people that most folks know. I've discovered I am a reluctant foodie. This is a big confession: I don't really read that much food stuff.

That being said, I love Kim Severson and what she does. I love her integrity. I love the way she does it. I love the way she latches onto things. I have only recently become familiar with Tejal Rao and what she does is extraordinary. I like that other voice, that sort of edgy voice. She’s a good spirit. Some of the work that Nicole Taylor does is groundbreaking, fascinating and interesting in a way of bringing people together and holding the line on African-American food, foodways and understanding something about that. One last person would be Michael Twitty. Some of the things that Michael Twitty does are just extraordinary. There's a whole long list of other people I could add but I'll leave it there.

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Francis Lam

Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.