American cuisine

High On The Hog: How African American Food Transformed America

High on the Hog: How African-American Cuisine Transformed America. Episode 1, “Our Roots”. vs. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

By Dwight Brown

It’s a revelation. The rich history of black heritage cuisine and its influence on American cuisine is presented in this illuminating, heartfelt, and surprisingly well-crafted documentary. The host of this four-part Netflix epicurean travelogue is Stephen Satterfield, founder of Whetstone Magazine, which focuses on the origins and culture of food. He begins his culinary journey in West Africa and continues in the United States, making his deeply personal stay a journey of self-discovery for all.

In Episode I, Satterfield gets an illuminating tour of Benin, from Dr. Jessica B. Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, whose book is the source of the docuseries. Her deep, shamanic voice is reminiscent of Maya Angelou and gives you the impression of being in the presence of an oracle. Harris: “Food is how we know who we are and how we are connected.” She and other guides, chiefs (Valérie Vinakpon) and curators recall how Africans were rounded up, enslaved, brought on boats to port towns like Ouidah in Benin and controlled. Captives were shipped off and their food traditions accompanied them on their harrowing transatlantic passages to the Western Hemisphere. Learning that okra, yams, black-eyed peas, fava beans and rice are staples there and here is fascinating. Discovering the history of the four kilometer slave trail that ran from the center of Ouidah to the sea and a mass grave (Slave Cemetery), is so disappointing that it devastates Satterfield and will have the same effect on the public.

Episode 2 takes the proceedings to Charleston, South Carolina, where other emissaries trace the history of black cuisine, with particularly profound insights from Michael W. Twitty, author of the food blog Afroculinaria and the book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. “Cooking puts you in the presence of our ancestors,” notes Twitty. He and others lay out the essentials of black cooking that have influenced American cuisine, from Carolina golden rice to using all parts of the pig (aka high on the hog). A very deep preservation of African life has been maintained on South Carolina’s remote maritime islands, as evidenced by the Gullah Geechee culture. Viewers also learn that enslaved chefs set the palette for a new democracy, and elders to this day teach future generations how to cook, preserving traditions.

Episode 3 spotlights two of the 18’s most acclaimed epicureansand and 19and centuries, Hercules Posey, chef of Pres. George Washington and James Hemings, for Thomas Jefferson. The latter, brother of Sally Hemings, was the first American chef to train in France and is credited with bringing French fries and macaroni and cheese to America. Their careers, their families and their fights for freedom are known. Specific menus and portraits are non-existent. Los Angeles’ Hatchet Hall Restaurant maintains its home cooking form, serving historically influenced dishes like Hemings Snow Eggs (basil sweet cream, peach, toasted almond). Equally intriguing are the stories of Thomas Downing, New York’s Oyster King entrepreneur, and clever businessman Albert E. Dutrieuille who created a restaurant empire/dynasty in Philadelphia.

Episode 4 brings the series to a close as production ventures to Texas, highlighting the significance of the Juneteenth holiday. Satterfield is briefed on the story by Jerrelle Guy, finalist for James Beard, author of black girl cooking, which reveals some of its popular desserts (raw raspberry and hibiscus cheesecake) and their historical significance. Meeting black cowboys (Northeastern Trail Riders Association) and seeing how African Americans have influenced cowboy culture – from cooking to rodeo events – is also very informative. Add clips of tantalizing cowboy stew, beef brisket, pork ribs and tamarind paste broth and the intersection of culture and food continues to amaze. It’s like taking a graduate course in four self-contained episodes.

Technically, the entire production team should take a deep bow. The rich colors, eye-catching patterns, and vibrant restaurant scenes are courtesy in part of production designer Kati Davenport. Engaging camera angles, overhead shots, and intimate portrait-like close-ups of cinematographer Jerry Henry (I promise Africa) never fails to fascinate. All segments have a natural rhythm because editor Ephraim Kirkwood (Wu-Tang Clan: microphones and men) cut out the images with a certain precision while strings and other sounds caress the debates due to the composer/musician John Zarcone. The overall excellence of the entire series is courtesy of directors Roger Ross Williams (Apollo), Jonathan Classberry and Yoruba Richen. Conversations, dialogues and a detailed outline are by Classberry writers, Shoshana Guy (NBC Deadline) and Christina Lenis (Vietnam gun trucks).

If there was ever an Emmy-deserving food series, this is it. His indelible images, his encounters rich in emotions, his historical richness and his knowledge are extraordinary. Black America’s legacy endures because people guard the gates of our culture. The creators of this brilliant mini-series and the guides who take us on this journey are those keepers.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wsEdxt1Ico

Currently on Netflix.