My Soul Looks back
On a hot Thursday evening at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, Dr. Jessica B. Harris perches on a stool, looks out at her fans and protégés and tells stories from her past. The Queens College professor and food historian picks up her new book, My Soul Looks Back—a memoir of the years she spent with James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone and Toni Morrison in New York and France, Haiti and elsewhere—and turns to the first page. She glances out at the audience, as if to emphasize her reluctance.
“I’m as incapable of reading from myself as I am of cooking from my own recipes,” she says. The room ripples with laughter, and Harris begins.
My Soul Looks Back starts one afternoon in the early 1970s when Harris, a twentysomething Queens native and French lecturer, met an older English professor named Sam Floyd, and went to his apartment for a drink. They were both products of striving middle-class black families, worldly intellectuals and lovers of a good time. A romance began. It was through Floyd—friend and former neighbor to James Baldwin, and ex-lover of Maya Angelou— that Harris entered the circle of luminaries that populate this story. The book tells of encounters in which Harris often played the young naïf at parties brimming with wit and ego. She made many lasting friendships, but not everyone initially approved of her presence. “Who’s the bitch in the red dress?” was how Nina Simone first greeted Harris.
Along with these huge personalities come novelistic details about what everyone ate, drank and listened to. Harris is best known as a cookbook author and curator of recipes from the African diaspora, and each chapter ends with a recipe: Galician white bean soup like that served at one-time West Village staple El Faro, or kale as Maya Angelou prepared it for her legendary New Year’s Day parties.
It’s almost as if each chapter is simply a headnote for the recipe that follows, as Harris summons mouthwatering elements of meals that took place decades ago, along with her best suggestions for replicating them. A love of food is one thing all characters in this reminiscence share—no matter their sexuality, rivalry or race—and it’s striking to read the lengths such renowned artists and thinkers would go to to entertain. It seems no public accomplishment can quite replace the satisfaction one gets from cooking a brilliant meal for guests.
“Maya’s cooking was a virtuoso performance that was part monologue and part dance routine, totally engaging and absolutely fascinating,” Harris writes of an evening when Angelou prepared an elaborate curry.
The book ends with a playlist of some 80 songs. Harris says this was the music that teased these stories out of her—memories of seeing Al Green perform before he became a reverend, time capsules of her trips to France, like Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” The book’s scenes of dancing and partying are a reminder that just as they could cook and host, these great minds could also get down. “Maya could do the bump,” Harris remembers, smiling. The music also reconnected her to the painful episodes that came later, when AIDS hit the West Village and she discovered a different side of Floyd. “There were some Nina Simone songs that I couldn’t listen to,” Harris says.
My Soul Looks Back kindly captures a decade in New York City that many would prefer to forget. Social life in Harris’s West Village was based around the bohemian Spanish restaurant El Faro, the streets lined with family-run markets (like an unrecognizably modest Balducci’s) and quirky stores selling books and records. This was a New York in which nouvelle cuisine was a real novelty; in which Stevie Wonder would sometimes drop by the Upper West Side bar Mikell’s to sit in with the band; in which respectable but not world-famous writers could still land an apartment on Central Park West.
Sitting in Brooklyn some 40 years later, Harris insists that she was not central to all these celebrity-strewn goings-on, but peripheral. “I’m the insider/outsider,” she says, disclaiming once again. “I often feel that my nose is pressed up against the windowpane.” For the years recalled in My Soul Looks Back, some part of Harris’s distance came from the fact that she was younger than others in her circle—15 years Floyd’s junior to her boyfriend, Floyd—and occasionally it showed.
She tells the museum crowd about an esteemed French chef named Georges Garin. After he had taken Harris and friends out to one too many meals at Upper East Side culinary temples like La Caravelle, Harris felt she needed to reciprocate by inviting the gastronome to her apartment for dinner. There, Harris served the Alsatian staple choucroute garnie—or the closest thing she could muster. Into her “genuine fake Le Creuset,” Harris dumped canned sauerkraut, hot dogs, beer and a glug of gin.
The museum crowd giggles as we picture her serving this to a man whose Paris restaurant held—unbeknownst to the young Harris—two Michelin stars. But when it came time for Garin and the group to eat, Harris says, “He was kind. He ate. He had seconds.” Nothing was said about the dish until Garin gifted her a rare jar of juniper berries, suggesting she add them to the recipe. Harris’ stinging embarrassment only came years later, when she visited Garin’s restaurant in Paris and ate perhaps the most astonishing meal in My Soul Looks Back, a multi-course affair that included a saddle of lamb and a stew swimming with black truffles.
The lesson was twofold: Harris tasted the heights of French cuisine, witnessed Garin’s stature and saw how her own cooking had fallen short. But she also learned the delicate touch required of the mentor, a role she would fill for most of her life. For 48 years, Harris has taught at Queens College; at age 69, she still awakes to teach class at 8am. Her parents are deceased; she is unmarried and has no children. “It’s what I do,” she says of being a mentor. (Her protégés fill plenty of seats at the reading.)
But Harris is also a prolific writer. My Soul Looks Back is her 13th book, and she is hesitant to consider it an all-inclusive memoir. “It was about trying to create or trying to circle, if you will, that moment in time,” she tells us. “I got way more stuff than this.” And if she ever pens a more expansive chronicle, she says she’s already got a title in mind: The Reluctant Foodie.
My Soul Looks Back by Jessica Harris (Scribner, 2017).