‘High on the Hog’ Celebrates Black Contributions to Global Food and Culture | Civil Eats

‘High on the Hog’ Celebrates Black Contributions to Global Food and Culture

Stephen Satterfield, the host of the new Netflix docuseries, shares his experience participating in a screen adaptation of Dr. Jessica B. Harris’s work, the power of film to shift and reclaim narratives, and the beauty and joy of the African food diaspora. 

Dr. Jessica B. Harris and Stephen Satterfield shopping for okra at the Dantokpa Market in Benin.

Dr. Jessica B. Harris and Stephen Satterfield shopping for okra at the Dantokpa Market in Benin.

In the first episode of Netflix’s new docuseries, High on the Hog, host Stephen Satterfield meets a woman who runs a floating market in the West African nation of Benin. With a straw hat on her head and paddles in her hands, she hawks fresh and packaged foods from her rowboat on Lake Nokoue in the village of Ganvié. It’s Satterfield’s first time in Benin and he takes in the scene from a nearby boat with a look of calm wonderment.

A floating market in the West African nation of Benin

A floating market in the West African nation of Benin.

But this isn’t quite the “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment you’ll see in most food travel shows. And Satterfield, founder of Whetstone Media (and a Civil Eats alum) isn’t the standard white male host tasked with making the cuisine and culture of a foreign people palatable to Western audiences. Rather, he’s a Black food writer from Georgia exploring the influence of West Africa (the ancestral home of most enslaved African Americans) on Black American foodways. In a television format dominated by white men, with the notable exceptions of Padma Lakshmi, Samin Nosrat, and Marcus Samuelsson, that makes Satterfield an anomaly. The series also stands out because of its virtually all-Black creative team, including executive producers Fabienne Toback, Karis Jagger, and Academy award-winner Roger Ross Williams, who directed most of the episodes as well.

High on the Hog‘s subtitle—How African American Cuisine Transformed America—not only explores African American food, but also frames it as a defining force in the evolution of American cuisine. Based on the book with the same name by food historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris, who appears in the first episode, the four-part docuseries, which premieres tonight, starts in Benin and ends in Texas. In between, there are stops in South Carolina’s Sea Islands, home of the Gullah Geechee people, as well as major cities including Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.

Throughout the series, we learn about African-origin food staples such as collard greens, okra, and yams, and how the agricultural expertise of enslaved African Americans left a permanent imprint on the nation’s rice industry. Black Americans also influenced the country’s catering profession and set cuisine trends as chefs for presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Additionally, the series emphasizes the resourcefulness of enslaved African Americans, who made use of every part of the animals they cooked. Rarely did they have the opportunity to enjoy the best pork, said to come from the hog’s back and upper legs—the highest parts. But thanks to their innovations and rich culinary traditions, the meals African Americans made often felt like they came from high on the hog, anyway.

I spoke with Satterfield about the journey he made as the host of High on the Hog, the most memorable meals and moments, and how African American food is foundational American cuisine.

Tell me how you became the High on the Hog host. I read that one of the producers reached out to you, and at first you thought they just wanted your help to pitch the series, and then you found out they actually wanted you to host it. You didn’t hesitate to accept the opportunity. Why?

The poster for High on the Hog.

You read the story correctly. The immediacy of me wanting to take the role was contingent on getting the blessing of Dr. J [Jessica B. Harris] because she has already for many years been such an enormous intellectual influence in my life and in my vocation in particular. So, after I talked to her about it and she told me to do it, I said yes right away because it’s a huge honor—not only because the show, subject matter, people, and the content need to be celebrated, and that celebration has been deferred for way too long, but it was like magic to have someone that you so admire and look up to asking you to join them on this historic journey and be the face of it.

Do you remember what initially led you to Dr. Harris’s work?

I was introduced to it probably around 2007. I was a sommelier in my early 20s. I had just moved from Portland, Oregon, where I was working, to my hometown of Atlanta. A big part of that move was because of the disillusionment that I was feeling as a sommelier, because I was in a field that was overwhelmingly homogenous and white. And that experience created a lot of emotional turmoil for me because I loved wine. I really saw myself pursuing it as a career, but there was no way to build a diverse community of sommeliers [because social media was still in its infancy], so I moved to Atlanta to really reimagine my participation in that industry.

I ended up starting a nonprofit that worked with Black vintners in the Western Cape in South Africa, which is where the nation’s wine region is, and helped Black folks in South Africa get their wines distributed to the U.S. I created a lot of media on behalf of those individuals, which is how I got my foot into the world of media, making content that was agrarian-based and had a food justice point of view underlying whatever food or drink we were celebrating.

From that kind of diasporic food and beverage connection, I started to read Dr. Harris, and I was so taken by her anthropological approach to food. I was taken by the fact that she had focused primarily on the foodways of Africa and the diaspora. So, I saw the work that I was doing in wine as an echo of the work that she was doing as a writer and as a scholar.

While discussing the wine industry, you mentioned that it was very white-dominated. Now you’re hosting a food travel docuseries, a TV format that’s also dominated by white men. How does it feel for you to take part in shifting that trend? High on the Hog doesn’t feel like a show that was designed for the white gaze.

