Food is a conduit for memory – not just our personal memories, but also the collective memory of our country. This idea is central to Netflix’s new documentary series High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. Hosted by chef and food writer Stephen Satterfield, High on the Hog is an odyssey of the Black American experience as told through food. The series marries history, food, travel, and memoir genres to tell a riveting story both of how African Americans maintained a connection to our ancestors through food, and how African and African American cooking influenced the foods we think of as central to American cuisine.
The series takes its name from the colloquialism that refers to the choicest cuts of meat typically accessible only to the wealthiest people; in the United States’ infancy and adolescence, these were white slaveowners. Enslaved Americans typically got the rest of the animal – the organs, feet, and other lower portions seen as less desirable. High on the Hog at once acknowledges this history while also turning our understanding of it upside down. The series explores how, for centuries, Black cooks have made exquisite meals out of “undesirable” foods and “desirable” foods alike, using these components to prepare delicious cuisine for family, loved ones, and, frequently, the highest office in the land.
High on the Hog challenges the common assumption that African American cooking is largely limited to Southern soul food. Though Black cooks have undoubtedly made an indelible mark on Southern comfort food, they are also responsible for developing dishes associated with fine dining. This truth is embodied in the series’ recounting of James Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef on his Monticello plantation, brother to Sally Hemings, and half-brother to Jefferson’s wife, Martha. James Hemings – who trained as a chef in France – basically invented macaroni and cheese and served elaborate meals that married French fine dining and Virginia comfort food on Jefferson’s Virginia plantation.
One episode brought to mind my own journey to West Africa when I was 10. In a three-week period, I visited Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved Africans were held before their harrowing journey across the ocean; I nearly fainted in an outdoor market and spent the night in a clinic; and I witnessed a military coup.
Even with these memories, the food stands out.
Satterfield, with his easy smile, sommelier’s palate, and gentle inquisitiveness, is the perfect stand-in for us, the viewer. He describes tastes and textures so well we almost feel as though we are sampling the dishes with him. Almost. More than once, I wished I could teleport myself to the tables where he sat.
This was especially true in the first episode, “Our Roots”, where Satterfield visits the country of Benin in West Africa to better understand the food traditions enslaved Africans would draw from across the Atlantic. The episode brought to mind my own journey to West Africa when I was 10. I travelled with my parents to Ghana and Nigeria, and the trip is peppered with memories of food. I find this surprising, because so many experiences during that trip were extraordinary: In a three-week period, I visited Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved Africans were held before their harrowing journey across the ocean; I nearly fainted in an outdoor market and spent the night in a clinic; and I witnessed a military coup. Even with these memories, the food stands out.
I remember seeing cooked octopus for the first time as I stood outside Cape Coast Castle. The octopus was wrapped in newspaper, and, according to my father, was rubbery in texture (I was not adventurous enough to try the tentacled creature). I remember watching our Ghanaian host cook jollof rice and then feeling an immediate sense of comfort when I tasted those tomato-kissed bites of savory rice. I remember craving a hamburger in Ghana and being surprised by the fried egg-topped burger that appeared with a side of yam fries. And in Nigeria, I remember pinching off pieces of fufu with my fingers and using it to sop up stews, eating savory-spicy bites of grilled suya meat, and seeing fresh-cut orange halves for sale by roadside vendors. In both countries, I remember being surprised that nearly every meal came with a neat dome of perfectly steamed rice, a food I had until then associated primarily with Asian cuisine.
Importantly, the show is not just about food; it’s also about the feelings that food evokes and the historical context that informs what and how we eat.
In High on the Hog, Satterfield has his own memorable moments in Benin, where he samples dishes with ingredients that will feel familiar to Southern diners: okra, peas, peanuts, and yams (while in Benin, Satterfield puts to bed the yams versus sweet potato debate); in the Carolinas, where he samples Southern comfort food and delves into the history of how enslaved Africans were integral to growing rice, one of America’s first cash crops; in the Southern and Northern United States, where he explores how American fine dining was informed by free and enslaved chefs, including two enslaved by American presidents; and in Texas, where he recounts the story of Juneteenth and covers how Black Americans influenced cowboy culture and Texas cuisine.
Importantly, the show is not just about food; it’s also about the feelings that food evokes and the historical context that informs what and how we eat. In the first episode, we get a sense of both the terror and homesickness enslaved Africans would have felt while held captive, and the ways food offered a connection to a home they would never see again. Later, we feel the injustice of the United States’ Founding Fathers who advocated for American freedom while holding slaves. Most heart wrenching is the scene where Satterfield is overcome with emotions as he considers the path his ancestors took from the West African coast to the Americas; he marvels at the brutality they endured and also their determination to live and thrive despite inhumane and cruel circumstances.
Though High on the Hog doesn’t shy away from the injustices that have been part of the African American experience, the series opts to spend most of its time exploring the ways Black determination and culinary excellence have persisted. For example, during the course of the series’ four episodes, Satterfield visits modern-day African and African American chefs who connect to their roots through cooking traditional recipes and by using traditional ingredients to make gastronomic innovations.
If you love food, American history, or learning about the African American experience, High on the Hog is essential viewing. In addition to being a mouthwateringly good time, the show is also informative and gripping. It serves as a poignant reminder that the Black experience as it relates to food is one still in the making – and that Black contributions exist not just in America’s past, but also in its present and future.
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America is available for viewing on Netflix.
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