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Dr. Harris
Photograph: Kristy May

Jessica B. Harris talks food, culture and her new memoir

After decades of writing about food and culture, Jessica B. Harris shares tales of her own life in My Soul Looks Back

Written by
David Goldberg

In her recipe-laden new memoir, Queens College professor, My Welcome Table radio-show host and cookbook author Jessica B. Harris details her coming-of-age in a West Village long gone. Sharing company with visionaries like Maya Angelou and James Baldwin and falling in love with man-about-town Sam Floyd, Harris experienced a luminous period of discourse in some of downtown’s most legendary restaurants. Before she hits Museum of Food and Drink on May 18 for a talk with Nicole Taylor, she spoke to us about her adventures and her approach to cooking.

Your description of the West Village in the ’70s feels so dreamy, it’s almost surreal. What do you miss most about that era in New York City?

I think the thing that I miss the most, certainly at this point, is the sense of hope. The sense of possibility. I’m not sure it’s there in the same way.

For people of color or just generally?

I think for people of color things have changed. I certainly didn’t have a Beyoncé or a President Obama when I was growing up. So possibilities were circumscribed differently, in a way. How many of those ladies on the Met Gala red carpet were people of color? That was not the case when I was that age. But it is the case now. That’s fascinating. The possibility that there would have been a President Obama in my lifetime never occurred [to me] back then. So in that sense, things are changing, and perhaps positively. Perhaps. I think that the pendulum swing that we’re currently experiencing is making some stuff difficult.

You and Sam Floyd held court in many hole-in-the-wall restaurants, like El Faro, that are now closed. Are there still magical places like that left in New York?

I honestly don’t know. I’m trying to discover if some spots in Brooklyn may have it. There are probably some places out in Red Hook. When people of your generation ask me about those days, I say that one of the big differences is that the word lifestyle had not been invented. We had lives, not lifestyles. I think a lot of it was less photogenic. There were warts.

What is the best way to find your heritage through cooking?

First and foremost: Don’t be afraid of it. It’s food. It should be nourishing. God bless the world, food should be plentiful for all. It shouldn’t be hideously precious. Every once in a while I’ll see a plate and know that 50 million fairy hands have touched it before it got to me. Everything doesn’t have to be an Instagram photo. Does it taste good? What’s it doing in your mouth? My theory about food is if you put together things that you like, you’re probably going to come up with something you like. I’m not saying I would mix liver and raspberries, although that might not be bad if you deglaze the pan just right.

As a journalist, you journeyed around the globe. What’s your advice to writers who want to travel?

I was kind of fearless. I think I’ve become a bit more fearful as I’ve aged, and I’m not sure what that’s about. Try and adventure. I’ve done some wacko stuff—like set off on the back of a motor scooter in Rabat [Morocco] because I wanted some kind of an attar [perfume] that the gentleman said I could only get in the Chellah [section of the city]. I was a single woman traveling by myself. Off I went.

See the talk!

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