In this series, we’ve prepared dishes with clear African roots such as okra salad, black-eyed pea salad and peanut soup. But today, we’re digging into the deep cuts, looking at the African roots of 5 dishes people eat in North America. And we’re pairing them with rosé.
The recipes are inspired by Jessica Harris’s 1989 cookbook: Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons which “traces the ways African cuisine has migrated to the New World and has been transformed there.”
I’m calling this episode “deep cuts” partly because of Harris herself. She is perhaps the black foodies’ foodie; the foodie that other foodies look up to. She’s not as well-known as B. Smith from two episodes ago. But, her recipes come with stories as tasty as the food you can make with them. You can’t beat that.
These are also the deep cuts of Black food, perhaps. The breadth of dishes she claims under the umbrella of African cuisine, with scholarly acumen by the way, includes everything from Ackee fruit to Z’Oiseaux chillies, from cold weather saffron to tropical mango.
Yes, the Black “celebration plate” dishes are covered in the book. But they sit with 200 other recipes that are also gems, even if less well known. Harris is an English professor at Queens College in New York and has written 12 cookbooks. She’s written about everything from spicy food to rum drinks.
And she has a podcast that’s a great listen. Pour yourself a glass of wine and settle in. Her voice is poised and pleasant and her stories evoke the breath and heartbeat of the places she explores. The very first episode is about New Orleans, which happens to be my grandmother’s city of birth. One of the dishes I’m making today is inspired by that city and by Dr. Harris’s take on it. But more on that later.
Harris’s mother took young Jessica to West Africa for the first time in 1972. There she encountered Yassa chicken, a dish that tasted familiar even though she was far from home. Looking for connections like these is at the center of her writing. She’s looking for ways to connect ME to the food in books in the same way Yassa chicken connected her to Africa. So, that’s what I looked for in the recipes in this book, ones that I felt connected to, had experienced in some way. Then, I added my spin to these dishes. We’ll see if it worked.
Harris is a writer first and foremost. She wants to tell you the story of food, about how certain crops and animals become important ingredients… and how those ingredients become important dishes. And I can use her stories to fill out my own, like having hushpuppies at a Friday night fish fry as a kid, having Kontomire in Accra ten years ago. And now, straining water fufu by hand in 80-degree weather. The texture was worth it!
In any event, Harris is talking about heritage in her book. These recipes are a cultural inheritance. They are an inheritance for me personally as a Black person. But, also to everyone in America. This country wouldn’t be as tasty a place without hushpuppies, gumbo and pralines, don’t you think? There is culture in everything humans do and make. But the culture around food, around nourishment, seems particularly important to me.
These dishes don’t just fill the belly. They can fill an afternoon with good cheer, good conversation, and good flavors. One of today’s eaters said the stew today was the best dish of all 8 episodes so far. I’ll take it! So, if there’s any dish you want to try. Start with that one. It’s a great representative of the culture and it’s super tasty.
Anne de K Cremant Brut NV (fr) Rose
Albrecht Cremant Brut Rose Tradition NV (fr)
Pasqua 11 Minutes Rose 2019 (it)
CaMaiol Chiaretto Rose 2018 (it)
Prieure Montezargue Tavel Rose 2017 (fr)
Trinquevedel Tavel Rose 2019 (fr)
Stella Fiore Brachetto NV (it)
S Orsola Brachetto d’Acqui NV (it)