How African American cuisine transformed America.
Black food is American food. In High on the Hog, Chef and writer Stephen Satterfield traces the amazing story of African American survival and triumph via the food that has knit generations together and helped define the American kitchen. From gumbo to fried chicken, this culinary journey stretches from Africa to enslavement, to the Harlem Renaissance, up to the present day. The limited series, now streaming on Netflix, is based on the book High on the Hog by food historian Jessica B. Harris.
Each episode begins with the traditional sounds of South Carolina’s Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. In the first episode, “Our Roots,” Chef Satterfield goes to Benin, West Africa, where okra and yam rule the market and fish and corn plates are served daily. Satterfield humbly walks the same red clay road that our ancestors traveled during the slave trade, and weeps at the site of a mass grave and monument honoring those who died.
The connection to African flavors and foodways sets the table for Satterfield’s journey through the US to South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Texas. In “The Rice Kingdom,” Stephen exposes the intertwined histories of the American South, soul food, and slavery in the Carolinas.
In South Carolina, while talking about soul food, culinary historian Michael Twitty notes that, “We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel, like love and God. Something completely transcendental.” At the end of the episode Satterfield sits down to a glorious feast with Gullah chef BJ Dennis and others working to preserve Black culinary traditions.
In “Our Founding Chefs,” Satterfield learns that George Washington’s enslaved chef Hercules Posey may have created many of the dishes credited to Martha Washington. Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef James Hemings popularized French fries and ice cream, and, according to culinary historian Dr. Leni Sorensen, likely brought macaroni pie, or as we know it mac ’n’ cheese, back from France.
In the last episode, “Freedom,” Satterfield heads to Texas where he enjoys barbecued brisket, meets a Black cowboy, and celebrates Juneteenth in Houston. The episode begins with the voice of Laura Smalley. In a crackly recording from 1941, Smalley, a former enslaved person, tells the story of the day she learned she was free: “You know what? Ol’ master didn’t tell you no one was free,” Smalley recalls. “Turned them loose on the nineteenth of June. That’s why we celebrate that day.”
High on the Hog, produced by an entirely Black creative team, is an informative and delightful show, a joyful combination of food, history, and travel.