A loosey-goosey historical odyssey of African-American cuisine, from the slave trade to celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson.
Renowned cookbook author Harris (English/Queens College; The Martha’s Vineyard Table, 2007, etc.) bites off more than she can chew here. The attempt to blend culinary history with the history of Africans in America—and with some memoir, as well—requires more than the brief, superficial rehash she provides. Even her longish section on Harlem seems like a snack—especially compared to Jonathan Gill’s massive Harlem (2011)—and she offers an almost romantic view of Africans and American Indians first greeting one another as kinsmen. Of enduring interest, though, are her observations about the alterations in the American diet wrought first by the slaves and then by subsequent generations of their descendants. Because many slaves worked in food preparation—and, following emancipation, in food-service professions—the African influence, she shows, has been pervasive. She emphasizes the prominence in the earlier African-American diet of pork, greens, melon, chicken, corn and other staples. “Food,” she writes, “provided a path to independence for many blacks, especially in the port towns on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.” Harris identifies a number of prominent blacks in American culinary history, including Hercules (George Washington’s cook), Robert Bogle, Peter Augustin, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Lena Richard, Freda DeKnight and Patrick Clark, who died on fame’s cusp at 42. Even more engaging are the snippets of her own biography, a much longer version of which could have provided a far more effective vehicle to carry her culinary comments, and she does not always get the details right (she attributes to Hawthorne the opening lines of Longfellow’s “Evangeline”). Includes 15 pages of recipes, from pigs’ feet to collard greens to a recipe called “snow eggs,” which may have come from Thomas Jefferson’s cook, James Hemings, brother of Sally.
Harris folds into her batter so many weighty ingredients that it fails to rise.