Tuesday, October 27, 2020
By Dave Walker, communication specialist

The Historic New Orleans Collection joins Jessica B. Harris’s friends around the world in celebrating her most recent honor, the 2020 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. Harris is the second African American woman to receive the award. Iconic New Orleans chef Leah Chase, who died in June 2019, was the first. Joining Chase as an honoree “just doubled the honor,” Harris said. “She was a dear friend to the point where I considered her almost a relative, and the entire Chase family has been incredibly kind and supportive in sharing their matriarch with me.”  

Reached earlier this year at her Brooklyn home, Harris said the Beard Foundation’s recognition of her career achievements also honors “the people who came before whose hands turned the spoons in the pots,” she said. “I think of my ‘work’ (in large quotation marks) as continuation, as bridge if you will, as link-in-the-chain if you will. What I do simply builds on what others have done before—and not only builds on it but has been about working at acknowledging that . . . and hoping that people will understand the importance and the depth and breadth and the height and width of all of the work that African Americans have done to make the food not only of this country but of this hemisphere.  

“[Those contributions] are extraordinary and all too often unheralded. If you look at some of the early cookbooks, they acknowledge things obliquely. It’s about removing that oblique and making the view and vision more direct.”

In this Youtube video, Harris speaks to the James Beard Foundation about the lifetime achievement award. 

Author of 12 books documenting the culture and foodways of the African diaspora and a part-time New Orleans resident, Harris is well known to attendees of THNOC’s culinary symposia, for which she has long served as co-organizer and featured speaker. The 2020 Food Forum, the new name for the event, will be a multiday virtual event November 8–13 focusing on the restaurant industry during the time of COVID-19 and amid a national reevaluation of racial equality as it relates to the food industry.  

Harris, who has devoted herself to advocating for both cooks and chefs, referenced a particular artifact of past injustice. 

“My mother was actually a trained dietician,” she said. “She had a degree from the Pratt Institute in New York City in dietetics, but it was done at a time when it was fraught with all sort of things. I have a framed letter in my kitchen. God only know how it survived and why, but I guess why is because it wanted to be a piece of history. It talks about how white companies were not in the habit of hiring ‘negro girls’ for certain kinds of demonstration jobs because they didn’t know what houses they would be going into and what that would entail.”

Among Harris’s books are Hot Stuff: A Cookbook in Praise of the Piquant; Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World CookingBeyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic RimHigh on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America; and My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir. Her latest title, Vintage Postcards from the African World, explores the foodways and celebrations of the African Atlantic world.

A founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and 2019 inductee into the Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame, Harris is Professor Emerita at Queens College/CUNY in New York City, where she was a professor for 50 years.

Harris speaks at THNOC's 2019 Culinary Symposium "Uncorked!" where she served as moderator.

THNOC’s 2020 Food Forum was to have complemented the scheduled fall exhibition Spanish New Orleans and the Caribbean. Like so many aspects of our lives this year, The Collection’s public-programming schedule has been both disrupted and informed by the coronavirus. The exhibition has been postponed to 2021, while the forum has been adapted to address the effects of the pandemic on an industry already grappling with systemic racism. Harris, a co-organizer of this event since its 2010 inception, will again help chart its agenda and participate in its conversations, which will take place November 9–13. Click here for a schedule of events and registration details.  

The Beard Foundation announced Harris’s award in March, but the annual ceremony honoring chefs and restaurants (for which several New Orleans-area chefs and restaurants were nominated in multiple categories) was canceled. A virtual ceremony recognizing Harris and other honorees and nominees took place September 25 on Twitter. Harris’s award was presented by musician and journalist Questlove. 

Join Harris and The Historic New Orleans Collection at the institution's 2020 Food Forum "Resetting the Table."