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African-American Food’s History & Soul

We look at the soul and the history of African-American cooking with soul food’s grand dame, Jessica Harris.

Soul food (Flickr/MookieLuv)

Our word for okra comes from the Igbo language in Nigeria. Gumbo, the word itself, harks back to the Bantu. So does “goober,” as in peanut. 

Watermelons appear in Egyptian tomb paintings, and have been grown for centuries in the Kalahari. Black-eyed peas pour out of markets from Dakar to Zanzibar – and across soul food menus and kitchen counters all over America. 

African-American food and food ways have worked deep into the American palate.  

Culinary historian Jessica Harris joins us from New Orleans on her new book, High on the Hog.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jessica Harris, culinary historian and author of numerous cookbooks. Her latest is High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.

Tony Brooks, chef and owner of Coast Café, a restaurant in Cambridge, MA. He will be providing dishes for the broadcast.

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  • Beverly

    What a wonderful program this wii be.

    It”s frigid here, & snowing again, but soul food will be a fabulous diversion; just what we need. We can use some comfort about now. I can hardly wait.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

      

  • Gemli in Boston

    I grew up in New Orleans, where the Afro-Caribbean culinary tradition predominated. I thought that this was just plain old everyday food, and that everyone in the country experienced near-religious ecstasy at every meal. A little traveling disabused me of that notion. There is certainly good food to be found in Boston, where I live now after Katrina, but it’s not everywhere, all the time. You’ve got to seek it out. I never realized that New Orleans food had a “theme” of sorts, where things as different as mashed potatoes and pork chops and bread pudding could somehow reflect an underlying style of seasoning, preparation, and expectation that came together to something far greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t think much about all the books, music, furniture and everything else that I lost, but I frequently think of the fried catfish po-boy at R & O’s seafood restaurant.

  • Leonard Pinth Garnell

    Am I off base in pointing out that On Point’s second hour is so frequently Off Point?

    So many important issues always in hour one. But it is still too little. Too many unnecessary breaks, rehashing and not enough caller input. Then the hour is over and we switch to some lame topic that could be left to Oprah or the Entertainment Industrial Complex.

  • Dave in CT

    Mamma Dipps, Chapel Hill, N.C.

    Oh yes. Fried Chicken, Collards and Yams.


  • John

    Are the African versions of these foods more healthy?

  • Ann, Barrington, RI

    Leonard (10:46 a.m.), I’m guessing entirely, but I CAN guess at what it takes to put together the extraordinary shows that On Point airs, including the scheduling of guests; the intellectual preparation for each topic, including of the caller referee who has to help ascertain which calls will go into the queue. When Tom is discussing a contemporary topic — let’s say the demonstrations in Egypt — he can address a caller who might make a comparison with an event in another Middle East nation maybe in the 1970′s! He can do that — he is that experienced AND prepared.

    Some doctors’ offices leave an open hour that can be filled with emergency visits, at the last moment. Perhaps On Point’s schedule has some similar spaces which ARE available should emergency topics come along. I’m just guessing. Maybe some “softer” topics represent well-deserved staff vacation schedules — the staff that is part of this beautifully well-oiled machine!

    I’m guessing that some of the best guests for individual topics are being courted, simultaneously, by other media outlets, so scheduling alone — especially of NEW “hot” news — must be an incredible challenge.

    I don’t know what the “breaks” are for, but I’m certain that there are several very specific reasons that have to do with the individual station AND the network and the sponsors. I’m betting the staff is not breaking much in the background.

    I don’t find any of the lighter topics “lame”. Those topics are often discussed in other media outlets, as well, due to a book tour by an author, etc. Today’s topic is probably part of Black History Month. I tell my friends that they will have trouble reaching me during Black History Month because there is so much to learn!

    I’m NOT sure if I’d ever want to hear a show about how they put their show together. I actually think they are entitled to their professional privacy and to their trade secrets. Thanks for the discussion!

  • Beverly


    Lame? Better expand your horizons.

