“The story of food is also the story of who we are,” proclaims host Stephen Satterfield in Netflix’s High On The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.
The new docuseries, which came out just this week, sets out to reveal the origin stories of what we know as “American” cuisine. But this time the focus is on the people whose contributions have often been overshadowed or erased from the collective memory of American history—African Americans.
Adapted from the book of the same title by culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, the series traces African American cuisine from the African content to South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, and beyond. In the process, it uncovers the culinary traditions of African Americans that have shaped American food since before the country’s beginning.
The series begins on a walk through Benin’s Dantokpa marketplace, the largest open-air market in West Africa. Here, Satterfield and Harris explore stalls selling native ingredients that also happen to be staples of American cuisine—okra, black-eyed peas, and rice, to name a few. These fruits, vegetables, and grains seem to remind Satterfield that in some way Benin is also his home.
Although much about Benin feels foreign, the food, the smells, and the sounds do not. There is a sense of familiarity that Satterfield describes as “fragments of a lost memory.”
Throughout the series, those fragments are gradually pieced together with various origin stories—ones that trace foods like rice, yams, and watermelon back to the places enslaved people were taken from. With help from experts, historians, chefs, and preservationists, the four-episode series touches on everything from whole-hog barbecue to Black cowboys; to the enslaved cooks of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that introduced and popularized American staples like mac and cheese, ice cream, and french fries. Viewers travel with Satterfield to locations around the world: one moment, absorbing the breathtaking beauty and resilience of Ganvie, a village built on water; the next, feeling the weight of ancestors who did not survive the journey to the Americas and the plight that awaited those who did. Satterfield holds all these truths, and in doing so, encourages viewers to do the same.
Satterfield told us that this duality is the Black experience exactly.
“It's not possible for us to tell these stories without talking about exploitation, without talking about loss: loss of land, loss of life, loss of health,” he said. But it’s also impossible to tell these stories without the celebration, joy, and pride that is shown throughout the series.
“This is our story. That is a source of tremendous—it's not just pride—power.”
When asked what he hopes people will take away from High on the Hog, Satterfield said he wants people to ask what stories might be missing from history as we know it.
“If these stories are just now being presented in 2021,” Satterfield posits over the phone, “what areas of your life stories maybe need to be investigated? What stories are missing? What can be explored, particularly from a culinary arts perspective?”
High on the Hog explores the lives and work of more than 20 people providing the answers to those questions. Here, we’re profiling five of the culinary creators using their platforms to inform people about their histories.
Vignon-Vullierme is the mind behind the award-winning blog Les Gourmandises de Karelle, where she shares her recipes for food from around the world—including recipes from Senegal, Benin, and the Côte d’Ivoire. In High on the Hog, Vignon-Vullierme introduces viewers to Sedjro Ahouansou, chef and owner of Chill N’ Grill in Cotonou, Benin. Ahouansou is one of the young chefs working to put Beninese food on the map; he approaches this by preparing traditional foods in nontraditional ways. Take his interpretation of piron, for example, a typically salty side dish made of cassava flour and pork fat, which he reimagines as a sweet dessert in the style of Japanese maki.
Gabrielle E. W. Carter
A self-described grower, designer, and preservationist, Carter is the co-founder of Tall Grass Food Box. The food box subscription offers fresh produce grown by Black farmers to North Carolina restaurants and community members for pickup in Durham, Apex, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh twice a month. A proud citizen of Apex, where her relatives are being forced from the land they’ve lived on for generations so that a seven-lane expressway can be built, Carter also hosts community dinners where she uses food from the garden she shares with her grandfather and uncle; for these dinners, she creates dishes that explore her cultural roots—like poulet rouge hens cooked over hot coals, collard greens, and beet cornbread—and that preserve and celebrate the food traditions that have been passed down to her.
Through the story of her own home, Carter shares the great importance of supporting local Black farmers and keeping their histories, traditions, and recipes alive.
Dennis is a descendant of the Gullah Geechee people, who live on the Sea Islands and coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. Throughout the series and in everyday life, Dennis is the expert on all things Gullah. He’s made it his mission to break down stereotypes about the foods that African Americans eat by hosting pop-up dinners that introduce diners to Low Country cuisine: mullet fish and red rice, gumbo, and fried shrimp and shark. Dennis was recently named the culinary director of soon-to-open Lowcountry Fresh Market & Cafe, a space that will provide local produce and seafood to the community in Bluffton, South Carolina.
This Philadelphia native is an artist, chef, and the founder of Honeysuckle, a pop-up dining concept that explores Black history and contemporary Black culture through food and art. Tate spent 15 years working at restaurants like A Voce and Meadowsweet before deciding to address head-on the lack of diversity and inclusion in the food world. He was voted Esquire’s Chef of the Year in 2020 and was featured on Time’s 100 Next 2021. Tate is in the process of raising money to turn Honeysuckle into a brick-and-mortar community center equipped with a grocery, meat market, café, library, and supper club.
In High on the Hog, Tate shows how naturally fine dining and African American cuisine come together: He guides us through the famed Black catering families of Philadelphia, and shares stories about Thomas Downing, the son of freed slaves who transformed the dingy oyster bars of New York into places politicians and businessmen went for a fine-dining experience.
Ben “Moody” Harney
Harney’s business, Mother Shuckers—the only oyster cart in Brooklyn—is highlighted in High on the Hog as a local business attempting to bring the popularity of oysters back to the Black community in Brooklyn. As oyster reefs in New York and New England were destroyed, the surplus of the mollusks declined, driving up their prices and making them inaccessible to everyday people. Like Omar Tate, Harney was also inspired by Thomas Downing and the oystering tradition that Black people once played a major role in. Through his oyster cart, Harney seeks to reintroduce his community to a food whose relevance has faded over time. Mother Shuckers also donates all of its shells to the Billion Oyster Project, an initiative to rebuild the oyster reefs of the New York harbor by 2035.
These five culinary creatives are just a few of the people featured in High on the Hog who are doing the difficult and necessary work to document and share the impact of African American foodways on American food. To meet the rest of them, you’ll have to watch!