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Buried in the final chapter of author and historian Jessica B. Harris’ book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America is a simple wish: Black American food should be acknowledged for its influence on American cuisine.
“African Americans have a long love affair with food, one perhaps unequaled in the history of the country,” she wrote. “For centuries we’ve brought the piquant tastes of Africa to the New World.”
High on the Hog
Ten years after the publication of this groundbreaking narrative history of African American foodways, Harris’ appeal has been partially answered: High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, an enlightening new Netflix docuseries based on the author’s work, highlights the ingenuity of African American cuisine, examines its past and celebrates its future. Hosted by Stephen Satterfield, a writer and founder of the food media company Whetstone, the series packs an impressive amount of information into four episodes, each about an hour long, with three of the four directed by Roger Ross Williams. (Williams shares a credit with Jonathan Clasberry on the third episode, and the fourth is directed by Yoruba Richen.)
Similar to Harris’ book, Satterfield’s adventure begins in Benin, a vibrant country in West Africa and home to Dantokpa, the region’s largest open-air market. An earnest and genuinely curious host, Satterfield spends the early part of this first episode meandering through the stalls with Harris, eyeing bags of bright green okra, cayenne-red dried shrimp and fat ginger roots. The pair marvel at their lively surroundings and immediately dispel a food misconception that I, as a West African, find particularly vexing: Sweet potatoes, the orange-red tuberous root vegetables that you can bake into a pie or caramelize into “candy,” are not yams. Yams — not common in North America — are equally delicious and versatile, but very different: They are mammoth, brown starchy tubers that Harris, in her soft, affectionate voice, compares aesthetically to a “hairy elephant foot.”
This myth-busting moment, inflected with a graciousness and humor that runs through the series, foregrounds later connections between African American cuisine and the region’s other food staples. For example, black-eyed peas, okra, watermelon and rice all originated from these West African countries. Although these links will be unsurprising for some viewers, they create a necessary foundation in High on the Hog, one that allows Satterfield and Harris to move seamlessly from roaming the present-day market and sampling Beninese cuisine to remarking on the legacy of the slave trade.
In one particularly moving scene, Satterfield and Harris travel to the former slave port of Ouidah to honor the enslaved people who died before their journey to the Americas. Standing atop the mass grave, Harris explains what the slaves were typically given to eat — a sauce made of palm oil, flour and pepper — and how white colonizers tried to force-feed them when they refused. “The only power the newly enslaved had was the power of refusal,” Harris says. “Resistance was every step of the journey.”
Out of resistance bloomed a creativity that Satterfield explores without Harris in the remaining three episodes. He travels to South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York and other states, searching for the history behind popular African American dishes — from okra soup to macaroni and cheese. His conversations with historians, farmers, cowboys, chefs and bakers always take place over a meal that sometimes Satterfield helps cook.
In the second episode, our host dines with members of the Gullah community in South Carolina and roasts a hog on an open fire. After that, he heads up north to Apex, North Carolina, where he harvests collard greens and other vegetables from a local garden and chats with cultural preservationist Gabrielle Etienne about the necessity of intergenerational dialogue. Etienne’s own story reveals the fragility of so many Black communities — how little exists in terms of land protection and how easily their livelihoods can be decimated. Because of eminent domain, which refers to the government’s power to take private land for public use, Etienne’s garden is in danger of being razed by the Department of Transportation. (They plan to use the land to expand an existing highway.)
These moments illuminate the particularities of Black communities across the country, highlighting which meals are considered delicacies and celebrating different ways of preparing and enjoying them. They also link dishes to a larger history of liberation, affirming that food has always been a form of connective tissue that brings Black Americans closer to their land, their families and to themselves.
It’s a shame that High on the Hog is only four episodes; by the end of the last one, it’s clear the series could have delved even deeper into the African American culinary experience. Etienne’s story in particular might have lent itself to a closer examination of the precarity of Black farmers and the scarcity of affordable fresh food in some Black communities. Caribbean cuisine could have been more prominently featured as well, not only as a way to stress the sheer size of the slave trade but to recognize how forced movement within the Western hemisphere contributed to an evolving palate.
These criticisms have less to do with the docuseries and more to do with the embarrassing dearth of mainstream projects chronicling the history of Black American food, which places an unfair burden on the few that do exist to fully encompass a centuries-long narrative. If we’re lucky, High on the Hog is just the beginning.
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