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Mac and cheese. Fried chicken. Oysters. Foods that have become synonymous with American culture, but actually have their roots in Black history, are explored onscreen for the first time at length in Netflix’s docuseries High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.
Hosted by food writer Stephen Satterfield, the four-part show sees the host travel across the U.S. and Africa on a culinary journey alongside chefs, historians and activists that celebrate the courage, artistry and resourcefulness of Black people in America and how that has translated to today’s food culture.
“I certainly don’t think that that impact has been adequately chronicled,” Satterfield tells The Hollywood Reporter. “These contributions are formative and foundational and not talked about. I mean, how many times have we seen mac and cheese on the Food Network, on many different iterations of cooking competition shows, recipe shows, but no one really taking on the complicated origins that tie something like mac and cheese, which we associate with pleasure, and tie it back to enslavement?”
Based on Jessica B. Harris’ book of the same name, High on the Hog is produced, show-run and hosted by an all-Black team, which Satterfield says, “makes a huge difference in the care with which this material is felt, held and ultimately reflected outward,” with a focus on “the omission of Black people in narrative and in American food culture that will be addressed head on, but I think more importantly, celebrated.”
Says showrunner Shoshana Guy, “I think really exploring, honoring, celebrating traditions and artistry of Black food, those are just stories that haven’t been told. I feel like I’m a very well-read person and there’s just so much that I didn’t know. I’m particularly proud and excited to offer this history, the history of Black people, and have it be a relatable thing to so many Americans knowing that a dish like mac and cheese was popularized by an enslaved chef of a founding father. Or you think of oysters as kind of high-end and fancy, because they’re expensive, but knowing it was that Black people who harvested and then it was a Black man who made it so posh and popular to eat them in these kind of fine-dining situations. These are stories that are locked in time and we’re able to offer that to an audience in a way that’s joyful, because food is just a wonderful way to bring people together.”
Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence) also directed as the show traveled to Benin, Africa, and across the Carolinas, Texas, New York and Philadelphia to reveal an expansive, eclectic culinary history shaped by slavery, the Civil War, Juneteenth and present day.
“A lot of people are telling me that they feel that this is coming out in the right moment,” says Satterfield. “I think using food and having food as a vessel in this case — to explore this history and also celebrate those chefs and scholars who are not only preserving these histories, but advancing them — is something that I think indisputably the United States and the world is psychologically more prepared for in the year 2021 then, let’s say the year 2019.”
The series was filmed in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020, wrapping just a week before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and a racial reckoning took over the country shortly after.
“The summer of 2020, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, reignited after the murder of George Floyd, really has impacted the collective psyche I think of our country and ignited a global movement,” the host adds. “So are we as viewers more ready for it? I think so and based on the many conversations I’ve had around the show, it seems like that optimism is shared.”
Adds Guy, “It’s not something that you can kind of make up, who knew what was coming for us a year ago? Nobody. But I think we’re in a very unique moment right now, as it relates to race and history. I think the timing is just right.”
High on the Hog also comes at a time when the food industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, especially restaurants owned by people of color.
“The closure of restaurants I think really underscores the urgency of this type of documentation, and this level of care and investment in the documentation, because once these restaurants close, our elders — people like Bill Green in South Carolina — their kitchens are the ways in which they are keeping us connected to our ancestry, that is the way in which he has been convening and communicating with his community and broader communities for decades,” Satterfield says. “The closure of some of these restaurants with decades-long traditions, generation-long traditions, is really tragic for all restaurants everywhere who had to close due to COVID. It makes me grateful that we were able to spend that time and celebrate them while they were still operating, because of course we had no idea what was coming.”
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America is now streaming on Netflix.
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