An acclaimed food historian explores the roots of New Orleans’s cultural character through its cuisine.
In New Orleans, it’s not out of the ordinary to taste a delicious combination of flavors that leaves you wondering, “Who could've thought to create this?” Esteemed food historian, educator, and author Jessica B. Harris has devoted her life and studies to exploring this thought, tracking foods of the African diaspora from across the Atlantic rim to the crux of American culture, history, and identity. So, when considering the classic combinations that characterize Creole and Cajun cuisine, it’s safe to say that Harris has a clue as to their creation.
We caught up with the acclaimed culinary expert about the unique intersection of cultures, traditions, and history that can be found in New Orleans’s classic cuisine. Here’s a taste of what she told us.
You live part time in New Orleans and have researched the city’s classic cuisine extensively. What draws you to the place?
“Well, my standard answer is that my soul stays there. There’s something about New Orleans that I connect with. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Caribbean and places like Senegal and Brazil. In New Orleans, there’s a commonality that I see, understand, and love. People tend to think of New Orleans as being the northernmost point in the Caribbean. What you see in the architecture, hear in the music, find in the street life, and eat on the plate—it’s different in New Orleans. Really, it’s anomalous in the United States.”
Can you elaborate on that anomaly?
“Ultimately, in New Orleans, you see a braid of the three cultures that formed the bedrock of the United States. You see Europe with the French, Spanish, Sicilian, and Italian influence. There’s the African influence, which is the beating heart, soul, and underpinning of the place—its cuisine in particular—because those are the folks who were doing the cooking in houses of status. And then, of course, native people had a hand in the pot as well.”
What classic New Orleanian dish exemplifies the blend of these three influences?
“Gumbo! The dish itself can be traced back directly to what was eaten in Africa before any Europeans showed up. When it became a part of New Orleans’s cuisine, it was altered, and influences were added. For example, the filé powder used in many gumbos comes from sassafras, a Native American ingredient which is used as a parallel to the traditional African thickener, okra. So you’ll see these different influences in different ways. But the bottom line is, everybody’s grandma makes a different gumbo.”
So one can one can look to New Orleans’s cuisine to better understand the city’s history?
“My specialty is concerned with the food of the African diaspora, and specifically, exploring what happened to it after it left the continent. But much of human history can be read through the looking for, the impulse for, and creation of food. Really, this is a city that has been eating out of a cultural matrix for centuries.”
In your opinion, is the food you’ll find in New Orleans restaurants today reflective of the city’s history?
“Food is constantly in a state of change, and New Orleans’s cuisine really reflects that. Several of New Orleans’s contemporary restaurants came out of a growth post-Katrina, so the plates are shifting. I’m talking about tectonic plates, but it’s also a metaphor for the dining room. The food you find in New Orleans today is still within the tradition of what the city was; now we’re just seeing different kinds of influences.”