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Black History Month: Culinary historian explores cultural ties

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Jessica Harris has many vocations: cookbook author, magazine writer, historian, English professor. Best of all, she enjoys being a detective who follows the trail of foods — “connecting the dots,” she says, as they made their way around the world. Her 12th cookbook, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” is an International Association of Culinary Professionals prize winner.

She was guest speaker Saturday at Brookgreen Gardens during its continuing program on Gullah-Geechee culture. The title of her presentation was “Carolina’s Gold” as opposed to the next presentation March 15 titled “Carolina Gold” by Dr. Louis Nelson of the University of Virginia. The apostrophe, Harris said, indicates her focus on the people who cultivated rice. “The gold of Carolina was the rice, certainly,” she said, “but, more importantly, I contend, the gold was the people. We spend scant time discussing upon whose backs fortunes were made. We should always give agency to the people who created this extraordinary culture that grew up on both sides of the Atlantic. By agency, I mean let us celebrate the genius of the people who created a mirror of their West African world in American exile under conditions that remain incomprehensible.”

A rather small percentage of the 145,000 people captured in Africa and enslaved between 1668 and 1829 actually came through Charleston to the Carolinas, Harris said. About 10,000 were sold on the auction blocks there, with 5,700 more sent to the Gulf Coast, entering through New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. Thousands more went to Haiti and Brazil, she said, and those regions remain connected through rice and the techniques brought from the upper Guinea coast.

“The Africans who brought the rice culture to the Carolina Lowcountry trace their culture to Sierra Leone,” Harris said. “Rice requires a certain temperature, a little warmth. That temperature, in its own way, created a culture. Rice growing involves a team effort. You don’t grow it by yourself, for yourself. You grow it with others in the community so that team effort is something that marks rice-growing cultures and rice-growing people in ways that the culture of corn or the culture of potatoes does not require.”

Lowcountry planters, Harris said, knew more about the agriculture, history and botany of western Africa than most African-Americans do today. “They knew who they wanted, why they wanted them and where to get them,” she said. “That’s why you see those posters in museums today saying, ‘Freshly arrived from the Guinea Coast, slaves with rice planting knowledge.’ They knew exactly what those Africans knew.”

The rice planters brought their knowledge of food from their native lands. “Once they got here,” Harris said, “they were cooking for the Big House and transformed the palates of their white owners.

That’s why so many of those West African dishes turned up in the Lowcountry and became part of the general food of the region.”

She said the preparation of collards is one example of the “Africanization” of food in the South. While collards are not African, they were cooked in a well-seasoned, vitamin-enriched “pot likker” providing a distinctive taste. African cooks influenced an area that had shellfish and rice, stretching from the South Carolina Lowcountry all the way to the Texas Gulf Coast. “The diet,” she said, “is very similar in many ways to the diet on the other side of the Atlantic.”

Harris had what she called a “culinary epiphany” when she and a number of language scholars were dining in Charleston for the first time and encountered red rice. “All four of us had spent time in Senegal,” she said, “and when the red rice came out the four of us looked down, looked up and in unison said ‘Chebugen,’ the national dish of Senegal.”

The red rice of Charleston was colored by tomatoes, a fruit native to America, Harris said. In Senegal, the reddish tint comes from palm oil. Chebugen crossed the Atlantic and became two different dishes. In the Lowcountry it’s red rice; in New Orleans it’s jambalaya.

“Studying the food history of Africa is not simple research,” Harris said. “There are no books, no journals, no recipes written down by great-great-grandmother. African-Americans were not allowed to write. The food memory is a bank of flavors and a willingness to make use of things and find the fleeting taste memory.”

A second dish bound to the coast of South Carolina is black-eyed peas and rice. Slaves were given the cracked rice because it was not suitable for sale, Harris said. The broken grain was called “middlin” and, ironically, it is preferred in Senegal because it holds the sauce. She said much of African food can be described as a soupy stew over starch.

The combination of rice and corn is found in many transplanted African recipes — corn was another crop discovered in America. The fritter came from African cooking methods. “African recipes are labor intensive,” Harris said. “The enslaved did not have money or the best ingredients, but they had many hands so things could be labor intensive. One recipe said soak black-eyed peas, skin the peas and pound them into a paste to make a fritter. Drop the batter into red palm oil and you get something with an almost a bready consistency.”

The fritter is the common denominator that links African countries with the places their people were taken. The rice fritter of Liberia, Harris said, is the same one that’s sold today in New Orleans.

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