"High on the Hog" Transcends Time
Updated: May 29, 2021
At a market in Benin, Jessica B. Harris, doyenne of African American cuisine, tells Netflix series presenter, Stephen Satterfield, that okra is a connector to America
Under North Carolinian pines, shrouded by Black ancestral knowledge and surrounded by the warmth of seven co-celebrants at a community dinner, a graying guest, unexpectedly, tastes his youth.
“Your turnip greens have transported me back in time,” he says, his face lit by candlelight.
For a moment, cultural preservationist, Gabrielle Etienne, stops cutting her poulet rouge chicken, seasoned with “love and cinnamon and cumin and smoked paprika”, and she smiles graciously in acknowledgment of the compliment.
He continues: “They are the closest, in terms of taste, that I’ve had since childhood of greens cooked this way. They have a richness of taste that I didn’t realize I was missing until just now.”
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America is a four-part series of cultural power, chockful of historical punches. It began playing on Netflix this week. The presenter, Stephen Satterfield, is an African American food writer, who worked as a sommelier for 10 years and studied to be a chef. The accomplished and open Satterfield draws out the stories of dishes from chefs and culinary historians starting in Benin and, then, after he crosses the water, the United States.
The series is rich in emotion, history, pride and, especially, marvelous meals. Fabulous meals. The only things missing are the smell of the food – and the ability to eat it.
High on the Hog is a homage to the book by Jessica B. Harris, the grande dame of African American cookbooks. Living "high off the hog" means living luxuriously. The American idiom originates from the hog. The best meat was said to be from its back and upper legs. So, the wealthy could eat the high parts of the hog. Slaves got the worst cuts from their owners, but they transformed them into something extraordinary.
Africans brought Carolina Gold rice -- which built the foundational wealth of America -- black-eyed peas, okra and watermelon to their new home. The survivors also brought creativity, which led to culinary excellence.
“We call our food soul food. We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel like love and God. Something completely transcendental,” says culinary historian, Michael Twitty, in South Carolina. “It’s about a connection between us and our dead, and us and those waiting to be born.”
In this series, history tastes so good:
James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s talented chef, popularized macaroni and cheese, the American classic comfort dish. Thomas Downing’s Wall Street establishment served oysters to bankers, attorneys and politicians upstairs while fugitive slaves found haven downstairs. And Black Americans created catering, according to the descendant of an elite Philadelphia catering family.
“Looking back on this journey, it’s impossible not to reflect on the sheer resilience of our ancestors,” says presenter Satterfield.
“We planted seeds, we toiled in the fields, and we watched as our hard work sprouted gold. We nourished a nation through our cooking and baked our traditions into the cuisine that would define America. But our legacy isn’t found in statues or history books. It lives on in the people who guard the gates of our culture, who continue to tell our stories.
“From the kitchens of the big house to the kitchen of the White House, the frontiers of the Wild, Wild West to the cobblestone streets of our largest cities,
“Our story is America.”
Satterfield sits with Gayle Jessup White in Virginia at Jefferson’s Monticello, where she is a community engagement officer. White’s great- great- great- great uncle was Chef James Hemings whose sister, Sally Hemings, had at least six children with Jefferson.
“I didn’t grow up with that knowledge (of my distinguished chef ancestor),” says White. ”I didn’t learn that until recently. And now, it’s really an honor. I’m lucky enough to know that history, but every Black American has something like that in their backgrounds. They just don’t know it.”