Healing Table and the Discipline of Food Studies
by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D.
The discipline of Food Studies is an internationally growing field in the academy with several institutions around the
and the world offering not only undergraduate, but advance degrees in the discipline. The subject is rooted in the study of the table and in the investigation of all that surrounds food: its growth, preparation, presentation, and consumption. The table is an especial locus, for it is rife with meaning and with symbolism. It is not without reason that peace treaties are usually negotiated around tables and that each spot at the table is carefully fought over. African American author Maya Angelou, in her United States home, has a round table in the dining room so that there is no head of foot and all come to the table as equals. New York City
The table is important in African American life in hemispheric generality because from mother’s milk to funeral meats, black food has nurtured the growth of the people of the
Western Hemisphere both black and white since the beginning of settlement. Throughout the hemisphere blacks initially enslaved and later free fed the families of others and made sure that there was a meal on their tables even when we were not sure of the conditions of their own families. Cooking, for black families, has therefore always been one of the primary ways of nurturing each other and of healing self.
In the academy, the table and the food on it offer splendid entry points for the discussion of topics ranging from ethnobotany to art and are a perfect way for museums to immediately address their audiences. In the past blacks were ambivalent about their connection to the world of food because it was so intimately connected with the memory of our enslaved past. In many countries, it was dismissed,
forgetting that it was and is also a living testimonial to the entrepreneurial skills that survived the unspeakable and, most importantly one of the most pervasive influences that blacks have had on the culture of the Hemisphere. Most people readily acknowledge the debt that the music of the so-called
New World owes to people of African descent, few even think of the debt that their food owes as well. It’s not all just about the music!
From the colonoware and Gullah Baskets of the American plantations to Brazil and Bahia’s comida de azeite to the street foods hawked by black men and women from Perú to Panama, Martinique to Mexico through Haiti, for centuries there has been a massive and all pervasive influence of the African hand in the hemisphere’s cooking pots. There is a wealth of rich material for investigation from the praline sellers of
New Orleans who sold their sweet pecan candies on street corners in the nineteenth through mid twentieth centuries to the Cuisinières of Guadeloupe who are celebrated in Pointe-à-Pitre each August. Each is the custodian of a rich culinary patrimony that is just beginning to be discovered and honored internationally and is the subject of the nascent field of African Diaspora Food Studies.
Jessica B. Harris is the author of ten critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. A book on the rum culture of the
Caribbean is forthcoming in November and she is currently working on a narrative history of African Americans and food. A culinary historian, Harris has lectured on African-American foodways at numerous institutions and colleges throughout the United States and abroad and has written extensively about the culture of Africa in the , particularly the foodways. Americas
Dr. Harris holds degrees from
Bryn Mawr College, Queens College, The Université de Nancy, France, and . Dr. Harris was the inaugural scholar in residence in the Ray Charles Chair in African-American Material Culture at New York University Dillard University in . Dr. Harris is also professor of English at New Orleans Queens College, C.U.N.Y. and Director of the Institute for the Study of Culinary Cultures that she established at . Dillard University