As I peeled back the tape on my latest Amazon purchase, the rust-hued cover of this month’s cookbook selection peeked through. On the front in bold lettering it reads, The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent. This is exciting, because if there’s one person I’d love to hear narrate stories of her travels through Africa, it’s this author, Dr. Jessica B. Harris. She has written some of the most pivotal literature defining and celebrating the African-American experience and journey. She’s known for High on the Hog, Sky Juice and Flying Fish, and The Welcome Table, as well as a new memoir, My Soul Looks Back, where she catalogs her relationships and travels with great minds like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou.
The Africa Cookbook is an archive of stories and recipes, as Dr. Harris makes her way through home kitchens across the African continent. I follow her work so closely because her writing is in part what inspired the work I do. My name is Gabrielle Eitienne, and I consider myself a culinary creative of sorts. I recently returned home to North Carolina after almost a decade away between New York and San Francisco, where I had a career in fashion design until homesickness turned me into a cook and writer. I tried to recreate smells and flavors from my childhood and in turn, found a true love for the kitchen. I am an avid gardener, seed hoarder, and I, much like Dr. Harris, enjoy sharing the stories of my community, elders, and ancestors through food.
In the introduction, Dr. Harris challenges us to overlook stereotypes, cast down misconception, and stop thinking of the word “African” as a language, since there are over 1,000 tongues spread throughout its 54 countries. In the introduction she writes: “My Africa is a continent of ancient history and profound spirituality: a continent of madness and marvels, where the past walks side by side with the present and both show the way to the future”. This quote still resonates twenty years after it was published, and with Afro-futurism on everyone’s minds lately, this read is right on time.
Dr. Harris paints pictures of the lavish dinners in ancient Egypt, where they ate duck foie gras and black-eyed peas. We learn what the supremely picky ancestors (Gods) of the Yoruba people like to eat, and let’s just say, hold the spice. She touches on table etiquette at a Moroccan Diffa, where they eat only with their right hands and you don’t ask why—a feast hinged in prayer and presented in tajines.
This book made me feel like I have friends all over Africa. You feel like you’re walking through bustling markets in Senegal, sampling these flavors that become increasingly familiar as you make the cross-Atlantic connection to that rich bowl of gumbo you had in New Orleans. You find recipes only whispered under a grandmother’s breath, never written down until recorded for this book. You realize the whole world is reflected in Africa. Ingredients like smoked and sun-dried shrimp, okra, peanuts, collards, hot peppers, and various legumes all tie up the loose ends of the African Diaspora. So get ready to sip some floral orange wine spiked with rum as we channel our inner Wakandan.