Stylishly dressed couples stare back from a sepia-toned photograph on the cover of "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America" (Bloomsbury, $26), by Jessica Harris. In this picture, from the 1920s, facial expressions foreshadow the same contentment that 21st century readers who are hungry for black culinary history might experience after reading Harris' new book.
There is more than enough for every taste in this narrative. Beginning with cereals, yams, rice-based cuisines and the cooking traditions from the African continent, Harris introduces us to the 14th century food writings of traveler Abdalla Ibn Battuta and the part he plays in recording traditional African food ways long before the slave trade began.
When Harris explains the Middle Passage, as a dark part of history when the Atlantic Ocean "formed the hyphen between African and American," she also describes it as a time when ingredients and techniques were exchanged between continents.
Attentive readers will notice this hyphen missing in most of Harris' references to the descendants of Africans who journeyed to the Americas against their will, just as they may notice the absence of the term "slave."
Like many who are currently writing about the period before emancipation, Harris refers to Africans forced to enter the Americas against their will as "enslaved Africans," an exchange of terms many scholars and historians acknowledge as a more apt way of reminding us of the ruptured ties to the motherland.
Those who arrived in the Americas came with established cooking techniques such as steaming in leaves, grilling, roasting, frying animal protein with vegetables and a propensity for the soupy stews we would come to appreciate in the Americas as gumbo and other one-pot dishes.
Harris has reported on these techniques through her previous 10 cookbooks. She informs us that while the exchange of ingredients such as sesame, sorghum, okra, watermelon and black-eyed peas most often includes a westward transfer of ingredients and techniques (such as rice cultivation) from Africa to the Americas, some ingredients traveled in reverse. Peanuts, a legume that originated in the New World, arrived in Africa during the slave trade before being returned to the Americas with an "African name derived from the Bantu word nguba, meaning groundnut or goober," Harris writes.
Those unfamiliar with the bountiful African contribution to New World culinary traditions will be impressed by the sheer quantity of names, people, places and events she includes, followed by a mere 20 recipes.
Harris, a professor at Queens College in New York, explains in the introduction that her broad overview of historical record, anecdotes and references should be digested as "a personal look at the history of African American food" instead of the copiously "annotated opus" she predicts she will one day write.
Maya Angelou wonders in her foreword to the book if this volume may nudge Harris' future work away from how-to recipes toward books filled with more thoroughly indexed and footnoted research. Those who regard Harris as among the leading scholars of African-American food ways and culinary traditions undoubtedly hope so.
Donna Pierce is a freelancer and creator of blackamericacooks.com
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
"High on the Hog" author Jessica Harris explains that the word gumbo harks to the Bantu language in which okra is referred to as ochingombo or guinfombo.
1 pound fresh okra, trimmed, cut into rounds
2 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped
1 habanero chili, pricked with a fork