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High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America

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New York Times bestseller
From the Winner of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award
Now a Netflix Original Series

The grande dame of African American cookbooks and winner of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award stakes her claim as a culinary historian with a narrative history of African American cuisine.

Acclaimed cookbook author Jessica B. Harris has spent much of her life researching the food and foodways of the African Diaspora. High on the Hog is the culmination of years of her work, and the result is a most engaging history of African American cuisine. Harris takes the reader on a harrowing journey from Africa across the Atlantic to America, tracking the trials that the people and the food have undergone along the way.

From chitlins and ham hocks to fried chicken and vegan soul, Harris celebrates the delicious and restorative foods of the African American experience and details how each came to form such an important part of African American culture, history, and identity. Although the story of African cuisine in America begins with slavery, High on the Hog ultimately chronicles a thrilling history of triumph and survival. The work of a masterful storyteller and an acclaimed scholar, Jessica B. Harris's High on the Hog fills an important gap in our culinary history.

ISBN-13: 9781608194506

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

Publication Date: 01-17-2012

Pages: 304

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Jessica B. Harris is the author of eleven cookbooks documenting the foods of the African Diaspora, including The Africa Cookbook and The Welcome Table, and has written and lectured widely about the culture of Africa in the Americas. A professor at Queens College, CUNY, she also consults at Dillard University in New Orleans, where she founded the Institute for the Study of Culinary Cultures. She was recently inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America.

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2011 Jessica B. Harris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-395-0

Chapter One


Foods, Techniques, and Ceremonies of the Mother Continent

Dan-Tokpa Market, Cotonou, Benin, West Africa—

I visited my first African market with my mother three decades ago. It was a sunny day in Dakar. We had left our hotel, the Croix du Sud, a grand art deco vestige of colonial times, to take a few turns around the European part of the city. Shortly after setting out, we found ourselves in the Marche Kermel, one of the city's many markets. I didn't know it then, but before independence the small bustling market had been designated for use by Europeans. We wandered, looking at the displays, wrinkling our noses at the butchers' stalls. We were fascinated by the flower sellers who jostled each other for position and rather loudly demanded payment for any of the photographs taken. (Indeed they seemed to sell more photographs than bright bouquets of flowers.) Little did I know that my first experience in the Marche Kermel would initiate me into a lifetime of market-love on the African continent and a love of the food that those markets have spawned on both sides of the Atlantic.

I'll never forget that first market visit, but to me the Dan-Tokpa Market in Benin will always be the mother of all African markets. No matter how many visits I make, I am always startled by its vitality and its vibrancy. After years of travel and countless skirts boasting hems stained with market mud from around the African continent, I continue to be amazed at how this large neighborhood market is transformed overnight into a small city of purveyors, each with his own clientele and all trying to hawk their wares.

The Dan-Tokpa Market, or the Tokpa, as it is affectionately known by locals, is a daily market, but every four days it surges into new life and trebles its size to become a grand marché. The Tokpa is not solely a food market; everything from brilliantly printed fabric to small and surely incendiary plastic demijohns of gasoline can be purchased. However, the exuberance of the food section and the variety of comestibles sold there speaks to the importance of food on the African continent.

Enormous snails that look like escargots on steroids are piled on mats in one section. In another, the air is pungent with the funk of dried smoked shrimp that are used for seasoning dishes. Bulging burlap sacks overflow with gari, or cassava meal, a major local starch. Earthenware cooking pots and calabash bowls are displayed in all sizes and shapes. Familiar leafy greens, tomatoes, and chilies are sold as well, albeit in different varieties and with unfamiliar names. Everywhere the eye glances there is a celebration of the food of West Africa. In terms of variety, the Topka rivals the exoticism of the souks of Marrakesh and the bazaars of the winding alleyways of Mombasa, Kenya. Yet many of the goods sold—okra, black-eyed peas, watermelon, and more—are familiar and remind me of my American home.

The markets of the African continent are timeless. I collect late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century postcards of African markets and am often amazed and bemused by the similarities of clothing, gesture, and ingredients. Even today, despite the growing proliferation of supermarkets and home freezers among the middle class, there is still a love for the marketplace and the community it creates that will drive even the fanciest West African homemaker to mix with the crowds in search of just the right ingredient.

Over the years, I've also accumulated a mental Rolodex of recipes of West African market food, from the poisson braisé (grilled fish) of Benin to the aloco (deep-fried bananas) of the Cote d'Ivoire. They include grilled meats that are served up in spicy sauces for busy housewives to carry home in enameled basins and one-pot stews that nourish hungry laborers in from the country. There are also small fried tidbits for after-school snacks and cocktail nibbles for the elite: peanuts roasted on sand-covered griddles, orange-hued fritters dripping with palm oil, and more. The dusty streets of the Topka seem the perfect place to begin this culinary journey. With the food of the African continent on glorious display we can begin to learn how over the course of centuries that food has transformed the cooking and the tastes of the United States.

