By: Sey Smythe
In Netflix’s four-part docuseries, High on the Hog, food writer and activist, Stephen Satterfield, takes us on a journey across continents and through time, documenting the complex story of African American culinary history. Based on the book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by award-winning cookbook author and culinary historian, Jessica B. Harris (who is also featured in the documentary), the series unearths the African culinary roots of African American cuisine and then expounds upon this, celebrating the unique cultural identity of African American cuisine from soul food and barbecue to the Gullah-Geechee palate. But most importantly, the documentary tells a story of triumph and resilience through hardship. This is illustrated by the book and series’ namesake: “high on the hog” refers to the more high-quality meat found on the pig – higher up on its body – a part of the animal that enslaved African Americans were not afforded. Instead, they were given poorer cuts of the animal, and generally, the poorest quality of food, enough to sustain them for the backbreaking labor that they were subjected to. In spite of this, enslaved African Americans took these meager rations and transformed them into the delectable dishes that we enjoy today.
At a time when parents are debating whether their children should be taught critical race theory in the classroom, High on the Hog doesn’t shy away from the brutal reality of how African American cuisine came to be: part one of the series (“Our Roots”) begins in Benin, the hub of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It is from here that many of the African American culinary staples like rice, black-eyed peas, okra, and yams originated. In a particularly emotional scene, Satterfield and Harris visit the Cemetery of Slaves, a memorial marking the mass grave of enslaved Africans who died before making the arduous journey across the Atlantic. Satterfield breaks down in tears, simultaneously feeling the weight of the journey he is about to embark on and mourning the lives lost to such unimaginable cruelty. But this is where the sadness ends: deviating from the repetitive framing of the African American experience as that of innumerable suffering, the series instead chooses to tell an inspiring story of the ingenuity and perseverance of a people.
I was most intrigued by the less well-known stories that the documentary shared. In “Part Three: Our Founding Chefs” we learn about two enslaved men named Hercules and James Hemings, the personal chefs of Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson respectively. Both men were highly skilled chefs at the same caliber as their European and albeit, free, counterparts (James Hemings, for example, was trained in Paris), and yet they have been consistently left out of the narrative of American culinary history. In one scene, we learn that the American version of macaroni and cheese was invented by Hemings, further driving home the fact that Black history is American history. Furthermore, as Black audiences critique the exploitation and overuse of Black trauma on screen, I know that I, for one, would love to see a movie about these amazing men. Or maybe one about Thomas Downing, the Black Oyster King of New York, who gets his own fascinating segment in the documentary.
The series culminates in “Freedom”, which starts as an explainer of Juneteenth, or, Freedom Day, a holiday celebrated on June 19th to commemorate the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Traditionally, Juneteenth has been celebrated in Texas, but in recent years, the holiday has received more “mainstream” attention, especially after last summer’s widespread protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Naturally, this section of the film highlights African American culinary life in Texas (did you know that the earliest barbecue in Texas came from enslaved African Americans?) but I think what was most compelling was the section on Black cowboys. What better way to exemplify liberation than the American cowboy, the ultimate symbol of freedom? The conclusion of the documentary embodies the overall feeling of celebration prevalent throughout High on the Hog and as a descendant of enslaved African Americans, it made me proud to be part of a legacy that, despite such unfathomably hellish treatment, has been able to create something so beautiful and so delicious.
There’s a moment in part two of the documentary when culinary historian Michael Twitty waxes poetic, “We are the only people who named our cuisine [soul food] after something invisible like love and God…something completely transcendental. It’s about a connection between us and our dead and us and those who are waiting to be born.” At the heart of this story of survival and resilience is the connective tissue between continents, people, and experiences. My only negative critique of the series is that it wasn’t long enough. Like an ooey-gooey macaroni and cheese with a perfect, golden-brown crust, High on the Hog left me wanting more, and hopefully, we do get more in the future.