High On the Hog Excerpt

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High on the Hog
A Culinary Journey from Africa to America
by Jessica B. Harris

forward by Maya Angelou
Bloomsbury Press

 

I am an African American. My family comes from here and can trace itself on both sides back over much of the period documented in this book. Therefore I know intimately, and am linked by blood to, the tastes of pig meat and cornmeal that are a part of this country’s African American culinary heritage. I’ve spent more than three de cades writing about the food of African Americans and how it connects with other cuisines in the hemi sphere and around the world, and so I also know that the food of the African continent and its American diaspora continues to remain a culinary unknown for most folks.

 

The history of African Americans in this country is a lengthy one that begins virtually at the time of exploration. Our often-hyphenated name, in all of its complexity, hints at the intricate mixings of our past. We are a race that never before existed: a cobbled- together admixture of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. We are like no others before us or after us. Involuntarily taken from a homeland, molded in the crucible of enslavement, forged in the fire of disenfranchisement, and tempered by migration, we all too often remain strangers in the only land that is ours. Despite all this, we have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other. Our culinary history is fraught with all the associations with slavery, race, and class that the United States has to offer. For this reason, the traditional foodways that derive from the history of enslavement that many of us share are often perceived as unhealthy, inelegant, and hopelessly out of sync with the culinary canons that define healthy eating today.

 

Yet, for centuries, black hands have tended pots, fed babies, and worked in the kitchens of this country’s wealthiest and healthiest. The disrespect for our food and for the people who cook it has been a battle that has raged for de cades. Ebony magazine’s first food editor, Freda DeKnight, wrote about it in the introduction to her cookbook, Date with a Dish: “It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers, and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads.” More than a half century after the book’s publication, at a period when chefs have become empire builders and media millionaires, that debate still rages. Certainly I will have much to say about slave markets, both those in which my ancestors were sold and others where my ancestors and those like them sold goods that they’d grown and items that they’d prepared. I will speak of scant meals of hog and hominy and of simple folk who became culinary entrepreneurs, like illiterate “Pig Foot” Mary, who created a real estate empire from the food that she cooked on an improvised stove on the back of a baby carriage!

I will also speak of presidential chefs like George Washington’s Hercules and Thomas Jefferson’s James Hemings and of an alternate African American culinary thread that weaves through the fabric of our food. This parallel thread is a strong one and includes Big House cooks who prepared lavish banquets, caterers who created a culinary co- operative in Philadelphia in the nineteenth century, a legion of black hoteliers and culinary moguls, and a growing black middle and upper class.

 

My family is a part of that middle class and encapsulates both culinary threads. I wrote in Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking, “Fate has placed me at the juncture of two Black culinary traditions: that of the Big House and that of the rural South.” The Jones side of the family always held reunions at table. Early childhood memories are filled with images of groaning boards, of “put up” preserved peaches, seckle pears, and watermelon rinds, of “cool drinks” such as minted lemonade, of freshly baked Parker House rolls and yeast breads. The Harris side of the family were no slouches at “chowing down” either. Grandma Harris insisted on fresh produce, and some of my early memories are of her gardening in a small plot where she lived.

 

Writing about the food of African Americans connects me to my forebearers. On one side of the family was Samuel Philpot, who was born enslaved in Virginia and in his thirties at the time of Emancipation.

 

My mother knew him, and I have several photographs of him, as he lived to be more than one hundred years of age. He was reputed to have been a Big House servant who on one occasion served Abraham Lincoln at supper. He married the daughter of free people of color, settled in Virginia, near Roanoke, and became the progenitor of the Jones side of my family. On the Harris side of the family, my great-grandmother Merendy Anderson had an orchard in the post-Emancipation period where she grew stone fruit— plums, peaches, and more— and sold them to neighbors in her Tennessee town. Closer to me were both of my grandmothers, who embodied the culinary traditions of their families. Grandma Harris cooked little and not particularly well, but she made beaten biscuits and could put a hurtin’ on a mess of greens. She read her Bible and wrote poetry, but was plainspoken, a vestige of her struggle with literacy. Grandma Jones was more eloquent on paper; she’d gone to a women’s seminary in Virginia in the late nineteenth century and embodied all the elegance that that state claims at table.

 

As this book is the direct result of my knowing them, I wrote it as if they’d survived to read it. I have deliberately foresworn the traditional academic format that I teach in order to move the odyssey forward. For High on the Hog is a journey into the realm of African American food, but makes no claim at being the definitive volume (that copiously annotated, weighty opus has yet to appear and will be the work of another). Rather, this is a personal look at the history of African American food that tells the tale in brief compass, introduces a rich and abundant cast of characters, and presents some of the major themes in a discursive narrative. 

 

Each chapter is— like Gaul— divided into three parts. An introduction sets the stage and presents a personal and present-day look at one of the stops on the journey. The main section of each chapter begins with a chronological presentation of the African American history of the period discussed that raises questions, presents a number of glorious participants, and moves the journey forward. Finally, each chapter ends with a coda that adds a closer look at some aspect of the period’s food, much like what is called a lagniappe in Louisiana.

 

A collection of recipes— some archival, some from my cookbooks— follows, presenting many of the key dishes in the African American culinary repertoire. Finally, there is a list of further reading and brief chronological listing of a selection of African American cookbooks for the questing bibliophile.

 

This book is at the same time a last and a first, as its writing has led me on an odyssey as well as opened doors in my life, my mind, and my soul that I will be entering and investigating in future years as I too attempt to journey from the hock to the ham and take my own life higher on the hog.

 


BACK TO BOOK SUMMARY


 

Old Master killed about forty or fifty hogs every year. He had John to help him. When he was ready to pay him off he said, “John, here’s your pig head, and pig feet, and pig ears.” John said, “Thank you, boss.”

 

So, John killed hogs for about five years that way; that’s what he got for his pay. Then John moved on back of the place and got himself three hogs. Old Master didn’t even know he had a hog. Next winter at hog- killing time Old Master went down after John. Old Master says, “John.”

 

John come to the door—“Yessir.” Old Master says, “Be down to the house early in the morning, I want to kill hogs— be there about five- thirty.” John asks, “Well, Old Master, what you paying?” “I’ll pay you like I always did. I’ll give you the head and all the ears, and all the pig’s feet and all the tails.”

 

John said, “Well, Old Master, I can’t, because I’m eating higher on the hog than that now. I got three hogs of my own an’: I eat spareribs, backbone, pork chops, middling, ham, and everything else. I eat high on the hog now!”

 

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