Netflix’s “High on the Hog” Retraces the Roots and Origins of African American Food Culture

Courtesy Netflix

Last year energized a movement that demands the United States to recognize the pervasive social injustices against the African American community. It also provided underrepresented communities with an opportunity to tell their own stories and reclaim their place in American history. For food writer and sommelier Stephen Satterfield, the founder of Whetstone, a print magazine and media company dedicated to food origins and culture, that meant telling the origin story of African American food.

In Netflix’s High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, Satterfield starts in Benin—home to the Gate of No Return—where more than 1 million people unknowingly became part of the transatlantic slave trade. But the stories revealed in this four-part docuseries, based on Dr. Jessica B. Harris’ book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, isn’t just about Benin and America’s unspeakable truths, it’s about how African food and traditions were transported to America, and how this culinary legacy continues to thrive in various U.S. food scenes, including Charleston’s Gullah country. Throughout the series, Satterfield learns about local food origins and historic African American contributions to popular American food staples like mac-n-cheese—and invites viewers to witness communal meals with chefs, cultural preservationists, culinary historians, and entrepreneurs, who discuss the resilience of a people and the ingenuity of cooking techniques used to prepare the food placed in front of them.

“I think a lot about food—how it connects us through time, across geography, from generation to generation,” says Satterfield in the first episode. “It tells stories about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.” We sat down with him ahead of the show’s May 26 premiere to talk about why the story of this culinary visual pilgrimage, steeped in American history, needed to be told.

How did you become the host of High on the Hog?

It’s so random. One of the executive producers, Fabienne Toback, and I have a mutual connection—longtime food and culture writer Jeff Gordinier. Jeff told Fabi that she should read Dr. J’s book. He believed it would change her life. She read it and it did. Her inclination was that this was a story that needed to be told. And while she was pursuing the project, I think Jeff probably mentioned that he knew my work. Fabi and I started a conversation and it was really that simple. I really didn’t have to consider whether or not I would say ‘yes’ to the opportunity. I did want to get Dr. J’s blessing to be the face of this iteration of her material and scholarship. Once she gave me the blessing, I knew I had to do it.

How did Dr. Harris’s book and expertise aid in your journey to these different places to retrace the origins of Black food culture?

My whole framework for Whetstone is based on an ideology of food origins. Our working thesis is that it’s not possible to understand food without understanding its origins. So, we don’t do recipes, we do origins. This is the same kind of framework for African American and African diaspora cuisines that Dr. J has been giving us since the 1970s. She’s a living legend.

My ideas are all iterative from the work that she has been doing for so long. She always says, “I was in food when food wasn’t cool.” She’s not lying about that. She has all the receipts. And so, for me, it was a surreal opportunity to be with her in Africa and to shoot High on the Hog with her because she has been such a profound influence in my own personal journey as an individual, [and] as a food professional as well.

In High on the Hog, how important was it to make the connection between the African food traditions seen in Benin to the Black food traditions that exist in the U.S.?

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SOURCE: Condé Nast Traveler, Kwin Mosby

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