Jessica B. Harris must have a well-stamped passport. From Brazil to Benin, the culinary historian has spent the past 30 years traveling through six continents and a thousand cities, tracing the influence of African foods on the Americas. "But New Orleans is where my soul sings," says Harris, a professor of English at Queens College in New York City and part-time Crescent City resident. "The history is so rich. It symbolizes what happened to Africa when it met Europe in the Americas-that is, slavery. And, of course, there's the food."
Which brings Harris, 57, to that pesky myth about New Orleans being a Southern city. Not true. From a culinary perspective, "the American South is north of New Orleans, which is really the northernmost city in the Caribbean," she says. "If you come for collard greens, ham hocks, and black-eyed peas, you're in for a rude awakening, but a delicious one. The key word for New Orleans is 'gumbo.'"
Harris knows grits from gumbo. Her nine books include Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food From the Atlantic Rim and On the Side, a collection of side-dish recipes. To her, this signature Creole dish is more than just an okra-based stew; it's a metaphor for New Orleans-a melting pot of diverse influences: Africa (okra), Spain (rice, originally from Africa), France (roux), and filé (Native America). "It's one of America"s original fusion foods," she says. "And the African hand stirred the pot."
NEW ORLEANS MUST-HAVE FARE: The Big Easy boasts many glorious gumbos, but the New Orleans landmark Dooky Chase (2301 Orleans Ave.; 504-821-2294) is perhaps best known for the dish. Chef/co-owner Leah Chase crafts what Harris calls a "warming, richly flavored" concoction with crab, shrimp, duck, ham, veal, and smoked and spicy sausage. "It's the preeminent African American restaurant in town," she says. They serve a gumbo zâ€™herbes made with 13 spices and offered only on Holy Thursday. Harris calls it "transformational." New Orleans's famed "Friday lunch" can easily melt into Friday night cocktails at the French Quarter's upscale Galatoire's (209 Bourbon St.; 504-525-2021, www.galatoires.com), which turns 100 this year and serves a classic Creole seafood gumbo, a dark roux with crab, shrimp, and oysters served over rice. At salonlike Upperline (1413 Upperline St.; 504-891-9822, www.upperline.com), located in the Garden District, the kitchen dishes a mahogany-hued duck-and-andouille creation. And wherever you eat in New Orleans, as Harris likes to say, "If food is on the table, history is on the plate."