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5.1.07

Island Cooking with Jessica Harris

The Oak Bluffs summer resident and author of numerous cookbooks finally pens one inspired by the Vineyard.

Cooks who enjoy ethnic dishes often have to be content experiencing the foods of other cultures through cookbooks. For Jessica Harris, a life of food has taken her literally around the world into kitchens as far away as Martinique, Singapore, Brazil, and Africa. From these travels, she has written firsthand about culture, history, and food in nine cookbooks.

In her latest cookbook, Martha’s Vineyard Table (Chronicle Books, May 2007), Jessica Harris, 59, tells the story of how her family started vacationing fifty years ago on the Island – a summer retreat from where she has worked on most of her cookbooks and which is now the subject of one.

The story goes back almost a century, to a rural Tennessee schoolhouse. “There, in the 1920s, my father sat and listened with saucer-wide eyes as his teacher regaled the class with tales of her vacation spent on the magical island. He never forgot her stories, and when, some thirty years later, he saw a small advertisement for a house in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard in the back pages of The New York Times, he couldn’t resist,” she writes in her book.

The house, a ramshackle gingerbread across from the town’s red clay tennis courts, was purchased for “the princely sum” of $4,000.

Each summer since she was nine, Jessica, with her father Jesse B. Harris, an administrator for V.A. hospitals, and mother Rhoda A. Jones Harris, a nutritionist, made the trip from New York City. The car would be packed with her mother’s good food. “Old habits die hard, and the vicissitudes of travel in the segregated South meant that even in the North, black families in the 1950s would no more think of hitting the road without a shoebox full of fried chicken, deviled eggs, pound cake, oranges, raisins, and a thermos full of lemonade than they would leave home without maps and a full gas tank,” Jessica writes. “We would joke that if we lost our way to the Vineyard, we could simply follow the trail of chicken bones and find the ferry pier.”

Jessica, who learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen “under her watchful eye,” includes Mommy’s Summer Fried Chicken and Deviled Ham Spread in her cookbook, which she calls part memoir and part guidebook. It includes culinary contributions from many groups that call the Vineyard home: Jamaicans’ Codfish Fritters and Red Pea Soup with Spinners; Portuguese specialties of Kale Soup and Jagacida (a dish of linguiça, beans, and rice); African American dishes like Cornbread and Collard Green Pie; and Wampanoag-inspired Corn Pudding and Cranberry-Apple Crisp.

Though she doesn’t own a car and relies on friends and taxis to get around the Island, Jessica makes a habit of visiting roadside farm stands and markets. Many Island staples found their way into recipes – a versatile Tomato Chutney, Blueberry Crepes, Lemon Verbena Iced Tea, Grilled Swordfish Skewers, Stuffed Quahogs, and more – making this a great cookbook for the summer.

Jessica cannot recall missing a summer here in fifty years. And aside from a racial incident when her family was once asked to leave an Edgartown beach, summers were filled with family, a close community of vacationing black American families, and lots of good food.

“In my youth, there was a real sense of being together, knowing each other – a more tightly knit community. Within that general community, there were eight zillion groups and factions. I’m not painting an absolutely idyllic world, but there was a sense of where you were,” she says today.

Much of the day’s happenings – morning coffee, lunches, naps, evening cocktails – took place on ubiquitous Oak Bluffs porches. “Up-Island you have decks” with views; down-Island has porches – our “summer living rooms and the heartbeat of our lives,” Jessica explains. She devotes a section of her book, called Appetizers and Porch Food, to them, and includes drinks called the Bluffs Bloody Mary and the Porch Sitter – one-third passion-fruit juice, two-thirds dry sparkling wine.

 “All I have to do is sit on the porch for two minutes – if it’s the last two weeks in August – and I’ll know who’s in town,” she says. “In Oak Bluffs, they make some of us think of our ancestral Southern climes, as we sit in our rockers and wave to friends driving by.”

Jessica talks about the strong African American community living here in the summer. “We bring a variety of things to the Island. We bring a kind of warmth, a kind of Southern hospitality and openness – very different from Yankee thrift.”

In her life outside the Vineyard, Jessica got her first taste of eating international foods while attending high school at the United Nations International School in New York City. She then earned degrees from Bryn Mawr College and Queens College, where she now works as a tenured full professor of English. She also owns a home in New Orleans that survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

She began her sideline writing career first with travel pieces and guidebooks, including the Bantam Travel Guide: Paris, 1991. She became the travel editor for Essence magazine and began covering food and markets in places she traveled to, including Hong Kong, India, and the Caribbean. She speaks French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Jessica’s parallel career as a journalist and culinary historian has propelled her into a life’s work of tracing the ways African food has migrated to the New World, and its transforming influences in the cooking of the American South, Caribbean, and South America, especially Brazil. For this work, she has been recognized by the Southern Foodways Alliance with a lifetime achievement award and asked to appear on such programs as the Today show and Good Morning America, as well as on the Food Network. Not long ago, I was watching a History Channel piece on fried chicken, and there was Jessica delving into the subject.

