‘High on the Hog’ Gives Credit for American Cuisine Where Credit Is Due
Dr. Jessica B. Harris and Stephen Satterfield deftly steer this Netflix series on African American foodways with sensitivity and optimism.
In the shadow of the Zoungbodji Memorial, a mass grave for the many Africans who didn’t make it to the slave ships that once floated offshore of Ouidah, Bénin, Dr. Jessica B. Harris comforts host Stephen Satterfield. Behind the scenes, the multinational Black crew is similarly overwhelmed by the gravity of where they stand, likely also barefoot out of respect.
Whether from the four-day march to the city, illness from cramped barracoons where they were held, or a defiant refusal of “food” known as slabber sauce, many enslaved people died in this West African port city. The final monument to the city’s dark past, “The Door of No Return,” looms on a picturesque beach, a perfect juxtaposition of beauty and a painful reminder for Netflix’s High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, which premieres on May 26.
“The deep history of Africa in America and of African Americans—of my history, of our history—is rooted in that journey from West Africa to this hemisphere,” says Harris, the renowned cookbook author and culinary historian behind the book this series is based on. “But I think equally the tale becomes not only one of pain and suffering but one of survival.”
Those who made it onto the ships, despite the horrors they and their descendants would face, survived. They found analogous foods to what they knew, like sweet potatoes, and applied their knowledge cooking the entirety of animals to transform “off cuts,” allowing culinary traditions to persevere while creating new staples like mac and cheese.
“The series itself is really much more about where we are today and that in itself is a massive celebration,” says Satterfield, a journalist, sommelier, and founder of Whetstone Magazine. “The word resilience is often used in the context of African American people, the things that we have overcome, and I think a lot of that celebration is on-screen.” Speaking to potential Black viewers, he says: “Don’t be deterred by some tears. It’s a little emotional, but it's a journey.”
Even in the first episode about Bénin, there’s more to marvel at than cry about. From the nation’s exciting culinary future to a traditional feast with Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoumé that Satterfield was particularly excited about, you may find yourself reaching for the screen for a bite.
“It's hard to explain, but it was just an inspiring meal because you see the vastness, the ingenuity, the technology of African people, and you can’t help but wonder how different our diets would be had we not had that colonial contact,” says Satterfield.
As Harris says in the show, the cuisine covered is part of “a communal table.” Fried fish feels like home whether it’s in a lake village in Bénin or a Southern church repass. Though North and South Carolinians might butt heads over barbecue sauces, you’ll find sheet metal creating outdoor grills capable of cooking entire animals in both states.
A Gullah Diva makes magic from pig’s feet while Black cowboys in Texas build hearty stews with intestines. In Brooklyn, Mothershucker Ben Harney reintroduces oysters to Black people who are unaware that nearly 200 years ago the Oyster King of New York was a Black man. Harney hits the nail on the head remarking “there’s nothing we don’t do.”
The through line is the notion that an African American person invented or influenced a huge swatch of American cuisine, though rarely gets the credit. Harris, affectionately known as Dr. J, is no stranger to exclusion.
She recently received a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation after being almost completely ignored by the organization throughout her career. In 2019, when she was inducted into the foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame, she began her speech with “I was in food before food was cool. I was definitely in food before food was diverse.”
Many of High on the Hog’s guests stand on her shoulders, getting their flowers in real time, especially as organizations like the James Beard Foundation scramble to become more inclusive. In the Carolinas, Northeastern cities, and Texas we meet a smattering of recent James Beard Award finalists and winners including culinary historians Michael Twitty and Adrian Miller as well as cookbook author Jerelle Guy.
Every expert and descendant interacts with one another with ease, even when meeting for the first time—an immediate connection that is most strongly seen between Satterfield and Harris. The two-way street of admiration and respect makes you wish the pair were co-hosts, but Satterfield manages to carry the show with care and purpose on his own, as well.
“So much of my work personally is really about deepening these cultural connections through food and helping people understand history through food,” Satterfield says. “That particular way of thinking and that particular interrogation, that Dr. J’s scholarship contributed to immensely, it already led me to this incredible opportunity to be true to my own personal mission and curiosity.”
High on the Hog taps into the viewers’ curiosity, as well, showing us something new and then pulling the thread so we can see what unravels. Ultimately, in a media landscape where Black entertainment can still swing towards the realm of trauma porn, this series educates and uplifts. Each episode is punctuated by Black musical performances that sink into your bones and every upsetting historical fact is offset and overtaken by tales of ingenuity.
“I hope that, as a friend of mine would say, shoulders might drop,” says Harris about her hopes for African American viewers in particular. “Maybe we can exhale a little bit—not a lot, but a little bit—and just say yeah, we did that and now it's part of a record.”