Food

High on the Hog Tastes Like Life

Netflix’s history of Black American food serves up the shock of the familiar.

Two people stand in a market talking to each other over bins of okra.
Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris and food writer Stephen Satterfield discuss the importance of okra on High on the Hog. Netflix

When the opening sequence of the first episode of High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America began to roll, my face flushed and my stomach dropped into the pit of my abdomen. I was overwhelmed by the panning scenes of the marshes of Benin and the clips of churchgoers catching the spirit, gleefully dancing in praise. It felt intimately familiar to me. Benin is not my home, but it felt like North Carolina.

The history of Black American food is the topic of the new Netflix documentary, but food is the center of life, and the show conjures a broad and profound sense of familiarity and reverence. The four-part series takes place across the Atlantic and around the U.S. as the food writer Stephen Satterfield navigates the ways in which Black Americans created the backbone of America’s cuisine and its economy. It’s a fresh lens on a centuries-old truth: Without us, there is no America.

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But there’s plenty to read about this already. The show’s running themes of fellowship and interconnectedness are what allow it to differentiate itself from most other content discussing the Black experience. It acknowledges pain—Satterfield is incredibly sensitive and attentive in the moment when handling these emotions—but the show isn’t rooted in trauma. It finds its footing on love, power, community, and, perhaps most importantly, merriment.

“I want people to perceive it as celebratory,” Satterfield told Osayi Endolyn, a food writer you should read, for the New York Times. “Oftentimes when our shows get made, when our stories get told, when our food gets talked about, it’s the ‘hardship’ story. I don’t even mean celebrating resilience. I mean look at all these beautiful Black people moving uninhibited, unencumbered, in a centuries-long tradition of how we convene, shape culture, celebrate, make a living. This has always been part of our tradition as a diasporic people descending from the continent of Africa.”

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High on the Hog is an evocation of actual Black life.

One Black man smiles as another Black man fist bumps across a table laden with food
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I’d imagine most Black folks would have a hard time not seeing some of their family’s traditions somewhere within this docuseries. During Satterfield’s time in Benin, he and Ganvié native Eric Kiki connect over eating fried fish on Sundays, the way I sometimes did as a child, when I worked around the bones in whiting at the dinner table. Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, who authored the book the show is based on, draws a connection between Black Americans’ reverence of hot sauce and the dominance of pepper in African cuisine. Jerrelle Guy notes how she doesn’t limit her personal cooking to “rules.” This, specifically, reminded me of when my Nana told me that her grandmother taught her how to cook using her hands as a measuring cup. Food historian Michael W. Twitty and Satterfield chuckled about being taught to taste food on the backs of their hands and took me back to when my great-grandmother would dab whatever she needed me to sample on the back of mine.

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As Harris and Satterfield walk through a jumpin’ outdoor market, Harris delivers a theory for why so many Americans call the sweet potato a “yam.” Yams are integral to West African cuisine, which is verified by Harris’ observation that there are more yams than anything else in the market. Sweet potatoes were the most plausible substitution, according to Harris, since actual yams didn’t grow very well stateside during enslavement.

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“We’ve always been creative people. So what do we do?” said Harris.

“We come up with the next best thing … a sweet potato,” said Satterfield.

“And what do we call it?” said Harris.

“A yam.”

The realization made me recall how sweet potatoes are God-like in North Carolina. My great-grandmother was something of a sweet potato connoisseur. No one did more with the tuber than she did. No one makes a better sweet potato pie, or a better mash, or better seasons a sweet potato to serve alongside string beans and rice on Sunday. (Yes, that includes your grandmother, too.) She’s also the person who informed me of their insane nutritional value and why I knew that many of the foods consumed throughout the docuseries are full of nutrients that keep us alive—such as the organ meat cooked up by the cowboys featured in the final episode of the series.

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And as sentimental as Harris’ observation made me, it also called to attention my love of actual yams—a West African staple to which my boyfriend introduced me. He and I share a love of many foods native to West African cuisine. He grew up eating okra in the form of stew, while I love to have it fried. When I was little, I would sit in my grandaddy’s lap and eat the okra Nana had fried for him.

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There it is again. Familiarity and connection to a place I know even though I’ve never been.

Black folks throughout the diaspora have inherited traditions that we guard viciously. It was lovely to see those generational tidbits sprinkled throughout the docuseries, which, as informational as it is, didn’t come off as such. Every scene felt as if we were simply overhearing a couple of elders having a conversation about what they know to be true—for example, chef Sallie Ann Robinson’s story about how the Gullah cook pig feet is also one about enslavement, and what parts of the pig the enslavers didn’t want. The naturalness of it is a testament to the ability of the series’s all-Black creative team and Satterfield to be a conduit of this ancestral information.

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This was content for us.

Two people walk through a busy market.
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While in Benin, Satterfield visits the Door of No Return where enslaved Africans were loaded into barracoons, placed in the bowels of ships, and sent to the Western Hemisphere. It’s a moment marked by sorrow and reverence for the inverse of food’s power, the refusal of captives to eat.

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“Resistance was every step of the journey,” said Harris.

“I love this notion of food and the refusal of it being a way for us to take back power,” said Satterfield.

“The power of ‘No, I won’t eat that,’ ” replied Harris. “And that’s what you have in the marrow of your bones, too.”

Moments later, Satterfield broke down and so did I. It’s overwhelming to consider how much was, and continues to be, stolen from us. But, like him and everyone else featured in the docuseries, I choose to celebrate what has been preserved while remembering the losses. The dishes we made and the culture we built are indicative of our ancestors’ ability to survive.

And what’s more worthy of celebration than that?

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