“I write about history through the spyglass of food,” Jessica explains. “What better medium – food is something everybody ‘gets.’ Everybody doesn’t necessarily get history. But you can talk about anything through the spyglass of food – it’s not as loaded. If you talk to people about African American history and enslavement, there’s a corner they understand. If you talk to Southerners about okra and black-eyed peas, they get it, because they know those things. They certainly have those tastes on their tongues.”

Jessica said she wasn’t the first to chronicle foods of the African diaspora, but she notes, “I have been the most relentless.”

Still, she invokes Rodney Dangerfield in summing up people’s interest in the food of African Americans:

“We still don’t get a whole lot of respect,” she says. “We still have a lot more to write about – that’s why I’m writing High on the Hog.” That’s her next book, which traces the history of African American food in this country. It won’t be her last.

Jessica wants to explore the connection between African food and the Middle East, and the African food in India. “I’d like to know more about the African American community in Central America and Mexico.” She’s written two cookbooks on traditional Caribbean cooking but said she would like to “revisit” that region as well.

“I have an over-active thyroid and no social life,” says Jessica, about how she finds time to write so many books and teach college freshmen. “I’m not an absentee professor,” she adds.

“I’m always working.”

And she has the Vineyard.

“It’s a place where I rest and relax, celebrate friends and family – and write,” she says.

Jessica Harris is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the annual potluck gathering for Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard in July at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. The event will be free and open to the public.

Recipes from Martha’s Vineyard Table by Jessica B. Harris

Mommy’s summer fried chicken

Serves 4 to 6

This dish is a classic in the African American repertoire. It’s what my family ate on the road and on picnics and at home on Sundays. When it comes to fried chicken, there are two basic types of cooks: the dredgers and the batterers. I’m a dredger, preferring the crunch of a crispy skin that is free of batter. This is my mother’s recipe. The Bell’s poultry seasoning is not optional, as other brands will have a different taste.

• 1 frying chicken, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, cut into serving pieces
• Vegetable oil for frying
• 1/2 cup flour
• 1/4 cup white cornmeal
• 1 1/2 tablespoons Bell’s poultry seasoning
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Pour the oil to a depth of about 2 inches into a deep cast-iron skillet and heat until it reaches 350 degrees on a deep-frying thermometer. While the oil is heating, combine the flour, cornmeal, poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper in a brown paper bag and shake to mix well. Place the chicken pieces, a few at a time, in the bag and shake well to coat evenly. Remove from the bag and shake off the excess flour mixture.

Working in batches, place the chicken pieces in the skillet and fry, turning the pieces as they brown, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until crispy and cooked through. To check for doneness, prick the pieces with a fork in the thickest part; the juices should run clear with no trace of blood. Transfer to paper towels to drain, and keep warm in a low oven. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Marvino’s one-pot lobster feast

Serves 4

For a few years, my friend Marvin Jones operated the only black-owned restaurant on the Vineyard. It was called Lobster in the Bluffs and was a special spot on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Marvin specialized in a one-pot shore dinner that he had perfected. Unfortunately, Lobster in the Bluffs is now only a corner of a smile in the hazy memories of summers past, but I persuaded him to give up his recipe. You won’t get the fellowship or the fun, but you can create your own memories over this lobster.

• 12 small new potatoes
• 1/2 pound linguiça, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 4 ears corn, shucked and cut in half
• 4 live lobsters, about 1 1/2 pounds each
• 20 mussels, scrubbed, soaked in salted water to cover for 2 to 3 hours to expel sand, and beards removed
• 12 steamer clams, scrubbed and soaked in salted water for 2 to 3 hours to expel sand
• Melted butter for serving
• Lemon wedges for serving

Select a pot large enough to accommodate all the ingredients. Place the potatoes in the pot with water to cover by about 2 inches, cover, and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the linguiça, corn, and lobsters, and continue to steam for 4 minutes. Add the mussels and clams, discarding any that fail to close to the touch, and continue to steam for 4 to 6 minutes longer, or until the lobster tails and heads begin to separate and the clams and mussels open*. Discard any mussels and clams that fail to open.

Serve immediately with melted butter for dipping the lobster meat, a cup of the cooking broth for dunking the steamers and mussels, and the lemons.

*If the clams and mussels open before the lobsters are cooked, remove them and serve them as an appetizer, or place them on a serving platter and reserve until the lobster is done.

Summer Southern succotash

Serves 6 to 8

For many, succotash is the classic Native American dish of corn and lima beans, but for Southerners, it is a mix of okra, corn, and tomatoes. This dish is never finer than during the summer months when all of the ingredients are just coming into their prime. On the Vineyard, where okra can be found only occasionally, this succotash is a real treat. When the okra is fresh, it is wonderful with the sweet-tart character of summer tomatoes and the sun-generated sugar of just-picked corn. The habanero chile adds just enough kick. Chile-heads will want to keep it in a bit longer, while those with more delicate taste buds may want to leave it out entirely.

• 6 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
• 2 cups freshly cut corn kernels
• 1 pound okra (tops and tails trimmed), cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
• 1 habanero chile, pricked with a fork (optional)
• 1 1/2 cups water
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine all of the ingredients except the salt and pepper in a saucepan, stir to mix, and place over medium heat.

Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and the flavors are well blended. If you used
the chile, remove it from the pan when the dish has reached the desired spiciness. Season with salt and pepper, and serve hot.