My Texas roots have provided me with the ability to spin a tale.
I can trace my family back through four generations. We have/had scholars and also those with just a sixth grade education. First, second, and even third and fourth cousins are extended family. Whenever we get together there are always lots of memories, crazy-but-true stories, and food.
If love is the universal language, then food is love. For African Americans, food also meant survival during slavery, a time when the only way they could feed their families was by being forced to plant and prepare it for others, getting whatever was left over (or cut out) afterwards.
So when I saw the trailer for Netflix’s limited series High on the Hog, I thought, “oh, Southern Black folks food, barbecue (yum!)—maybe I’ll watch it sometime.” After all, I’m a foodie and I like to cook. (I exercise basically so I can eat A LOT).
But it wasn’t until I took the time to watch that I realized this four-hour documentary is an origin story as much as a food story; one that is badly needed in these times of opposition to teaching the history and brutality of slavery in textbooks, as well as the hostile reaction to the 1619 Project.
The four-part series is hosted by Stephen Satterfield, a former restaurant manager, chef, food writer, and producer of Point of Origin, a food podcast. He starts in Benin, Africa, where he meets with James Beard-award-recipient and High on the Hog cookbook author Jessica B. Harris, taking walks through Benin’s open-air market, passing food stalls filled with bountiful amounts of healthy-looking fruits and vegetables.
I realized that those stalls contained foods that began there, not here—yams (not to be confused with sweet potatoes) that look like “hairy” logs, okra, peas, rice, watermelon—and that many of these vegetables and fruits were once gathered to go on the ships. Those ships contained flesh and blood humans who were treated as cargo. The food was meant to feed them, but many did not want or refused to eat under such conditions.
In perhaps the most painful and somber part of the documentary, the area in which the newly minted slaves were put on the boat is shown. Hundreds of years later, it is a burial ground of stones and statues. However, the long dirt road slaves walked in chains remains as a memorial and reminder.
But this is still a food story; eventually Satterfield and Harris’ conversation turns to cuisine, and pretty soon they are sitting down to eat in a Benin restaurant. As they eat, much is discussed about the feel and texture of the food and the familiarity of it, as the two African Americans are reminded of their origins. As I watch, so am I.
In another segment, new ways of cooking African food are demonstrated by a contemporary chef influenced by French cooking schools before Satterfield departs for America, heading to the Carolinas and the sea islands (and particularly Charleston) where some of the first slave ships landed. Long grain rice, a particular kind known as “Carolina Gold,” was almost as important as actual gold in those days. It became a major commodity for the US to export, going to Asian countries. But once slavery was abolished, it fell away as slave laborers were the only ones who knew how to successfully harvest the crops.
As Satterfield’s Carolina adventures continue, I see the connection between Africa and what we now call Southern food, and how much of it originated from slaves passing recipes down through the generations, into the lives of their masters, and eventually all over America.
In Philadelphia, George Washington’s (POTUS 1) slave, a man named Hercules, cooked fine dining meals for the president, making those dinners the talk of society. Historically, Hercules has never been given any credit for this, but Satterfield interviews food historian Adrian Miller and gets the true deets.
Another POTUS, Thomas Jefferson, had a chef too. His name was James Hemmings (yes, the brother of Sally Hemmings, enslaved mother of a few of Jefferson’s offspring). Satterfield talks to culinary historian Dr. Leni Sorenson, discovering that James went to France with Jefferson to apprentice under chefs there, and returned with skills on how to prepare foods that Americans, at that time, did not know. Those included some of my favorite guilty pleasure foods: French fries, ice cream, mac and cheese. Hemmings regularly cooked these rich, caloric dishes in Jefferson’s kitchen at a time when few had heard of them.
I was blown away when I viewed this, as almost everyone now of course likes or at least knows about mac and cheese. It’s the dish that at least one member of your family is good at fixing, and it exists on almost every soul food menu. It’s served with lobster in nice restaurants, and tired mothers have fixed it for their kids for generations. A processed box of it can be found in most supermarkets. It felt great just to know that Hemmings, a slave, brought it to our tables.
High on the Hog further unveils these kinds of stories, and it’s why the documentary left me enlightened and sheepishly wondering why I didn’t already know this part of my heritage or history about my ancestors. It also left me feeling extremely proud to share a bloodline with people who persevered and contributed so much to the American way of life.
So maybe I will choose a good cheese next time I go to the supermarket and try my hand at making mac and cheese from scratch. It would be a fitting tribute.
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America is now streaming on Netflix.
Diedre Johnson is a Los Angeles-based writer covering entertainment in its many forms. You can follow her @diedremichelle.
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