PW: Beyond Gumbo is your eighth cookbook. What ties together all your work? What is your core subject?
Jessica B. Harris: I look at the food of Africa and what happened to it when it got to this hemisphere. At some point I might look at the food that left Africa to go east to India, but basically the cookbooks all fit under that umbrella. I'm really fascinated by what happens when cultures mix.
PW: The book is subtitled "Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim." Was it difficult to come up with a definition for "Creole"? It's such a fluid term.
JBH: It's a loaded word, and it changes everywhere you are. I just returned from Paris, and if I said la cuisine créole in France it would mean something entirely different than it does in New York, not to mention New Orleans. Yet there are overarching parallel themes. The strength of Creole culture comes when everyone starts to realize that and starts braiding various threads and talking about what has happened. After much battling and working it through and worrying it as one would worry a knot of some strange kind, I came to the notion of using the linguistic definition, which I use in the book.
PW: How do you go about collecting recipes?
JBH: I'm a nuisance. For example, the Costa family—who provided Julie Tronchet Masson's Okra Gumbo and Four Generation File Gumbo—has been amazing. Why would I go around and read eight zillion cookbooks and talk to chefs when this family has been in New Orleans for eons and they have got handwritten recipes they're willing to share with me? With gumbo, well, one needs to be almost "to the gumbo born." It would be presumptuous of me to presume that I could do better than they who have been doing this for all these years. So we go play cooking together. I used to tease my mother that we would do "dueling backsides" in a very small kitchen. What I like to do with my friends is stand at the stove. I'm a non-foodie foodie.
PW: What do you mean by that?
JBH: If I may paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, I look at history through the spyglass of food, so it's the food that allows me to talk about the culture rather than vice versa. I am more intrigued by the how and the why and the background than I am by the tablespoon.
PW: How did you end up publishing this book with Simon & Schuster?
JBH: I've been with them for a long time and I've had the same editor, Sydny Miner, for a long time—I'm one of those cookbook miracle babies.
PW: What's next for you?
JBH: I'm working on a book called On the Side about side dishes and condiments for Simon & Schuster. The recipes will certainly be from the world I know best, which is that African/Atlantic world, but some of them will be the kinds of things I eat for dinner every night. That's due in August 2004. I'm having a lot of fun with it. Everybody who looks in my refrigerator says, "Oh my god, it's so full," and I always say, "It's all condiments."