* * *

The cooking of Africa has yet to have its moment on the foodie radar. With the exception of the food of the southern Mediterranean coast and of South Africa, it would seem that we're content to remain in the dark about the tastes of the continent. However, those who have tasted yassa, the lemon-infused chicken and onion stew served over fluffy white rice, from Senegal, or kédjenou, the deep, slow-cooked Ivorian stew of guinea hen, or a freshly caught grilled fish served up with an oniony, tomato-based sauce called moyau in Benin know how shortsighted this is. Much African food is tasty indeed. The traditional foods of the African continent may also reflect some of the world's oldest foodways, for, as James L. Newman puts it in The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation, "all humanity shares a common Africa-forged genetic identity." Some of the continent's food even tastes surprisingly familiar, because, for centuries of forced and voluntary migration, the food of Western Africa has had an influence on the cooking of the world, transforming the taste and the dishes of many nations east and west, few more than the United States.

Current thinking is that the African continent is where man originated. If this is true, it is also where humans first began to forage for food. As early as eighteen thousand years ago, some Nile Valley communities in Upper Egypt made intensive use of vegetable tubers. Later humans began to care for wild grasses as well, but did not establish true cultivation until about the sixth millennium B.C., when people started to domesticate plants and animals and evolved lifestyles that were less nomadic. Many of the crops they cultivated then were native to the continent and are still cultivated today. These include some types of yam, African rice, and cereals such as sorghum and millets. Evidence of early agriculture has even been found within the Sahara, which then had a moister climate. Over time, these peoples migrated south, driven by the increasing desertification of the Sahara. In the western part of the continent, they settled in three different areas, each of which depended on a major grain or foodstuff as the basis for nourishment.

A wide band below the Sahara spanned from Sudan in the east to Senegal in the west and developed around the cultivation of sorghum and several varieties of millet. A coastal area and the Niger Delta region, including what is today Senegal and the Republic of Guinea, depended on rice and fonio, a native cereal grass that produces a small mustard-like seed. A third area, also on the coast, ran from today's Côte d'Ivoire through Cameroon and cultivated yams. These three crucibles—cereals, rice, and yams—also marked three distinct areas from which enslaved Africans were brought to the United States. Each had its own traditional dishes centered on the starch that was its preference. Those from the rice crucible were among some of the earliest transported by the Transatlantic Slave Trade to what would become the United States. They brought with them their knowledge of rice cultivation and their memories of a rice-based cuisine, like that of today's Senegal, where wags say that the Lord's Prayer should be rewritten to say, "Give us this day our daily rice"! Those from the yam crucible arrived later, as the voracious slave trade made its way down the West African coast from Senegal to the Gold Coast, then south to the Bight of Benin and beyond. They saddled the United States with eternal confusion between the New World sweet potato and the Old World tuber whose name it came to bear—the yam. Those from the cereal crucible were inland and therefore not an immediate influence on American tastes until the inception of the slave trade. They depended on millet and on fonio, which were traditional, and by the time they were involved in the trade, on large amounts of American corn.

The Western world first began to hear of the food of the sub-Saharan Africa from one who had actually voyaged there in the middle of the fourteenth century. Abdalla Ibn Battuta, a famous Tangerine traveler, left Marrakesh in 1352 to head for Bilad al Sudan (the place of the blacks). He was sent by the sultan of Morocco on a mission to the kingdom of Mali to observe the kingdom that was one of the principle destinations of Berber trade caravans. Like many travelers before and since, he thought of his stomach, wrote often of the food that he encountered on his two-year journey, and became one of the primary recorders of the early foodways of Africa. He reckoned the dates of Sijilmasa in northern Mali some of the sweetest he'd ever encountered and suggested that the dessert was full of truffles (although these were probably some other kind of vegetable fungus). He crossed the Sahara with trade caravans and visited salt mines where the salt came from the earth in huge tablets. He spoke of calabashes decorated with intricate designs that were used as eating and storage vessels. Ibn Battuta's account is of particular interest to those looking at the origins of African American foods and foodways because almost seven hundred years ago he noticed elements of African foodways that are still reflected today in those of the continent's American descendants. He spoke not only of ingredients and storage vessels but also of cooking techniques, a woman-driven marketplace, a tradition of warm hospitality, and the importance of food in ritual.

Ibn Battuta's journey predated Columbus's voyages by almost a century and a half. By the early years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, another century and a half later, the African continent had come under the influence of what is now known as the Columbian Exchange. Following Columbus's explorations, a New World larder of foods was unleashed. New World crops like tomatoes, corn, chilies, peanuts, and cassava arrived on the African continent and transformed its cuisine and changed its dining habits. Many of the New World additions, especially corn, chilies, and cassava, have become so emblematic of the continent's cuisine that it is almost impossible to imagine its dishes without them.

