No one cooks or eats in isolation, and Jessica B. Harris's evocative memoir is a brilliant portrayal of the influences that shaped the early life of one of America's pioneering food historians.
Coming of age in New York City in the early 1970s, Harris fell in with and became a vital part of a circle of black writers and artists, among them Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, James Baldwin, and especially Baldwin's good friend Sam Floyd, for whom food and drink were a currency they shared with each other as freely as ideas.
In restaurants and walk-up apartments, on vacations in the Caribbean or Paris, Harris was creating herself through experiences she shared and lessons she learned from a sophisticated, worldly, and warm group of friends. If initially it seems that Harris's friends occupy more of the book's stage than she does, that changes as she grows in confidence and experience, parting ways with some friends, losing others, but staying aware of what they added to her life.
My Soul Looks Back is an affectionate tribute to figures who are often brilliant and difficult but willing to share something of themselves over a plate or a glass. Most chapters conclude with a recipe, such as a soupe au pistou inspired by a week Harris spent at Baldwin's home in the south of France.