Buried in the final chapter of the book by author and historian Jessica B. Harris High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America is a simple wish: Black American cuisine should be recognized for its influence on American cuisine.
“African Americans have a long love affair with food, one perhaps unparalleled in the country’s history,” she writes. “For centuries we have brought the zesty flavors of Africa to the New World.”
High on the pork
A nuanced celebration.
Ten years after the publication of this groundbreaking narrative history of African-American eating habits, Harris’ call has been partially answered: High on the Hog: How African-American cuisine transformed America, an illuminating new docuseries from Netflix based on the author’s work, shines a light on the ingenuity of African-American cuisine, examines its past, and celebrates its future. Hosted by Stephen Satterfield, writer and founder of food media company Whetstone, the series packs an impressive amount of information into four episodes, each around an hour long, with three of the four directed by Roger Ross Williams. (Williams shares a credit with Jonathan Clasberry on the third episode, and the fourth is directed by Yoruba Richen.)
Similar to Harris’s book, Satterfield’s adventure begins in Benin, a vibrant country in West Africa and home to Dantokpa, the region’s largest open-air market. An earnest and genuinely curious host, Satterfield spends the early part of this debut episode wandering the stalls with Harris, eyeing bags of bright green okra, cayenne-red dried shrimp and chunky root ginger. The couple marvel at their bustling surroundings and immediately dispel a misconception about food that, as a West African, I find particularly vexing: not yams. Yams – uncommon in North America – are equally delicious and versatile, but very different: they are gigantic brown starchy tubers that Harris, in her soft, affectionate voice, aesthetically compares to a “hairy elephant’s foot”.
This myth-busting moment, inflected with a grace and humor that runs through the series, brings to the fore the later connections between African American cuisine and the region’s other staples. For example, black-eyed peas, okra, watermelon, and rice are all native to these West African countries. While these ties may not come as a surprise to some viewers, they create a necessary foundation for High on the pork, one that allows Satterfield and Harris to seamlessly transition from roaming the current market and tasting Beninese cuisine to remarking on the legacy of the slave trade.
In one particularly moving scene, Satterfield and Harris travel to the former slave port of Ouidah to honor slaves who died before their voyage to the Americas. Standing atop the mass grave, Harris explains what slaves were typically given to eat – a sauce made from palm oil, flour and pepper – and how white colonizers tried to force-feed them when they refused. “The only power the new slaves had was the power of refusal,” Harris says. “The resistance was at every step of the journey.”
From the resistance blossomed a creativity that Satterfield explores without Harris in the remaining three episodes. He travels to South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York and other states, researching the history of popular African-American dishes – from okra soup to mac and cheese. His conversations with historians, farmers, cowboys, chefs, and bakers always revolve around a meal that Satterfield sometimes helps cook.
In the second episode, our host dines with members of the Gullah community in South Carolina and roasts a pig over an open fire. After that, he heads north to Apex, North Carolina, where he harvests collard greens and other vegetables from a local garden and talks with cultural curator Gabrielle Etienne about the need for dialogue. intergenerational. Etienne’s own story reveals the fragility of so many black communities – how little land is protected and how easily their livelihoods can be decimated. Because of eminent domain, which refers to the government’s power to take private land for public use, Etienne’s garden is at risk of being razed by the Department of Transport. (They plan to use the land to expand an existing highway.)
These moments shed light on the idiosyncrasies of black communities across the country, highlighting which meals are considered delicacies and celebrating different ways to prepare and enjoy them. They also connect the dishes to a larger story of liberation, saying food has always been a form of connective tissue that connects black Americans to their land, their families, and themselves.
It’s a shame that High on the pork is only four episodes; by the end of the last one, it’s clear the series could have delved even deeper into the African-American dining experience. Etienne’s story in particular could have lent itself to a closer examination of the precariousness of black farmers and the scarcity of affordable fresh food in some black communities. Caribbean cuisine could also have been highlighted, not only to highlight the scale of the slave trade, but to recognize how forced movements in the Western Hemisphere contributed to the evolution of the palate.
These criticisms have less to do with docuseries and more with the embarrassing dearth of mainstream projects chronicling the history of black American cuisine, which places an unfair burden on the few that exist to fully encompass an age-old narrative. If we’re lucky, High on the pork this is only the beginning.