One recent Monday evening, Jessica B. Harris sat at the counter at Reverence, a tasting-menu restaurant on a leafy Harlem corner, gazing down at a small bowl. The restaurant is normally closed on Mondays, but for Dr. J., as Harris’s fans call her, the chef and owner, Russell Jackson, had opened. Harris is arguably America’s leading scholar of Black culinary history. She is a professor emerita at Queens College and a prolific author. Her twelfth book on food, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” (2011), is the inspiration for a four-part series, which débuts on Netflix next week.
“Did you say this was an oyster?” Harris asked Jackson, considering the bowl. “I can’t do shellfish, I’m so sorry.” Jackson, horrified, whisked the plate away and leaped balletically to a storage bin, from which he drew a frilly cluster of mushrooms. “I’ll make you something else,” he declared, and began to slice.
The television version of “High on the Hog” is based on Harris’s work, but it isn’t exactly her show. The producers Fabienne Toback and Karis Jagger bought the rights to the book; they brought in the director Roger Ross Williams and hired the writer Stephen Satterfield—tall, smoldering, swooningly intelligent—to be the series’ host. Most of the show’s creative leads are Black. “It’s been interesting to see how Fabienne and Karis saw the book, especially with an eye to youth,” Harris said. She is seventy-three and wears her graying hair in a high ponytail. She periodically fussed with a psychedelic Hermès scarf draped around her shoulders. “I’m watching the younger generation take its lead, which makes me feel old,” she continued. “I am in that first episode only by accident.”
The accident occurred on July 13, 2019—Harris remembered, because it was the day before the annual Bastille Day dinner that she hosts at her house on Martha’s Vineyard. She’d gone to a screening of “The Apollo,” a documentary directed by Williams, who was then in preproduction for “High on the Hog.” Harris was wary of the cadre of Hollywood types who now had custody of her favored child. But, when she and Williams met, “it was like the Vulcan mind meld,” she said. After the screening, the two of them stayed up late at Harris’s house, drinking wine and talking. Later, Harris recalled, “Roger said, ‘You need to be in this show!’ And I was, like, ‘I could have told you that.’ ”
The initial episode takes place in Benin, a place that Harris first visited in the early seventies, during a research trip for her doctoral thesis on Francophone theatre in West Africa. The region figures prominently in her books. Satterfield is new to the country, and Harris guides him through markets, restaurants, and villages on camera. (It was important for Harris to ground the narrative of her book in Africa, to root the culinary story of a diaspora. The series follows suit.)