"[N]ever, to this reader, uninteresting ... “My Soul Looks Back” has a simmering warmth."
—The New York Times
"Eloquent and infinitely delightful."
"Harris intimately reflects on her friendships with these fascinating individuals and their social circle, capturing an era that was vibrant with creativity, art, activism, and intellectual life."
"My Soul Looks Back is a great New York City memoir; I thought of James Wolcott’s Lucking Out and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, both documents of the city in the seventies, as well as books from an earlier New York, like Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage and Mary Cantwell’s Manhattan, When I Was Young ... I finished the book eager to find a noisy neighborhood restaurant where the wine is served in mismatched glasses and the specials are under twenty dollars."
"[Harris] is a born storyteller and her memoir is a joy to read—a beautiful portrait of a remarkable era."
"A friend of celebrated authors Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, Harris was part of a fascinating social circle in the early ’70s. She shares a unique look at their lives and work, while also opening up about her own career and relationship with one of Baldwin’s colleagues. As a bonus, each chapter has a related recipe."
"Harris's culinary expertise winds through her stories, and each chapter ends with a recipe, including her mother's Sunday roast chicken and Goujonnettes de Sole with Ersatz Sauce Gribiche, inspired by her favorite after-opera meal. No doubt a few of Harris's friends have been saying for years that she had to write this memoir, and if so, they were right."
"This is a lively, entertaining, and informative recounting of a time and place that shaped and greatly enriched American culture."
"Scenic and engaging, My Soul Looks Back recounts the years author Jessica B. Harris spent on the periphery of a circle of friends that included literary powerhouses James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. The memoir spans the globe and several decades to describe the fascinating group."
"Come for the insight into the circle of friends that first resolved around James Baldwin, then shifted orbit to revolve around Maya Angelou. Stay because you're enraptured by the candid, passionate woman narrating from the periphery. This is an intimate look at an inner circle of Black writers, scholars, and glamazons moving through the middle of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, told with bold tenderness by a woman who grew up in their company, under their gaze."
—Alice Randall, author of Ada's Rules and The Wind Done Gone
"At table, before a lectern, or on the page, no matter where we encounter Jessica B. Harris, she commands our attention. My Soul Looks Back, her most intimate book, showcases an era when the Black artistic elite flowered and Jessica, along with her love Sam Floyd, lunched with Maya Angelou in California, shared popcorn with James Baldwin in the South of France, and nurtured a social aesthetic that spangled, all too briefly, beneath the kliegs."
—John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South
"In My Soul Looks Back, Jessica Harris uses her amazing griot voice and exquisite writing skills to take the reader with her on a serendipitous journey filled with everything from a sampling of her unique culinary creations to up-close-and-personal looks at some of the world's most renowned arists—from James Baldwin, aka Jimmy, to the inner circle she was allowed into by her mysterious lover, Sam. A tour de force that holds its own among the great memoirs of all time."
—Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Emmy Award-winning journalist and author of In My Place
"Jessica Harris takes you on a magical journey through the streets of New York, through a distinctive and historical era."
—Pat Mikell, of Mikell's jazz club
"I devoured Jessica B. Harris's My Soul Looks Back as though it were one of the feasts she describes in its pages—brimming with food, wine, wit, and wisdom. This luminouus and illuminating memoir is also a song of love and praise to the heyday of bohemian, intellectual New York, and especially to the African American arts and literature community that has supplied the city with so much of its brilliance and vibrancy."
—Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking with Men
Author and educator Harris begins her memoir with her young adult life in New York during the early 1970s and the remarkable individuals who surrounded her, including notable black writers such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Harris is an accomplished woman as well, an award-winning culinary writer who has been inducted into the James Beard Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America and recently helped the National Museum of African American History and Culture to conceptualize its cafeteria. Though Harris’s narrative begins in Manhattan, the boundaries of the story expand to include the south of France, Paris, California wine country, and Haiti. One point of focus is the author’s romantic relationship with Sam Floyd, an older fellow professor at Queens College, who first introduced her to the various artists he fraternized with. Harris has thoughtfully sprinkled in a few of her favorite recipes as well as a playlist: “from the dancing tunes of our raucous parties to the wailing notes of my grief, there was always music.” This is a lively, entertaining, and informative recounting of a time and place that shaped and greatly enriched American culture. (May)
In her memoir of New York in the 1970s, food writer Harris remembers James Baldwin reading an early draft of If Beale Street Could Talk aloud, Maya Angelou making food in her California kitchen, and spending time with Toni Morrison at Baldwin's Provence home.
An African-American culinary scholar remembers the years she spent among an "extraordinary circle of friends" that included James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Nina Simone.Harris met her greatest love, Samuel Clemens Floyd III, when she was a young French professor in New York. He was 15 years her senior and a former staff writer at Newsweek who taught English at Queen's College. Youthful insecurity made Harris, a well-educated and accomplished woman, question their relationship: "I'm still not sure just how or why Sam settled on me; perhaps my naïveté attracted him." Dazzled by Floyd's sophistication, "quicksilver personality," and the down-home Southern simplicity that underlay both, Harris was soon drawn into her lover's remarkable circle of black luminaries. She made lifelong connections with writers Baldwin, Rosa Guy, and Louise Meriwether and made acquaintance with other black artists, including Simone. She and Clemens enjoyed the burgeoning New York City culinary scene of the 1970s and traveled extensively to Haiti, Africa, and France, where they indulged in lively intellectual exchanges and delicious food as well as the friendship of notables like economist Mary Painter and her chef husband, Georges Garin. Along the way, Harris developed a passion for food, which she discovered Clemens' great friend Maya Angelou also shared. She began writing columns for Essence magazine and, eventually, published two well-regarded cookbooks. As the years passed and she grew more secure in her own identity, she and Clemens drifted apart. Yet her respect and feelings for him never faded, even after she learned that he had contracted AIDS and had deliberately hidden his bisexuality from her throughout their relationship. Peppered throughout with favorite recipes, Harris' book is a warm recollection of life-changing friendships and personal connections. At the same time, her story offers a unique perspective on some of the greatest African-American intellectuals and artists of the modern era. A deeply felt and lovingly remembered memoir.