Premiering on 27 May, Netflix’s limited series, High on the Hog, is, at first sight, a familiar combination of the travelogue and food show genres. But it is unique for how it frames African American cuisine as central in the development of the American nation.
Based on the eponymous book by the culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog is the product of an all-Black creative team that includes filmmakers Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback, director Roger Ross Williams, and showrunner Shoshana Guy. It is hosted by the food writer, chef, and former sommelier Stephen Satterfield.
That this is Satterfield’s first TV hosting gig works to the series advantage, as he is an empathetic listener who exudes a sense of wonder and vulnerability that make it easy for viewers to immerse themselves in his journey, from Benin, West Africa to Charleston, South Carolina to Charlottesville, Virginia to Galveston, Texas, among other places.
While African American cuisine is directly intertwined with the painful histories of slavery, racism, and classism that have shaped the American nation, High on the Hog is nonetheless full of joy. The mini-series’ hour-long, four episodes celebrate the resilience, ingenuity, knowledge, and talent of Black people who, as Dr. Harris notes in her book, “have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other.”
The excellent second episode, “The Rice Kingdom”, for example, showcases how the agricultural expertise of slaves in growing rice built the economic wealth of Charleston. And yet, few restaurants in the city today are Black-owned. Overall, Satterfield points out that history has been slow to recognize the roots of southern cooking. Throughout High on the Hog, viewers bear witness to the fact that African American cuisine has repeatedly been appropriated and erased.
In one of the most insightful episodes, “Our Founding Chefs”, High on the Hog focuses on the foundational contributions of the enslaved chefs Hercules Posey and James Hemings and the entrepreneur Thomas Downing. Posey and Hemings, who cooked for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, helped popularize foods that have become a staple of the American diet, such as mac and cheese, French fries, and ice cream. Downing, for his part, built an empire in New York City by selling oysters.
Among its many virtues, High on the Hog excels at placing at the forefront a younger generation of chefs and activists across the United States who are working to preserve their ancestors’ culture and are pushing back against the marginalization and exclusion of Black people from American history. For example, in Brooklyn, chef Benjamin “Moody” Harney, inspired by Downing, launched his Mothershuckers oyster cart in 2019 as a way to make oysters accessible for people of color and to counter their associations with elitism, wealth, and white people.
At the Hatchet Hall restaurant in Los Angeles, chefs Martin Draluck and Brian Dunsmoor seek to recreate Posey’s and Hemings’ cooking methods in the open fire (known as hearth cooking) through a series of dinners, “Hemings & Hercules”, in an effort to recover their lost histories and educate the American public. While cooking dinners to honor unsung heroes of the past may seem like an innocuous activity, Dunsmoor notes they have encountered some resistance.
When Satterfield probes why, the chef bluntly states, “Americans are like ostriches. They stick their head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. [But] we’re making progress, and people just need to know. People need to know the facts and they can make their opinions themselves.”
The final episode, “Freedom”, is a poignant celebration of Black culture in the Southwest, from cowboys to rodeos to barbecues. Due in part to the dominant regime of representation in Hollywood Western films that associates cowboys with white men, the general public is unaware of the predominance and influence of Black cowboys in the US. But as Anthony Bruno, a member of the Northeastern Trail Riders, reminds us all, “We got a rich history that hasn’t been properly recorded… We helped develop America.”
As entertaining as it is informative, High on the Hog is essential viewing for how it disrupts the Eurocentrism entrenched in the culinary world that tends to devalue so-called ethnic foods and places white men at the center of the narrative. High on the Hog succeeds in reclaiming Black history and demonstrates that Black foods, traditions, and customs have been the backbone of the American nation from its inception.
Harris, Jessica B. High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. London: Bloomsbury. 2012.