    Too many politics make Jack a dull boy.

  • Beverly

    What I wouldn’t give to be in that studio right now, with all that great food, & interesting people . . .

    Tom, I’m SO jealous! (Of all days for me to have skipped breakfast.)

    Fascinating show. We needed it. Thank you very much. We should have had two hours of soul food.

  • Morticia

    I am a Midwesterner, living in South Carolina. I especially love the macaroni and cheese that both black and white people make down here. No Kraft stuff out of the box. Here is my question. Why do Southerners, black and white, eat macaroni and cheese, along with the turkey, dressing, etc, on Thanksgiving? No one knows why but they make a big deal out of it. In the Midwest, we ate macaroni and cheese on Fridays as many people were Roman Catholic but in the South its a Thanksgiving requirement.

  • Beverly


    Will Jessica Harris be doing a book tour? If so, how can we get the route? Will she be in Dallas? I would love to have a signed copy of her new book.

    Signed or unsigned, I intend to get that book.

    Thanks again for this excellent, but all too short, program.

  • Ethan

    Hey, southern boy here who loves food living in Montreal. I am wondering if Ms. Harris has an opinion of the combining of world foods in the Caribbean and if she has thoughts on African cooking ingredients and where to get them. I have heard of fonio but can not find it anywhere! P.S. I love okra

  • Emily

    For those okra lovers- by using a little lemon juice on the raw okra you can evade the slime factor. I remember seeing this on an Indian-based cooking show and it has been the saving grace to my cooking of this great vegetable.

  • aefman

    Grew up on a truck farm in KY and as a child I followed the old black ladies around the edges of our fields as they gathered various wild greens. They showed me what to pick – wild plantain, Dandelions, sour dock, polk weed, etc.

  • http://www.berning.weebly.com Carol Berning

    I am a hobbyist painter, and one of my favorite pieces that I’ve done is called “Gumbo, Anyone?” It’s a still-life of okra, onions, and garlic. I grew up in West Tennessee, live in Middle Tennessee, and grow okra, onions, peas, corn, peppers, eggplant, beans…you name it–in my garden. Love Southern food!

  • Ann

    I think I know what I’m going to ask for for my birthday: a meal at Coast Cafe!
    Thanks for the great, informative show!

  • Liz Swanson

    Vegetarian take on Collards: Smoked them in foil on a grill–poke holes in the foil! No smoked meat!

    The best thing I ate this year was Fresh Field Peas and Faro at Fig, Charleston, SC.

    All the best restaurants in Charleston serve Shrimp & Grits, but the best ever is at the Folly Beach Holiday Inn when a certain African-American chef is there…I don’t know her name, but she’s usually there on the weekends. Magic.

    I love green beans cooked for hours&hours with smoked pork neck bones.

    Nothing is better than fresh Butter Beans!
    And the tie for Butter Beans is Fried Chicken.
    Did anyone mention Country Ham??

    Succotash at (the former) Ukrop’s can’t be beat.

    What’s the derivation of the word ‘cooter’?

    I could go on & on about Soul Food :) My mother is 5th generation Charlestonian (she’s in her 80′s now) & that is what I ate growing up & eat now.

  • Brett

    Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a Southerner. I enjoy collards and mustard greens slow cooked in the “pot likings,” that soulful funk in the bottom of the pot from the foundation in the cooking process. It doesn’t have to come from starting with the funkadelic from gizzards or hocks in the skillet, though. A traditional mirepoix works just fine for the funkification process. Greens don’t have to be slow cooked even, really; they DO have to be washed thoroughly! I use some form of mirepoix as my starting points for all soups, stews, sauces and to flavor just about everything. Never underestimate the power of the roux, either, as a starting point for many dishes! A trick in using a thickening agent in gravies is to use mashed potato instead of flour. I takes patience in the stirring to reach the desired consistency, but once there, the consistency will hold and won’t change during the meal/as it cools.

