Food plays an integral role in any culture. The US is a place of multiple cultures and those cultures representative foods. “High on the Hog” now streaming on Netflix, explores the roots of black American food from West Africa to the cuisine of black cowboys in Texas. What the four-part documentary series points out is that “black food” is more than just food from the American South, and the resulting recipes are not made from so-called scrap items.
High on the Hog: food-focused history
From the outset, there is a concern that “High on the Hog” will be more of a history lesson about where the items known collectively as “soul food” have come from. Instead, host Stephen Satterfield, a food writer and chef, takes audiences with him as he goes from West Africa to the Gullah Islands in the United States, and many places in between to figure out why African American food has developed the way it has.
Based on the book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” by Jessica B. Harris, the documentary does a thorough job portraying African, then African-American food and its chefs in historical and socio-political contexts.
Too often black American history gets focused on a down-trodden experience and stays there. While the work of slaves plays a pivotal role in the food, the work certain slaves did with food elevated their stations in life. The recipes of slaves such as Hercules who worked for George Washington, and James Hemings, who worked for Thomas Jefferson, made their owners’ dinner parties well-attended and satisfying affairs. (Hemings was Sally Hemings’ older brother. Sally was Jefferson’s slave who bore several of his children.) In the documentary, food historians and chefs discuss the historical context of the food and the chefs who made it, and then replicate it for curated guests.
The biggest lesson in “High on the Hog” is that “black food” is varied. Few people likely thought about the role that oysters might have played in the development of black American food in the American Northeast. Seeing the recipes replicated, and at times, the same kinds of stoves, (or hearths), cookery, and utensils are used to re-create the experience makes audiences feel like they are present.
Another important takeaway from the documentary is the wealth-building that is tied to black Americans’ ability to cook in a way that appealed to a wide-range of diners. Much of the black American narrative is tied to poverty, want, and related ideas. What viewers find is that black Americans historically have created wealth for themselves and sometimes their families because of their ability to forge unique, regional recipes. Sometimes their descendants were surprised that chefs from the 19th and early 20th centuries were able to live well on the basis of their culinary skills.
The historic and economic lessons constitute surprise enough. Since this is a “show” as in comprised of visuals, it is worth noting that the cinematography is stunning and aids in capturing the essences of both the food and people. Like few shows streaming lately, “High on the Hog” is vivid and engaging. The clarity, and the brilliant colors make each scene life-like.
Unless they are food historians, or food writers, it is likely that viewers will learn something from watching “High on the Hog.” If nothing else, the show gives an update to a short-sighted narrative that ignores the complexity of black American cuisine.