‘High on the Hog’ Proves Why Food Travel Shows Need New Gatekeepers
“The reason why [the show] is so resonant for Black people is because that’s really who it’s for. It’s for us.”
“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you where you are from,” famed Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoumè told Stephen Satterfield, host of Netflix’s inspiring new travel show High on the Hog. The phrase could double as the thesis of food historian Dr. Jessica Harris’s book of the same name, which resonated so much with production duo Fabienne Toback and Karis Jagger that they chose to adapt it for their first full-length documentary.
On the show, Satterfield, who founded the high-minded culinary quarterly Whetstone Magazine, takes the same voyage Harris does in the book, journeying all the way back to Benin’s expansive Dantopka market, with its stalls full of okra and yams, to understand the history and ingenuity of Black cuisine. Across four episodes, Satterfield revisits the pre-colonial food of Benin, the Gullah traditions of coastal South Carolina, the cooking techniques developed by enslaved chefs working at President’s House in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, and Texas barbecue to highlight an underappreciated truth: As Harris argues in a recent piece for Eater, Black cuisine is the backbone of American food.
But in seeking answers about the history of Black cuisine, Toback, Jagger, and Satterfield end up finding parts of themselves. In episode one, Satterfield breaks down in tears at the Gates of No Return, a memorial in Ouidah, Benin honoring the lives of those who were exported as slaves. Scenes like these don’t just teach us about the geographical and cultural origins of the food we eat; they offer a moment of catharsis for those of us whose ancestors were forced to cross those shores.
The narrative about Black food is often one of resilience—a history of dishes and cooking passed down from one generation to the next as Black people survived subpar and inhumane conditions. While part of that is true, High on the Hog is not afraid to complicate that narrative by reconsidering Black cooking through a lens of abundance, and even luxury: It provides context around the lives that were lived before enslavement, and highlights the successes and innovations of Black chefs and food purveyors here in the States, such as free Black oystermen like Thomas Downing in the 1800s.
Ultimately, what the series is attempting to capture is the “soul” of soul food. It is a spirit that can be hard to put to words, even if you can feel it in the pit of your stomach after a spoonful of sweet yams and savory macaroni & cheese. Together, the combination somehow “tastes like home,” even if we’ve never been to Africa.
Toback, Jagger, and Satterfield sat down with VICE to explain how Black cuisine connects us all, despite generations of displacement.
I’m happy to see Dr. Jessica Harris’s book High on the Hog serve as the inspiration for the series because culinary books about marginalized communities are not always accessible. But by giving it a visual treatment, you upend that. What was your relationship to Dr. Harris’s book?
Fabienne Toback: A dear friend of mine sent me the book and said, “Read this. It’s going to change your life.” Karis and I are both real foodies. I went to culinary school. Karis is an amazing home cook. We’re both Black. There’s so much about this history, about my history that I had no idea about. Immediately we were like, “We have to make this into a series.” We emailed Jessica [Harris] and she said yes to a couple of middle aged women, so we were off and spent six months crafting it into a series.