Monday, May 16, 2011

High on the Hog

Having just read Frederick Douglassm Opie's Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, I was afraid Jessica Harris' High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America was going to be a retreading of familiar material. I was pleasantly surprised. The two authors' styles are very different - while Opie tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to hold together personal reminiscences and academic history, Harris is a natural storyteller who uses the lives of black cooks, eaters, and entrepreneurs to enliven the larger cultural discussion of food and race. She brings to light nearly-forgotten figures who deserve to be widely known: the life of Hercules, George Washington's genius black cook, is just waiting to be turned into a novel or screenplay.

This book is a highly entertaining read, but I admit to wondering how accurate some of the material was. Harris chose not to include a professorial flurry of footnotes, which certainly keeps the book accessible, but also prevents it from carrying a certain authority. Popular history requires walking a very fine line - Harris generally does a good job, but might err a bit on the side of popularity. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, as the quantity of fabulous primary material she draws on tells its own story with clarity, and her lively prose will draw in any reader.

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