Not only the foodstuff made its way across the Atlantic; so did the basic cooking techniques. Whether frying, steaming in leaves, grilling, roasting, baking, or boiling, they could be duplicated using the hearth that was the European culinary standard. Cooking was done using flame, charcoal, and ash. There was no sauteing or braising, and most traditional dishes, while possibly elaborate in ingredients or preparation, relied on some form of live fire until fairly recently. From Morocco in the north to South Africa, from Kenya in the east to Cameroon in the west, the continent's traditional dishes tended to be variations on the theme of a soupy stew over a starch or a grilled or fried animal protein accompanied by a vegetable sauce and/or a starch. The starch changed from the couscous described by Ibn Battuta to millet couscous known as tiéré in Mali to the banana-leaf-wrapped fermented corn paste known as kenkey in Ghana or its pounded plantain variant, akankye. It might even be the plain white rice accompaning the yassa in Senegal. The stew might be served over the starch or the starch might be formed into balls, broken into bits, or scooped up with the fingers and dipped or sopped. It has been that way for centuries and remains that way today. Any Southerner who has ever sopped the potlikker from a mess of greens with a piece of cornbread would be right at home.

Our knowledge of early African foodways came not only from voyagers like Ibn Battuta but also from explorers and missionaries. Mungo Park, the first European to view the headwaters of the Niger, traveled to the continent in the late eighteenth century. Like Ibn Battuta, he was concerned with his stomach and gave a detailed accounting of some of the foods he encountered. By the time that Park made his exploratory journey, American corn had begun to supplant the millet and fonio mentioned by Ibn Battuta, but couscous remained a traditional preparation no matter the starch. In his journal, Park described the process for making a corn couscous so precisely that it could be followed as a recipe.

In preparing their corn for food, the natives use a large wooden mortar called a paloon, in which they bruise the seed until it parts with the outer covering, or husk, which is then separated from the clean corn, by exposing it to the wind: nearly in the same manner as wheat is cleared from the chaff in England. The corn thus freed from the husk is returned to the mortar and beaten into meal; which is dressed variously in different countries; but the most common preparation of it among the natives of the Gambia, is a sort of pudding, which they call kouskous. It is made by first moistening the flour with water, and then stirring and shaking it about in a large calabash or gourd, till it adheres together in small granules, resembling sago. It is then put into an earthen pot, whose bottom is perforated with a number of small holes; and this pot being placed upon another, the two vessels are luted together either with a paste of meal and water, or with cow's dung, and placed upon the fire. In the lower vessel is commonly some animal food and water, the steam or vapour of which ascends through the perforations in the bottom of the upper vessel, and soften and prepares the kouskous which is much esteemed throughout all the countries that I visited.

Park also spoke of rice dishes and of corn puddings and of the fact that there were a wide variety of vegetables. Fowl was abundant and included partridge as well as guinea hens, which are indigenous to the continent.

Like Ibn Battuta, the explorers were amazed by the lavish hospitality that was offered by rich and poor alike to guests and visitors. Rene Caillé, who traveled overland from Morocco through Mali into Guinea, spoke of the foods he ate in his 1830 travel account. He mentioned a "copious luncheon of rice with chicken and milk," which he ate with delight and which filled the travelers for their journey. He also recounted a meal offered to him by the poor of a village, which consisted of a type of couscous served with a sauce of greens. While Caillé enjoyed his copious meal, his hosts made due with boiled yam with a saltless sauce. Similar prodigious hospitality garnered commentary from virtually all writers. However, some of the more gastronomically inclined French travelers, like Caillé and others, were as astonished by the sophisticated tastes of the food as they were by the generous hospitality. Theophilus Conneau, another Frenchmen, recorded that on December 8, 1827, he ate an excellent supper. It was

a rich stew which a French cook would call a sauce blanche. I desired a taste which engendered a wish for more. The delicious mess was made of mutton minced with roasted ground nuts [or peanuts] and rolled up into a shape of forced meat balls, which when stewed up with milk butter and a little malaguetta [sic] pepper, is a rich dish if eaten with rice en pilau. Monsieur Fortoni [sic] of Paris might not be ashamed to present a dish of it to his aristocratic gastronomes of the Boulevard des Italiens.

This was high praise indeed from a Frenchman.

Ibn Battuta, Park, Caillé, and others like them also visited the courts of African rulers and commented on the grandeur that attended the sovereigns. Mansa Kankan Musa of Mali, ruler of the region that Battuta visited, was so extravagant in his lifestyle that when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he distributed such quantities of gold that in his wake the Egyptian dinar was devalued by 20 percent. Leaders of the Akan, Fon, Bamiléké, Bamun, and Yoruba peoples and other coastal kingdoms equally impressed early European arrivals with their wealth, the splendor of their courts, and the ceremonies and rituals surrounding food and food service.


Excerpted from HIGH ON THE HOG by JESSICA B. HARRIS Copyright © 2011 by Jessica B. Harris. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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