    I prefer a grainy cornbread that is NOT sweet. Any kind of biscuit (using corn meal/or whole wheat flour is preferable, of course the latter is not traditional) will not be turned down! There is much disagreement over the term “whole cake” or, more aptly put, “hoe cake,” in my circle of so-called experts. Some say the dough left over after all of the dough has been divided out for the biscuits becomes the “whole cake” and are larger than the other biscuits; some say it is “hoe cakes” after the rations given to slaves: food staples and a hoe (they would use the end of the hoe in a cooking fire as a utensil to cook biscuits); still others insist that “hoe cake” is a biscuit made out of corn meal instead of flour. I have tried cooking a biscuit on a hoe over a fire just to prove something to myself, with some really nice results…I’m not above using a biscuit to be a “pot licker” and don’t find the term derogatory at all.

    I like beans and rice. I prefer using whole grain rices and will use whatever bean, e.g., black, red, white, kidney, even lentils, etc., I have on hand. I’ve shifted to other, better whole grains than rice in recent years: barley, wheatberry, quinoa, and so on.

    Succotash is a favorite, snap peas a delight!

    Having lived in the north for long periods of my life (and being of Italian descent ) I never have gotten used to much about southern breads; they’re dense with soft crusts–that’s no good! Bread should have an interior with air pockets and a crusty, chewy exterior, and there should be a hint of salt on the palate and tongue… All southern breads (not biscuits) are too dense with no air pockets and taste like some variation on sourdough to me. Southerners don’t seem to realize that storing fresh-baked bread in plastic is a major faux pas!!!

    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention macaroni and cheese (I prefer my noodles more al dente or “to the tooth” than most Southerners) and okra! Emily’s little trick with lemon juice on the raw okra I thought was MY secret! ;-)

    Then there’s the whole “supper” vs. “dinner” thing. Oy!

  • geffe

    When I was growing up my mother employed a woman from Sumter SC as both my folks worked to look after my sister and I during the week. As I was interested in cooking she taught me some family recipes such as a barbecue sauce that is out of this world. I also learned how to make corn bread, collard greens, dirty rice, and a whole host of other great dishes. Not bad for a Jewish kid from the burbs. She was like a older aunt to me and we had a pretty good relationship. I think it was because we both loved food and cooking.

    My folks set up a pension fund for her which as far as I know was pretty rare for domestic help. Even so I’m not a big fan of the whole hired help thing. However I am now glad that she was part of my life as I learned a lot from her. Not only about cooking but music and her life in the South. She would tell stories about her fathers barbecue pit that was large enough to cook half a cow in his back yard.

    It’s because of her that the last time I cooked ribs this friend who grew up in the South was shocked that a Yankee such as myself could cook ribs like I did.

  • Beverly


    How interesting, & evocative. (Glad I just finished lunch.)

    Would you consider sharing that ribs recipe, (or at least the sauce), with us please? Feel free to share any & all recipes; soul food, Jewish, or anything else.

    Thank you.

    Hopefully, & hungrily,

  • Brett

    Then, of course, there’s barbecue and the Carolinas vs. Kansas City vs. Texas. I like all three (the Carolinas and Kansas being more toward pork, Texas more beef). The sauces are different, too, with the North Carolina being spicy and vinegary, South Carolina having a mustard base (I’d say this is less prevalent, even in South Carolinian circles), Kansas City being sweet and tomatoey thick, Texas is sort of its own and sweet. Smoke, charr, slowly acquired by cooking over many hours in low heat fed by hickory and red oak (I also have used mesquite) is the way to go with barbecued meat (grilling is grilling, barbecue is barbecue). My sauce is a cross between North Carolina and Kansas City: sweet, tomatoey, spicy, and vinegary, not thick but not thin. I haven’t done barbecue for a couple of years; there are too many local places that do a fine job and have the smoker facilities all set up–they have hush puppies and corn bread, too! I only eat beef and pork on rare occasions anymore. Chicken can be barbecued as can turkey.

