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Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

'A Culinary Journey From Africa to America’

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In High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (Bloomsbury USA), food historian and cookbook author Jessica Harris (The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking) journeys into the complex and often misunderstood “realm of African-American food” from the Middle Passage, where those who survived carried with them the knowledge of cooking techniques and rituals of their homeland. High on the Hog is a celebration of this rich history and gastronomically diverse landscape, as well as a tribute to the contributions of those pioneers and entrepreneurs who shaped the food of the New World.

Among those pioneers was Robert Bogle, a resident of Philadelphia’s South Ward in the early 19th century, who “became the first of Philadelphia’s black caterers,” parlaying himself from “public butler” (a position most often held by a “free person of color” who served and planned meals for several households rather than one family) to “the role of caterer,” the profession he is credited with creating.

Bogle paved the way for other caterers, influencing the likes of Peter Augustin, a Haitian immigrant and entrepreneur. With his training in “French culinary arts and service” (like others who arrived in Philadelphia following the Haitian Revolution in 1804, both “white and black, free and enslaved,” Augustin carried both Caribbean and European influences with him), Augustin and his family expanded upon the catering framework established by Bogle, building an innovative culinary enterprise and solidifying themselves as “tastemakers for the upper classes.”

Bogle and the Augustin family were just the beginning. In the second half of the 19th century, the next generations of African-American caterers would dominate Philadelphia’s social scene. The success of catering proved that blacks not only had culinary talents, but also possessed the business acumen to capitalize upon them. They banded together, forming networks and unions that emphasized the strength and power of community: “The caterers of Philadelphia had such societal pre-eminence that they became leaders of the city’s African-American community, creating jobs for black waiters, cooks and others within their enterprises,” as they worked collectively “to raise the standard of living among the newly freed.”

A prominent theme in the comprehensive and successful High on the Hog is the entrepreneurial successes and advances of African Americans in defiance of enslavement and institutional injustice. Harris is careful to identify the book as a “personal look at the history of African-American food,” rather than its “definitive volume.” However High on the Hog is categorized, it is a compelling and enlightening work that provides thoughtful analysis and thorough historical accounts of an integral but underappreciated history.
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