A Conversation with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Culinary Historian

Culture & Entertainment
by Beccastone Editorial

WMMTM_DrHarris_bigDr. Jessica Harris is a noted author, journalist, professor, and culinary historian. Dr. Harris is a professor of English at Queens College in New York City, and was the inaugural scholar of the Ray Charles Chair in African American Material Culture at Dillard University in New Orleans. Dr. Harris’ latest book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” (Bloomsburg 2011) is a narrative history of African American foods and culinary traditions.. For more information about Dr. Harris, see www.africooks.com.

Q: What can parents do to encourage healthy eating?

A: Teaching by example is probably the best approach. You can also use a child’s preferences in taste to introduce them to healthy foods. We all have particular tastes. Figure out what your child likes — for example, creamy, tart, sweet or salty — and then tempt them with things that are consistent with this taste. So if your child likes creamy things, give them yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit; if they like sweet things, add honey to snacks like applies, bananas and peanut butter. Also teach children moderation, rather than telling them that certain foods they like to eat entirely off limits. So ice cream might become a once a week treat, instead of something to eat every night.

Another idea is to teach children to read labels. They might become fascinated with comparing the percentages of ingredients in different foods and what that means in terms of nutritional value. Teaching children to cook is also a way to get them more involved with healthy food.

Q: Any tips on teaching children how to cook?

A: Allow your children to be underfoot while you are cooking. Let them watch you. Even better, assign them a task and get them involved in the process. You can have them follow a recipe which gives them hands-on practice with reading, measuring and following directions. I find children more open to trying new foods when they have helped with the preparation.

Teaching your child how to cook gives you the chance to talk about family recipes and cooking “secrets” that give your child a keener sense of family history. Family recipes can serve as a bond between the generations that can be shared, enjoyed and remembered. Great recipes create lasting memories and reminders long after the original cook is gone. There are certain things that I cook that I learned from my mother and grandmother and I always think of them when I make those foods.

Q: How important is the family meal?

A: I think it’s very important. The family meal is the place where children can learn table manners and how to start and hold a conversation. They get to practice their conversation skills. When you think about it, the family dinner table is really the first place where we learn how to “play well with others.” I am also firm believer in teaching children how to set a proper table for the meal. This is a mark of civility and home training, and every child should know how to do it.

Q: What are your favorite sources for recipes?

A: I like the site epicurious.com because it has all different types of recipes for different seasons, events, time of preparation. It has a broad choice that is bound to have recipes that meet your needs.

I should also mention that I am working on an African American food plate that contains foods that are familiar to our culture and history. The objective is to make it easier for people to pick a nutritious mix of foods from choices they recognize and know how to cook. The African American food plate will be published on my website africooks.com.

Q: What was the inspiration for your book “High on the Hog?”

A: I have always been interested in history and cooking, and the book is a way of marrying these interests and telling the story of the African-American role in U.S. culinary history. As a people, we have always had a very intimate and extensive involvement with food — we grew it, we harvested it, we cooked it, and we served it. Our cooking traditions show how resourceful we are, and our ability to improvise. Many African-American cooks were at the highest level of their craft and were acknowledged masters, such as James Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s Parisian-trained cook (and Sally Hemings’ brother).

Q: What advice did your mother give you that has stayed with you?

A: My mother lived the saying that it’s never too late. My mother was a trained dietician who became a master jeweler at age 65. She taught me to always keep on growing. She used to say she was “a divine work in progress.”

Q: Any new projects for you on the horizon?

A: I will continue teaching English at Queens College and consulting with Dillard University.. I am working on a book on my collection of antique postcards depicting African-Americans and food. I am also editing a collection of works on African-American material culture

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