DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Serving up history at hospital cafe

The zoom call ran less than half an hour, but it blew my mind wide open.

On my screen was Chris Harris. He’s a cook, a Port Townsend resident, a Black historian and the grandson of Addie Mae Harris.

“She’s the reason I cook,” Harris said of his family’s Louisiana born and-raised matriarch.

Harris works in the kitchen at Jefferson Healthcare, where he’s currently dazzling hundreds of employees not only with dishes such as gumbo and jerk chicken, but also with true stories of lesser-sung heroes.

Each Friday in February, the Port Arthur, Texas, native is cooking special dishes for the hospital’s workers. Next up: fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread.

After some four years at Jefferson Healthcare, feeding people still feeds his soul.

“The reaction you get when somebody eats what you make,” that’s what it’s all about, Harris told me.

“It might make somebody’s day,” to have a deep bowl of gumbo or a succulent piece of chicken. Harris has plentiful experience with this. Before Jefferson Healthcare, he specialized in Louisiana cuisine at Addie Mae’s Southern Kitchen in downtown Port Townsend.

To nourish people’s minds these days, Harris put together some Black History Month posters for the hospital cafe. They teach about historical figures — beyond the ones in textbooks.

Sojourner Truth. Claudette Colvin. Jesse Owens. I’d heard these names but didn’t know anywhere near enough about their lives.

Colvin, at age 15, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., on March 2, 1955. This was nine months before Rosa Parks contradicted a white passenger who thought she belonged at the back of the bus.

Afterward, Colvin’s classmates turned away from her, as did leaders in her city.

That didn’t deter her from becoming one of the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that struck Montgomery’s segregation laws down.

It turns out there’s a National Book Award-winning work by Phillip Hoose, “Claudette Colvin,” that tells a fuller story.

Owens is more well-known, being a male athlete who represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Already a world record holder, he showed Hitler and everyone else what greatness looks like: the 100-meter race in 10.3 seconds, the 200 meters in 20.7 seconds and a long jump of 8.06 meters. Then there was the world record for his 400-meter relay team: 39.8 seconds.

Much further back is the towering figure known as Sojourner Truth.

She was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree three years before the turn of the 19th century.

At age 30, she escaped with her baby daughter, Sophia, and two years later she went to court to recover her son.

Truth, who’s known for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” was the first Black woman to emerge victorious in such a case.

In making his posters, Harris said he sought to go beyond the civil rights figures we know, such as Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. His fellow workers can participate in a quiz, answering questions about the historical figures he’s chosen, in hopes of winning a prize: “Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from the African Diaspora,” by Bryant Terry.

“I’m loving the experience, loving getting people together. That’s been my goal my whole life,” Harris said of this month’s culinary-educational activities.

He added that stepping outside one’s comfort zone, be it in looking at history or cooking up a meal, is energizing.

“A lot of people are afraid to try new things,” he said.

“But we’ve got to.”


Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsuladailynews.com. Her column runs on the first and third Wednesdays of the month; the next will appear March 2.

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