Courtesy of Netflix Eric Kiki leads Stephen Satterfield on a boat tour through Ganvié, a lake village in Benin, Africa
If you add one thing to your Netflix queue this month, it should be High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, a new documentary series that traces ingredients, techniques and stories from Africa to the United States, with stops in the West African country of Benin, Texas, South Carolina and more. The four-part series is hosted by chef, author and Whetstone Media founder Stephen Satterfield, and is based on the book High on the Hog by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora. Harris is also a frequent contributor to EatingWell.com and was the editor of Migration Meals, a series of articles and recipes showcasing the rich culinary traditions connected to the Great Migration of African Americans in the United States.
The new four-part documentary series on Netflix is at once enlightening, deeply moving and entertaining. It's also full of mouthwatering food, and Satterfield is the perfect host: his passion for the subject matter-and relish in sharing the food-comes across in every scene. (As a side note, the scenes of people sharing food, which were filmed before the pandemic, will make you look forward to once again sitting down at the table with old friends and new acquaintances more than ever.) EatingWell.com chatted with Satterfield on the day of the series' release and discussed takeaways from the documentary, resources for learning more and his favorite foods.
What are the most important things you want people to take away from the series?
"I think that instead of a particular story or little-known fact, I am really interested in people taking away a newfound curiosity about not just the contributions that Black folks have had to cuisine in the United States or around the world, but really a curiosity about the absence of Black people in these stories that have been told to date," says Satterfield. "And in that serious questioning, hopefully illuminate in everyone's collective minds and curiosities about who else has been missing in stories that are told, and accepted, and believed and perpetuated. Because as we see, these stories ultimately are the most definitive parts and characteristics of a people and of a society, and when those stories are used as a way of demeaning, and undermining and erasing, as so often happens with the story of Black people in the United States, it is all the more urgent to push back against those narratives by sharpening our own curiosity, our thirst for what is historically true and accurate. So that's really what I hope people can take away from it."
Courtesy of Netflix Jessica B. Harris and Stephen Satterfield explore Dantokpa Market in Benin, Africa
What books and other content would you point people toward to further educate themselves?
"First of all we have to name the seminal text from which the docuseries is based: High on the Hog," says Satterfield. "There is so much knowledge inside not only that book but also the dozen or so books that Dr. J had written in advance of this book coming out in 2010. I think getting in touch with her entire catalog is an incredible learning experience. She is certainly one of the nation's if not the world's foremost scholars on African iaspora foodways." In addition to Harris' works, Satterfield recommends following BJ Dennis, who is featured in the second episode, and who Satterfield calls "such an important gatekeeper to the incredible and improbable traditions of the Gullah-Geechee community" of South Carolina. "Everyday on BJ's Instagram (@chefbjdennis) is a history lesson." He also suggests the works of Michael Twitty, the author of The Cooking Gene, as well as a new book about rice (follow Twitty on Instagram @thecookingene). And finally, Satterfield recommends his own Whetstone Media's magazine, podcast, newsletters and other content. "The magazine that I publish, Whetstone Magazine, and our media company, is all about food origins, culture and cultural anthropology," he says. "We believe in food as a means toward deepening understanding, as a means of understanding the human story. We say the story of humans is the story of food and vice versa."
If you were going to make four more episodes of High on the Hog, what would you focus on?
"We could make four more series, I think, and not even scratch the surface," says Satterfield. "That was one of the big takeaways is that this story is so, so vast … We could certainly continue westward in telling that migration story, through the period of the Great Migration-the second Great Migration for African Americans, all the way through the civil rights movement and soul food movement, which for many people, until the show was released, was the full extent of what they imagined Black cuisine or African American cuisine could be. So I am so glad that this series can dispel the notion that African American or really African cuisine is monolithic, because it is quite the opposite."
"This is really a story of the diaspora," Satterfield continues. "That's why I often try to add 'in the world' to a lot of these sentences that I am using, because even though my perspective is a Black man from the U.S. South, my story is connected to a global story-history-that saw Africa raided for many centuries, that saw the world reconfigured socially, economically, culturally. Today, as you see, we are still are very much living in awe of the fullness of what the transatlantic slave trade did to shape our country and to shape the world. And so telling that story in four hours is not possible ... I hope this show clears the way for others to tell the stories not just the African diaspora stories, but really the global story of the relationship between humans and the foods we eat."
What were some of your favorite dishes and meals from shooting the series?
"The food was all amazing-really," says Satterfield. "One of my favorite food experiences was captured in the scene at Gabrielle's house from the second episode, in Apex, North Carolina," he says, referring to Gabrielle E.W. Carter, a cultural preservationist. "It was her collard greens, which I did help clean, although I was admonished because I left some dirt in the greens. So I was shamed and did have to go back and clean the greens." Satterfield explains that North Carolina "is really ground zero for some of the best collard greens you'll ever have from an agricultural point of view," and then continues, "We grow up eating them and understanding them as part of our African American food culture." He recalls the moment captured on film when the man sitting next to him says that the greens have transported him back to his childhood. "As he was articulating that, I was sitting next to him having the same thought," says Satterfield. "These greens remind me so much of how my dad prepares greens, of family gatherings around Christmas, around occasions. I think that, to me, speaking to this visceral quality that the show and this experience of sharing food provides was really a beautiful moment, a profound moment for me and I was really happy to see such an authentic moment of pleasure and delight being captured on screen."
Satterfield also recalls the "incredible spread" of precolonial African cuisine captured in the first episode of the series. "That meal was one of the most memorable of my life because it took several days of preparation, of counsel with the village elders, of trying to trace memories. The imagination and the stories that went into that were so, so dumbfounding."
Are there specific foods that you think people should learn more about the origins of?
Satterfield points to macaroni and cheese, a dish that owes its ubiquity to African American chefs, as Leni Sorensen explains in this article: "Macaroni & Cheese at Monticello." There's a wonderful scene in High on the Hog in which Sorensen makes macaroni pie for Satterfield and discusses the dish. "It's kind of thrilling to know how macaroni & cheese came to be," says Satterfield. "It's thrilling to learn the story of Hercules [George Washington's enslaved chef] and James Hemmings, who was Jefferson's enslaved chef, who was the one who really professionalized cooking in the U.S. before it was a thing. Jefferson was well known and celebrated as one of the nation's formative gourmands, and yet who was cooking the food, who was growing the food, who was harvesting the food, who was making these indulgences possible? How did we end up with mac and cheese?" And while Satterfield says that exploring these histories is about giving proper attribution and due, he adds, "I think that is part of what reclamation movements and moments call for, but I think there is just a real pleasure and heightened opportunity for enjoyment in just simply knowing the story of where something that you love comes from and I hope that's something that people take away. I think that that dish in particular will really stick with people."