    I’m having split pea soup tonight, which should be ready in about a half hour…wish I had some corn bread…

  • Beverly

    Oh, BRETT,

    You’re making our mouths water. Some recipes, PLEASE.

    Barbecue . . . split pea soup, one of my absolute favorites!

    Since hearing about that fried chicken this morning, I can hardly think of anything else. I could almost smell & taste it myself.

    No time to cook tonight, but with any luck, at least Popeye, or the Colonel will help ease the craving. (Not exactly the Coast Cafe, huh?)

    What control Tom Ashbrook has! I was only able to detect the tiniest involuntary sound, as he bit into that crispy delicious chicken. Did you happen to hear “All Things Considered” today? Chef Jeff Henderson was talking about some great soul food! Talk about a double whammy . . . He also has a cookbook, another one I have to get. It sounds great.

    Let’s hope that “On Point” will treat us to many more good programs like this, more often, maybe three per week?

    Your soup sounds great, with or without cornbread. Bon apetit!

  • Eileen

    I’m a white, Irish American from NJ. I learned to cook cornbread, okra, red velvet cake and other African American/southern foods from my Texan mother-in-law.
    Enslaved people brought their culture with them and that culture rooted itself deep and strong in this place we call America.

    Food is a bridge, and no matter what evil we experience, food uncovers the lie and holds up the truth. Food doesn’t care what color you are…it’s a celebration of the soul, and reminds us of our common humanity.

  • Beverly


    Very beautifully put.

  • David from VA

    First of all, I don’t know how Tom can do two hours of broadcasting per day and spend the necessary time preparing for them. That’s his “cooking” time, I guess. Does he ever sleep?

    For Leonard who wants something more substantial, I’d suggest Glen Beck on the AM dial at the same time.

  • geffe

    I am also more into sweet potato pie than pumpkin pie.

    My recipe for barbecue sauce is a kind of hybrid like Brett’s. It’s basically done to taste using apple cider vinegar, tomato paste, brown sugar, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, cumin, cayenne pepper, some vegetable oil, mustard powder, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, paprika and sometimes Maple syrup for a bit of New England Yankee influence. I tend to keep on the hot and spicy side with a small hint of sweetness.
    The recipe from South Carolina has evolved over the years. Being that it’s not the healthiest food and I don’t eat a lot of meat I only cook this maybe once or twice a year.

    The ribs I make in the oven with a dry rub and slow cook them at 250 for a few hours and finish them on the grill for the smoke taste. Which if you do it right makes from some nice ribs without the need for a smoker.

    Collard greens I use olive oil and a little butter with some hot sauce, salt and pepper.

  • Brett

    Oh, yeah! Sweet potato pie has it all over pumpkin (although pumpkin can be accentuated with chocolate; try it (shavings on top when the pie is still warm)! I like pumpkin for soup! Cumin and turmeric are great ideas to add to a barbecue sauce; thanks, geffe. You also point to the dry rub, which is essential! I think it’s essential to most meats; chicken is much enhanced with sage, and a little red curry powder can be magic. Also, cooking ribs slowly in the oven then finishing them off on the grill (a “cheat” I often fall back on) is a great way to get around spending a lot of time smoking them over hours, and is probably healthier. You should do a cookbook!

  • Beverly



  • Keyloulou

    a people of the world what are yall doing?people want to kno some soul food and oldfood like thats not your tippical meal you eat every day they aint wanna kno how to make no barbuce sauce or anything else like that dum asses. like me i got a project about some african american food that you wouldnot find on the table everyday and i havenot found one websites that can give me that information YALL SOME DUM ASS BITCHES! ASSY ASS NIGGAS I KNO THAT FOSHO( to all the dum asses of the world)here a story/problem yall want kno cause yall so dum

    • Racheal

      i kno what you talking bout i got i project like that and every website i go on i aint find nun so im glad some can relate to wat im going through

  • zakiya h

    lov it

  • chaser

    i dont get the point of this and why cant i find any thing that the african americans food in the 1800s?!?!?!?!?!

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