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Netflix’s ‘High on the Hog’ showcases Black people’s vital contributions to American food

Stephen Satterfield and Jessica B. Harris at Dantokpa Market in Cotonou, Benin, from the first episode of "High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America." (Netflix)

“Never been more excited for a food show in my life,” I tweeted when I first saw news of “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” a Netflix docuseries debuting Wednesday. And based on the response, those within my realm of the Internet seem to feel the same way. The show is “a story of Black America’s resilience, enduring creativity, and vital contribution to America’s kitchen,” according to press materials, and is based on the heavily decorated culinary historian Jessica B. Harris’s seminal book of the same name.

Executive producers Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback learned of the book from former Esquire food editor Jeff Gordinier, who in turn heard of it from restaurateur and cookbook author Alexander Smalls. When Harris first heard that someone wanted to buy the rights to her book, she was shocked. “Who’d have thought?” she said in a phone interview. However, “If anybody likes the book enough to want to do something with it, why not see what they can do? And obviously what they could and did do was amazing.”

Having previewed the series, I wholeheartedly agree.

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Primarily led by executive producer and Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams, the series’s four episodes, each just under an hour, serve as a complement to the book to bring it to a new audience. Harris said she hopes viewers “learn that African American food certainly is American food and that it is foundational to American food. And along with that they would learn that African Americans, like their food, are foundational to American culture.”

While Harris is present in the first episode, the host is Stephen Satterfield, journalist and founder of Whetstone Magazine. Satterfield’s soothing presence draws you in, as does his gravitas, knowledge and curiosity.

The topic — and the creator of its source material — made hosting a daunting task. “I know that this is a historic show, and I needed to be able to step outside of my own nerves and insecurity and anxiety, and really step into the presence of the host, the facilitator of this historic text,” Satterfield said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t just the enormity of the production itself, a first for the world of media. I was being called to embody the work of someone who is like an intellectual hero, a giant in my life. So I really got to a point where, in many ways, I was just performing for the approval of an audience of one.”

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The series starts in the country of Benin in West Africa, a hub of the transatlantic slave trade. Through it, we get a glimpse of the food of the region then and now, the foundation of the cuisine enslaved Africans carried to a new land. At the end of the episode, Harris and Satterfield visit the Door of No Return in the city of Ouidah, a memorial to the more than 1 million Africans taken from their homeland. The weight of the experience hits Satterfield, and he is overcome with emotion.

“The cousin kinship connection that you feel as an African American going to the continent is so immense,” Satterfield told me. “It’s such a tremendous feeling. A feeling that I know many immigrant [and] displaced communities feel when you return to an ancestral homeland when there has been a fracture, a severance. And there is an emotional quality to that that I think is indescribable.”

The next episode takes us to Charleston, S.C., which the show calls the “capital of the nation’s slave trade” and where many enslaved Africans first landed. Titled “The Rice Kingdom,” the episode explains the importance of the grain in creating the region’s wealth, and thus the necessity of those with the knowledge to grow it: Africans.

While soul food is often relegated to home cooking or considered lower class, the third episode shares another part of the African American food story: the role Black Americans have played in shaping fine dining for the upper echelons of society. Examples include chefs James Hemings and Hercules Posey, who cooked for Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, respectively; the creation of the entire catering industry; and Thomas Downing as the oyster king of New York City. The entrepreneurial nature of many of these figures highlights the Black wealth not often discussed in history books.

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The final episode shows even more facets of the African American impact on food in this country, such as the Black cowboys that “galvanized America’s meat industry,” per press materials, and the African American connection to the roots of barbecue. And throughout all that Black people in this country have endured, the series includes notes of joy and celebration through such holidays as Juneteenth.

All these issues and more are addressed with a grace that is not always afforded when covering Black topics. “I think there’s a lot to be said for this show creatively being put in the hands of Black people,” Satterfield said. “I just think there is a sensitivity in the storytelling that is going to be palpable for people when they watch it.”

“High on the Hog” invites the audience to explore the myriad ways Black people have had an impact on society. “The particular lens is about food, but we could pick other industries, from textiles to technology, and it would be the exact same thing,” Satterfield said. "I want people to be curious about what in their own lives or in their own respective industry should be looked at and possibly reevaluated in terms of the contribution of Black people.“

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While the book was published a decade ago, the show’s impending release feels poised for a welcome embrace by society given the talk, if not reality, of a racial reckoning in the wake of continued anti-Black violence by police. “I think it would be disingenuous to say that this show is not now arriving at a moment where I do think ... people in the U.S. are going to be more receptive to a project like ‘High on the Hog,’ ” Satterfield said. “Just its existence and its message has just a little bit more space in the world than it would have two years ago.”

To Harris, the point is to correct a historical omission.

“It has not been a tale well told,” Harris said. Or as my colleague Tim Carman wrote, “There’s little documented evidence in cultures that historically relied on oral traditions, and what documentation exists has been largely recorded by White people, who may have had an agenda, or may not have cared enough to observe the details carefully.” Projects such as “High on the Hog” and the work being done by those featured in the series — including Adrian Miller, Michael Twitty, BJ Dennis and Gabrielle E. W. Carter — aim to more accurately document, preserve and share the history. The series builds upon Harris’s original work and also readies others interested in the subject to carry it forward.

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“I really got interested in food because of television. … And so I very well understand the immense power of seeing the types of stories that are told and projected through food,” Satterfield said. “I think this is going to be a big deal for young Black kids all over the world who see their likeness reflected in a real way with real care and consideration.”

This show isn’t a big deal just for young Black kids, but for the Black community as a whole and, in turn, the entire country. As Satterfield put it, “I think it is concurrently on time and overdue.”

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