The Bad Taste of America Co-opting Black Cuisine
The new Netflix series ‘High On The Hog’ gives soul food its proper praise and exploration
Several years ago, my mother crafted handmade family cookbooks for each of her sons as Christmas presents. The base of the gift was a red Campbell’s recipe book built like a photo album. She gutted its stock recipes and replaced them with typed and clean pages of her own gastronomic roadmaps.
More importantly (at least to the son who writes more than he cooks), the book leads with a compendium of photos, family history notes, and recollections from family dinners of the past. The origins of key traditions that had been taken for granted for years were explained, and anecdotes of visitors filled out the foliage of our culinary family tree. But in the end, the cookbook is a cherished gift whose value has little to do with the recipes it was created to hold. The instructions for a perfect creamed tuna on toast are a welcome addition to my kitchen arsenal but are not as fascinating as learning what a gandy dancer was, or what inspired my mother to commit all of our in-town famil to monthly dinners (confoundingly, it was the film Fried Green Tomatoes). My family’s stories about how the food got to our tables are just as important as the meals themselves.
And where there is a breaking of bread, there is an unraveling of story.
Netflix’s High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America is not a by-the-numbers food show. It’s part travel series, part historical dive, and part book club. It begins its four-episode journey in the African country of Benin and ends in Houston, Texas, with a maddening variety of stops in between. Host Stephen Satterfield — a food writer, entrepreneur, and former sommelier — meets up with cooks, foodway experts, Black cowboys, and Geechee cultural legends to unpack not only Black cuisine, but the conditions by which that cuisine came to be. Viewers are treated to stories about the African origins of American food staples, the ingenuity of both enslaved Africans and freed Blacks, and how these things and more helped create the America in which we live.
High on the Hog doesn’t dwell in suffering and loss. It notes such things, of course — they are…