“Putting together a dinner party is easier than people think,” explains Jessica Harris, foodie, author and professor, whose multiple cookbooks, including The Martha’s Vineyard Table (Chronicle Books 2007), put an invitation to dine with her on a par with dinner chez Julia (as in Childs).
Ms. Harris certainly makes it look easy, and the key phrase seems to be: relax and enjoy. She starts a little before noon at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. Normally during the summer months she procures her produce at the farmers’ market in West Tisbury, but this occasion is a Wednesday in early October, and at this time of the year the farmers’ collective is open on Saturdays only.
All the same, Ms. Harris is clearly in her element in the soft-lit, dark-paneled, sweetly scented interior of Morning Glory Farm. She takes a basket and fills it with miniature pumpkins. “I’ll use these for table decor,” she says. She takes a second basket and tops it off with white radishes, onions, various kinds of squash, a carton of Medjoul dates and another of figs, a red onion and cherry tomatoes. Attracted to all the bottles of flavored oils, vinegars and other delectable blends and spices, she needs to be reminded that in several days she’ll be packing up and taking leave of her cottage on Tuckernuck avenue in Oak Bluffs for her winter bases in both Brooklyn and New Orleans: Buy nothing extra, in other words, is today’s mantra.
As her purchases are being totaled, she gaily and impulsively adds a large pumpkin which will accompany her to New York. “The one I bought last year made it all the way to Easter,” she exults, pulling up a picture of it on her cell phone. The young woman behind the counter studies the pumpkin portrait with a grin of approval.
Next stop is once-was-Whippoorwill Farm, newly re-christened Bluebird Way Farm on Old County Road in West Tisbury. Ms. Harris has called ahead to owner Krishana Collins to prepare a bouquet. Normally the two ladies conduct their happy business at the farmers’ market but, at this time of year, the buyer goes straight to the source. Ms. Collins greets us in her shed set back from the road. With golden brown, wavy hair to her shoulders, the twentysomething chic farmer is dressed in a tight blue and white top, a short tube skirt and high, blue rubber boots.
Ms. Harris’s flowers await her — a merry collection composed chiefly of yellow zinnias and pink dahlias. She also buys a bag (and gets an extra one free) of Bluebird Way Asian greens. “This is my favorite salad mix,” says Ms. Harris. “I also love the greens they sell at North Tabor Farm.”
The farmer and the foodie hug goodbye for the season. Ms. Harris snaps a picture of Ms. Collins standing beside the vase of zinnias and dahlias, then punches up a display of all the bouquets she’s purchased from Bluebird Way over the summer. The young farmer is suitably impressed.
Next stop is down-Island Cronig’s where we pick up turnips, rutabagas, blueberries, raspberries, oranges and Greek yogurt which Ms. Harris pronounces, “The best tasting yogurt — it’s like ice cream!” A final touch-down takes place at Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs where the master chef picks up a number of packages of chicken breasts, legs and thighs.
At 5 p.m., back at her pink-shuttered cottage, Ms. Harris starts the meal. The chicken is thrown into a pot along with slices of onion, garlic, quartered Moroccan lemons (available at Island gourmet stores), cumin, and water to cover, all of it set to a boil, then turned low to simmer.
In another large pot, Ms. Harris steams cut-up zucchini, squash, rutabagas, turnips, onions, carrots and cherry tomatoes. Later she slices kernels of corn from cobs to add to the vegetables. Although her theme is Moroccan, she remarks, “The corn is improvising from what I have in the refrigerator — they don’t use corn in Morocco.”
Like all professional chefs, Ms. Harris observes no set recipe proportions in her home cooking. But she insists anyone can throw together a meal such as the one she herself is busily concocting. So now, with obvious enthusiasm, she dices a habanero chile. “It’s the hottest on the Scoville scale,” she says, “a thousand times hotter than a jalapeno pepper.” Yikes! When asked if the chiles burn her bare fingers, she shrugs, “You get used to it.”
Cooking times: veggies, one hour and 45 minutes; chicken, one and a half hours.
Ms. Harris’s kitchen is crammed with shelves, themselves stocked with unimaginable supplies of gourmet sundries. A black cast-iron stove, a relic of the cold-water Victorian cottage that Ms. Harris’s parents purchased back in the 1950s, was long ago decommissioned, but serves as extra counter space for pots, pans, utensils and still more spices and canisters. One of the walls holds a clutch of brightly colored ceramic mugs. Work space is at a premium, and as much as interested onlookers might wish to be of service, the resident chef works best when working solo.
As guests arrive, activity is centered in the front parlor where dishes of pistachio nuts and fried okra (from Whole Foods in New Orleans) are on offer. The hostess dispenses red and white wine, and a specialty she calls a ‘tipunch’ (pronounced tee-ponge), a French Caribbean rum called Rhumagricola mixed with sugar cane and fresh lime juice.
Later, seated around the dinner table, Ms. Harris brings out serving bowls for her seven guests: a medley of the cooked vegetables over couscous, a platter of chicken, and a salad of farm greens, red onions, radish slices, and orange sections, dressed with a classic vinaigrette of olive oil, vinegar, Dijon mustard and garlic.
Conversation is spirited, rich with political chatter, travel stories and diverse human interest anecdotes. At one point, guest Olive Tomlinson, arguably one of the funniest women on Martha’s Vineyard, tells a tale about a 1961 bus trip through Spain with herself, a priest and a host of country bumpkins, which has the table laughing uproariously.
Through it all, Ms. Harris sets the pace for dining at its most leisurely. Eventually dessert is produced: a Moroccan still-life of yogurt surrounded by raspberries, blueberries, red grapes, dates and figs. The party breaks up at 11:30 p.m. — late for a Vineyard gathering in the off-season.
In a few days, Ms. Harris, Ph. D., will pack up her three cats, her traveling condiments, books, clothes and her big Morning Glory pumpkin, to head south. In New York her professorship at Queens College (City University of New York) awaits her, and in New Orleans at Dillard University, she enters her second year as the Ray Charles chair in African American Material Culture, with a specialty in food and folklore. When she returns to the Vineyard next June, the Island will be that much tastier.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for Jessica Harris’s next book, Caribbean Cocktails, due out from Chronicle Books in 2009