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 unavoidable ingredients for any project seeking to do the subject of African American contributions justice. But for each twist of the knife, High on the Hog serves something uplifting and unapologetically proud. For every wrestling match the audience has with, say, a discussion on the marriage of slavery and naked capitalism, there’s a jaw-dropping recognition of the Black-dependent explosion of mac and cheese in the New World. At every turn, the show is a full-throated celebration of Black brilliance, even when it digs into the dark corners of America’s cupboards.
Arguably the greatest crime in American cuisine is the erasure of Black people in its founding. The origins of American food are frequently referred to as “diverse” or “a cultural gumbo,” while at the same time rarely making space to dig into why such diversity exists. High on the Hog sets out to fill those dark corners with the light of presence, both ancient and living, and in doing so begins to set right not only the narrative of American food but the sharing of the substantial spoils that come from being able to claim such legacies.
Consider all of the times some organization or media talking head embodies the work of combating racism as “starting the conversation,” as if talking about racism were a finish line and not a starting gate that few of us ever seem to launch from. Change takes time and all of that. High on the Hog presents itself as a polite and willing participant at the table, but, having had its fill of all of the false starts meant to address American cuisine erasure, the show pushes back its chair and begins to lay out how all of the dishes before you were almost edible but missed several key ingredients. Then it proceeds to go into the kitchen and fix the whole menu.
High on the Hog doesn’t stop in many of the usual places. It does not dwell on the eternal debate over fried chicken. It does not stop at Sylvia’s in Harlem. It declines every invitation to expound on the Very Special Episode of Black Cuisine that most food shows squeeze into their otherwise White-facing seasons. It’s a series that respects the intelligence and experiences of its audience, working from the assumption that anyone inclined to watch it knows what fried chicken is and the cultural histrionics attached to it. The showrunners offer audiences the opportunity to expand their palates like a parent negotiating a forkful of greens with a child that doesn’t know if they’ll like them because they’ve never had them. Except this time the cajoling pays off.
‘High on the Hog’ not only fills viewers with the pride that comes from knowing such history but drives us to redefine what it means to be American.
The show also confers this respect with the parts of the show that aren’t about food; a notable decision, considering the current push to erase such history by legislators nationwide. The experience of consuming High on the Hog demonstrates the very reason why such efforts should be fought. All food is political. How it appears in our lives is driven by the economy, which is political. The cost of the food we consume is political. Whether you live in a food desert is political. School lunches and determinations over who gets business loans for Black restaurants are political.
High on the Hog not only fills viewers with the pride that comes from knowing such history but drives us to redefine what it means to be American. That I can walk into my kitchen and realize that history for myself — that very Black and very American history — is exactly the kind of baptism I want from my education. It is the perfect example of a culturally responsive pedagogy. To deny such history is to starve literally and politically.
It’s both smart and telling that the series starts off with writer and scholar Jessica B. Harris, PhD. The author of the book that inspired the series, Harris is both guide and mother, and not in that overly matronly way that we automatically assign to Black women who show us love in public. Before watching the series, I wondered if the producers would be able to recreate Harris’ 2011 book into a viable series that did more than show off amazing food. The Hey Sistah production company and crew went one step better: They didn’t try to recreate it at all. This is not to say they discarded the book or Harris, quite the opposite. They created a perfectly balanced on-ramp to the research and Harris’ original journey, as well as the rapidly developing body of work by other Black food scholars and cooks.
Harris is the host behind the host, there to get the party started right, and the series takes its cues from the timeline of her book while adding to the stew of its already rich narrative. Where Harris sketches, say, the coming gentrification of Bed-Stuy, the series dives wholesale into the mise-en-scène perils of eminent domain in Apex, North Carolina. Every story in Harris’ book has an even more contemporary parallel, and the show seeks them out to expand its ideological buffet with not only riveting dishes but communal experiences.
A scene near the end of the first episode best captures what the series delivers throughout. Harris and Satterfield make their way to a memorial site in Ouidah, Benin, built to honor the many Africans who died in holding pens before they could be put on slave ships, as well as the loss of millions who ended up on American shores through trade. Watching the history and implications settle into Satterfield’s face is powerful stuff, and eventually, he breaks down, crying. Harris then holds Satterfield in her arms, both of them standing over the bones of their ancestors, her cooing, “It’s okay.” In that moment, I too was cradled, claimed in the ring of the powerful spell cast in those two words.
“It” is whatever Satterfield is feeling, but also whatever I’m feeling. “It” is whatever emotion we bring to the table, and all emotions are acceptable so long as you know that they will be consumed by the most concrete of contexts. “It” is what you let go of, what you lay on the plate, what you feel in the presence of great wrongs and reckonings that will never wash away. “Okay” is the turn of the spell, the release, the way out of the binding history beneath their feet and whatever Satterfield (or you, or I) has called forth. All of this is done with great intention, but not to cater to the audience. It is an absolution of an ignorance of which you could not possibly know the depths until you confront what has come before. And in the end, food carries all of this in its seed and muscle. When we eat with that knowledge, there is a communion happening.
Every episode of the series feels like that embrace.
I once drove 10 hours in the dark to Marianna, Arkansas, to eat a pulled pork sandwich at America’s oldest Black-owned restaurant, Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner. I tell you this because I need you to understand that food is not a trifling thing to me. I will brave inclement weather, being pulled over by state troopers, and the South itself to get to a platter that might change my life. An appetite for food and the stories trapped in it are my pedigree. It is what I have instead of cooking school credentials or a sommelier pin. And because food is my religion, High on the Hog hits me in all the places my soul longs to have touched.
When culinary historian Michael Twitty walks Satterfield through the creation of okra stew — not only the way it would have been cooked by their ancestors, but on a former plantation — it is a ritual of connective prayer. When preservationist Gabrielle E. W. Carter extols the many virtues of preserving fresh produce by Black farmers, she speaks with the carriage of a prophet. When Gullah chef BJ Dennis splays a whole hog, its limbs akimbo, the connotations of self-sacrifice are not wholly inappropriate. Soul food as captured by High on the Hog is given the cinematic treatment usually reserved for presentations of fine dining, with all of its craft and love intact. For once, the full menu of African American cuisine is given the proper breathing room from which to deliver its many sermons.
Ultimately, what High on the Hog offers is right there in the title. Finally, everyone is allowed to eat of the good parts of the beast, to nourish ourselves with intent and without regard to station. The series was full of food, yes, but also heaping spoonfuls of Black living and joy and celebration. If we must contend with the legacy of America’s original sin, and we absolutely must, then this is the way to do it. Preferably with a plate of soul food on the side.