Jessica B. Harris of Oak Bluffs, New York, and New Orleans, is more than a cookbook writer, even though she’s written 12 of them. Some have earned her prestigious awards, including the recent IACP Award for Culinary History for “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.” I say “more than a cookbook writer” because each book has rendered up a voice of stirring memory and cultural context that’s a mix of M.F.K. Fisher and Marcel Proust.
Consider this from her 2009 book titled, simply enough, “Rum Drinks” (Chronicle): “The flowers were still blooming on Papa Doc’s tomb and the eternal flame was flickering in the torrid wind the first time I tasted rum. I’d arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the previous evening and been whisked off to that gingerbread hotel, the legendary Oloffson, celebrated by Graham Greene in ‘The Comedians.’ The hotel was every writer’s dream — with the flotsam and jetsam of the island circulating at cocktail time. Modern-day pirates rubbed shoulders with pale-skinned newcomers, their sharp eyes evaluating the worth of each summer cotton frock and gold-braceleted arm and calculating schemes and scams. Paint-daubed artists sought solace in the bottom of glasses, weary island-exiled writers fled from the blank page, socialites fought ennui, and white linen-suited Aubelin Jolicoeur, the model of Greene’s character Petitpierre, hovered: a celebrity in search of an audience. The sophistication was palpable.”
Isn’t it about time Ms. Harris wrote a full-out memoir? “My Soul Looks Back” (Scribner) is what we’ve been waiting for. Mind you, it contains a handful of recipes, but they are a kind of epilogue to each tale beautifully wrought before it. But no, this is 99 percent, flat-out autobiography, which is not to say that food isn’t sumptuously described as the saga unfolds.
Lots of celebrated faces run through Harris’ story, but two in particular make up the pivotal threads of the tapestry extending from the bohemian chic New York of the 1970s to France and England and Africa and back again. These two figures are James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. Ms. Harris had an elite African-American upbringing in Brooklyn, with a father from a hardscrabble Southern background, lifted by his own bootstraps, who insisted on an Ivy League education for his only child, from the U.N. International School in New York to Bryn Mawr. Her own status in a world of famous black artists had everything to do with her slow-cooked romance with player Sam Floyd, “master of revels” and best friend of James Baldwin.
Harris is humble about her own credentials in the fabulous circles into which she’s thrust, from glam parties to nights at the opera to jazz in seedy dives. It’s all about Sam Floyd, who knows everyone and whom everyone knows and loves. Eventually Sam’s brilliant “date” is taken to the bosoms of Baldwin, Angelou, and all the others, including Nina Simone, and all these folks, who are not only famous writers but also love to cook, provide the backdrop.
And there is also the culinary, cultural, and ethnic history that Harris — a professor of English at Queens College for decades, and still going strong — loves to feed on, pun intended. For instance, “The restaurant scene in New York in the 1970s was breaking away from the Gallic dominance and adding a note of fun.” With an opening gambit such as that, get ready for a bright mosaic of facts, from the Forum of the Twelve Caesars with wine in Roman helmets, to La Fonda del Sol that was “an exuberant splash of Latin American art and food that changed the palate of many New Yorkers, and showcased the food of the Hispanic world in ways that would take more than 20 years to repeat.”
But it’s not all luscious food and picnics in St.-Paul de Vence on the French Riviera, with side trips to Sonoma and Haiti, the West Coast of Africa, and much time in Paris. At the heart of the Harris/Floyd liaison is a dark secret, one that the memoirist herself doesn’t discover until her long-lost lover is lost mortally, and some things she never knew about him stand revealed.
As she does most summers, Jessica Harris resides in her gingerbread house with pink shutters, which her parents were canny enough to purchase in the 1950s. A number of talks and book signings will be scheduled locally, but buy the book now and spend some long, lazy summer days basking in Harris’ memories, such as watching old French men play boules in St. Paul: “I mused that it was nothing more than a game of marbles with bigger marbles and bigger boys. But I understood how it could be a major spectator sport, especially if viewed from the sunny terrace of a cafe while sipping a pastis or a glass of rosé de Provence.”
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