“High on the Hog” covers a lot of territory in terms of African-American eating habits. (Ms. Harris refers to those eating habits, widely construed, as “foodways,” and I wish she wouldn’t. It’s a vaguely sanctimonious term that’s caught on among food historians, especially Southern ones, in recent years. I await the books on sexways and toiletways.)
Ms. Harris examines West African staple foods in the centuries before slavery; she details the grim slop captives were fed during the terrors of the Middle Passage. She explores the life of George Washington’s revered black cook at Mount Vernon, Hercules, and Thomas Jefferson’s talented cook, James Hemings, the brother of Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings, who some historians believe was Jefferson’s mistress. She dilates on black cowboys and Pullman porters and the authors of the earliest black cookbooks. Her true topic is, as she puts it, “the Africanizing of the Southern palate,” and ultimately of the American one.