Photography by Chip Chockley
[Editor’s Note: Edible Memphis does not endorse political candidates.]
Torrey Harris, manager of human resources for the Shelby County Trustee, grew up in Camden, Arkansas, but has considered Memphis his home since moving to the city in 2011 to attend Christian Brothers University. The former Walmart corporate assistant bakery buyer got into the human resources field when the company experienced a decrease in bakery sales after food celebrity Paula Deen’s products were dropped from the company’s inventory because of allegations of racist behavior.
Torrey is currently running for the Tennessee House of Representatives District 90 in the Democratic party primary election on August 6. We sat in Torrey’s pristine kitchen in his Midtown apartment and had a conversation about his path from working in food to politics, his affinity for black and old gold cookware, and his joy of pulling out all the stops as a host.
Edible Memphis: What is your first memory related to cooking?
Torrey Harris: My grandmother is who I really learned how to cook from. Once, for her birthday, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, my cousins and my siblings and I decided we were going to be grown-ups and we woke up really early to cook pancakes for her. I messed up, though––I made one huge cast-iron-sized pancake that was cornbread thick! I decorated it and made icing with caramel and everything. She was so excited just because of the thought behind it.
What was your first food-related job?
My very first food-related job was at Sonic.
I was the assistant manager. That is actually what shot my career off, because they gave me an opportunity while I was in high school to be in management. That is probably the only time I’ve done anything illegal, because I was working late hours while in high school. I had the night shift. I still go there for the drinks.
What is your favorite drink at Sonic?
I go for the Ocean Water!
How did you make the transition from food to HR and then to politics?
When I was graduating from high school and working in food-related jobs, I was very intrigued by President Barack Obama. To know that a Black man could take leadership and run an entire country––I thought, OK, I can do a little bit more than just be a young man from Arkansas who moved to Memphis for college and a job. I started volunteering in politics and working in HR for Walmart. My biggest thing is just helping people. My goal is to figure out how to help somebody. If I can benefit one person, I feel like I’ve done my part.
Credit: Brandon Dill
We saw Brandon Dill’s photos of you protesting after George Floyd’s death. Can you tell us more about your involvement with that?
I remember the day we decided to start protests because of the most recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, it was literally maybe 10 of us at 6:30 p.m. that day, directly outside my home on Union Avenue. The crowd grew, the attention grew—it was unbelievable. I remember yelling, “Defund the police,” and, in my mind, thinking, “Wow! If we can defund the amount of money that goes toward harming us and put some of those resources toward mental health and therapists in schools, to dispatched calls, and truly taking that money and putting it back into the community, we could make sure we have more young men and woman walking into life, working, and living in a city that cares about them.”
I’m a Black man. I don’t get to just go to a protest and say chants—I live in fear really.
We checked in every night just to make sure everyone made it home. That’s the world we live in. And, yeah, Black lives do matter. I want to be able to go to the grocery store, leave, and, if I get pulled over, feel at ease that I can still live to make it home and cook the food I just got. But right now I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel like my life truly is more than a number. Until then, and even then, we are fighting for Black Lives Matter.
We are very inspired by your willingness to work towards change. And clearly you are a busy man. What is your default thing to cook when you’re hungry and need to make something really quickly?
So, I’m all about plating. I don’t care if it’s quick or if it’s something that is going to take forever.
I love to plate food, even if it’s just me.
My quick meal would be penne pasta with my homemade creamy marinara sauce and cheese and nothing else in there. I can put on the water, jump in the shower, cook, and then make sure I get a picture of the plated food!
Any ingredients that you couldn’t live without?
I feel like parsley goes in everything. I use it for everything. I buy fresh bunches, and I don’t really know if it has a taste––but I use it. I use a ton of rice. Jasmine rice with everything!
What is your favorite indulgence?
I am from the South, for real.
I eat a lot of Blue Bell ice cream. Vanilla is my go-to flavor. I am a plain-Jane person. Also, anything with caramel in it.
What is your favorite thing to do in the kitchen?
People have a favorite thing to do in the kitchen [laughs]? I think my favorite thing is when me and my small group of friends or my campaign team get around my island in my kitchen. I would sacrifice having a small living room, a small bedroom, or closet just to have a large kitchen to host my friends. My go-to when I am hosting is a taco bar. I don’t do simple tacos. You will have a crawfish option, a turkey option… I come with the limes. I come with the pico. I go all out. If it’s pasta night, you’re getting wine. And, if it’s tacos, you are gonna get margaritas. I cook with cocktails!
What is your favorite kitchen tool or gadget?
I have gold everything. I am a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, and our colors are black and old gold. I have black and old gold cookware. My cooking utensils are all gold. Gold whisks and spoons––that’s my thing!
Do you watch cooking shows? If so, which are your favorites?
Yes, I watch all the cooking shows.
People think I’d have CNN on all day, but, nope, it’s cooking shows.
Interestingly enough, although it is not legal here yet, I watch a lot of Cooked with Cannabis. It is a competition show, and they are cooking full meals with cannabis. They do different levels, and it’s really unique.
What is your favorite place to shop locally for food?
I go to Kroger and Fresh Market a lot. When I lived downtown, I would go to the Memphis Farmers Market downtown and get fresh fruits and vegetables and flowers.
What condiments are in your fridge right now?
I have the mayo with olive oil in it, and Heinz Mayochup. I don’t care for ketchup without mayo in it. I have a lot of taco sauce, and the mustard is for everybody else. Nothing about mustard is good to me.
Fruits and vegetables?
Parsley [laughs], bell peppers. My mom felt like bell peppers added the most flavor to anything, so I always have those. Avocados, fruit trays, and I eat a ton of spinach.
What is the most embarrassing thing in your refrigerator?
Smith Creek moonshine. I had a family member that used to make corn liquor. I think I only like it because it reminds me of family [laughs]. The apple pie flavor is very good! I eat pretty healthy, outside of the fact that I love Smuckers Uncrustables peanut butter sandwiches.
What’s in the freezer?
I prefer fresh food because I don’t eat a lot of meat, so there is not a lot in the freezer. I have my Raw Girls soups in there. I love them! I eat a lot of plant-based alternative meat products and a lot of salmon. Other than that, the freezer has my Blue Bell!
Will you share a recipe with us?
Sure! My go-to marinara with pasta is easy and full of fresh ingredients!
Torrey’s Creamy Marinara Sauce
Makes 2 servings
- 4 vine ripe tomatoes
- 1 can tomato paste
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 7 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 small dried whole chile
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
- 1 large fresh basil sprig
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
- ¼ cup half-and-half or almond milk
Place tomatoes in boiling water for 3 minutes, remove from water, and peel off the skin when cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile, brown the onions and garlic together over low heat with the chile, salt, Italian seasoning, basil, oregano, parsley, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Add peeled tomatoes and tomato paste to the onion and garlic mixture and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes. Slowly stir in the half-and-half or almond milk and serve with pasta; garnish with fresh parsley.
Jayne Ellen White has worked in the music tourism industry for 13 years and is currently the music specialist and developer of Music Hub at Memphis Tourism. She is a seasoned home cook, a yogi, and an ally for Black lives. @jayne.ellen.vv
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais, and his wife and kids. @chipchockley