There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
My grandmother’s cooking was intoxicating. The aromas from the bread pudding, stuffed squid, and oyster and cornbread dressing invited nearly every occupant of the house to visit her domain. Jessica B. Harris’ The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking (Simon & Schuster) brings back those memories, making my mouth water for the old Southern dishes—chicken croquettes, rabbit stew, and more than a half-dozen gumbos. While plentiful and various, the recipes in Harris’ book are not so unusual: black-eyed pea soup, callaloo, and fried butterfish are standard fare for most Southern-rooted black households. Yet Table is unique because it connects each meal to singularly African-American experiences. “Our way with food is a way with a long history,” Harris writes. “….It is a way that marked the cooking in the plantation Big Houses throughout the United States, one that migrated from the American South to the West in saddlebags and stew pots and iron skillets of the Buffalo Soldiers and chuckwagon cooks.” Harris also provides examples of traditional foodstuffs. Take, for example, okra, a slimy vegetable that was first used by West Africans to thicken sauces and soups, then turned up in the “new world” as a staple to be fried or mixed with corn and tomatoes. Unfortunately, Harris’ retracing of okra’s past lacks specificity: She does not outline its arrival in the Caribbean or in Louisiana and the Carolinas. Table‘s other failing is its concentration on ham, bacon, and pork byproducts; it simply does not devote adequate attention to palates that have divorced pork. In her introduction, Harris suggests some smoked meat or fish substitutions, but she does readers a disservice by not suggesting replacements alongside the recipes themselves. Still, Table offers historical value and enough good eating to fill any stomach, African-American or not. Harris reads at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, at Vertigo Books.