I’m overjoyed to hear you say that, and I think at the core of what makes the show special, original, unique, overdue is the creative agency on display throughout the entirety of the process. The level of care and intimacy that is achieved because of the lived experience of a Black author, director, showrunners, executive producers, and host is going to give you a final product that is completely unlike anything that we’ve seen before because of that sensitivity. That’s not something that can be fully understood without the embodied experience of understanding what it means to be a Black person in most cases.

As you say, it’s not a show for the white gaze. It is a show that is very proudly made for Black people around the world to join a celebration of our contributions to the world of food and the world of culture. That is not to say that people of other ethnicities or racial identities are not welcome to watch or enjoy the show. There’s so much to learn and so much beauty to take in, but for Black folks, in particular, there will be a perception of a level of care and intimacy that, “Wow, they really did make this show for us.”

Black creatives just want the space to tell our own stories. It sounds really simple, but it’s so rare that the opportunity is granted, and when it is, I think the results speak for themselves, and they’re powerful and transformational in most cases.

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I know this series didn’t just focus on soul food, but when the topic of soul food or Black cuisine comes up in the media, it’s often pathologized. It’s blamed for giving Black people diabetes, making Black people obese, killing us. Can you talk about how High on the Hog stands out for celebrating Black food?

I think that pathology that you’re referencing speaks to an imbalance of power. It speaks directly to how important the role of story is in maintaining power, or, in this case, shifting power. What I mean by that is, as a Black person who grew up in the States, I know that that is not the singular narrative of the culinary tradition of my family.

Because I’m not an editor at the New York Times [or a media outlet of that magnitude], my power to disseminate a more diverse story about the food traditions and food culture of Black people is going to be limited. So, our imagination around what Black people are capable of, just in general, is really limited, and media and story has so much to do with that because it is all about our perceptions through a particular editorial, creative lens, or filter from people who have not had the lived experience of the [individuals] they are trying to portray.

I’m so glad that High on the Hog exists because there’s a new generation of young Black children all over the world who will watch this and be influenced and inspired in ways that I cannot imagine. To have a show like this is really exciting and I’m very, very privileged to be a part of it.

Stephen Satterfield.

Stephen Satterfield

Which of the foods that you ate during the making of this show left the biggest impression on you?

There were a couple of really special dishes. One was actually caught on camera, and that was the collard greens we had in North Carolina at [food preservationist] Gabrielle Etienne’s house. I feel like some people have a particular way of preparing greens where I can just tell that they came from the South. The greens [were grown just] a few miles away from Gabrielle’s house, so I think that Carolina soil matters, too. The snap of the greens—they were just incredible.

I was sitting next to a farmer in that scene, and when he ate the greens, there was a palpable pause. None of that was contrived. It was funny because I was having the same moment, like, “Damn, this tastes like my granny’s greens, like something from my childhood.”

Also, the macaroni and cheese [culinary historian Dr. Leni Sorensen and I prepared from a recipe by Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef James Hemings]: It was memorable for me because it was such a cool experience to be surrounded by the heirs of the Hemings family and cooking in a way that Hemings would’ve cooked 250 years ago. It was probably one of the most enlightening but still pleasurable experiences that I had, even though it was shot on a plantation.

That mac and cheese really gets to the crux of the show, which is, we take for granted things that are ubiquitous in our lives that we have not properly investigated. The show is now going to present these stories about things that you fell in love with from a completely new perspective and with a historical context. It’ll be emotional, it will be delicious, and you will learn in the process.

Are you hoping that highlighting the contributions of early Black chefs and caterers teaches viewers that African Americans played a foundational role in shaping U.S. food culture?

Foundational is the right word to use. The mac and cheese was the low-hanging fruit because it’s so much a big part of U.S. food culture, but it really began with the rice trade. The foundational relationship between Black people and what [became] the United States is rooted in exploitation, and that exploitation wasn’t just about the bodies in captivity. The intellectual capital of the enslaved people was exploited because they were very, very skilled rice farmers and growers, and it is incredibly difficult to cultivate rice. So the Carolina Gold rice that was the foundational wealth of the nation [explored in the “Rice Kingdom,” episode 2 of High on the Hog] was made possible by the physical labor as well as the intellectual capital of people coming from the rice coasts of West Africa. It can’t be overstated that the relationship between Black folks and food and the wealth of the nation actually precedes the [founding] of the country itself.

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On a lighter note, one minor quibble I have is that in Benin, you all discuss quintessential West African foods like yams, okra, and rice but leave out one regional culinary staple—plantains. While filming, did you all have any plantains, my personal favorite?

Totally. If I’m not mistaken, I think there they call it alloco. There was a lot of food that we didn’t focus on on an individual level, but if it makes you feel better, lots of plantains were had and enjoyed. And, you’re right, it’s a classic staple food. We had them at just about every single meal. I don’t know why it was left out.

That is reassuring. Finally, since the show starts in Benin and ends in Texas, I wanted to ask you about the Northeastern Trailriders, the league of Black cowboys you encountered in the Lone Star State. You’ve said they made a big impact on you. Can you talk about why?

For me that was another massively revelatory moment because I had read so much about Black cowboys, about their role in the origins of the cattle industry in the U.S. The culture of the people themselves and the tradition that they’ve kept alive isn’t one can experience just in reading.

So, it was humbling to be in North Houston with the Northeast Trailriders. During the ride that we took, there were probably 100 beautiful Black people from ages five to 95 years old on horses and in carriages wearing cowboy hats. It was so surreal and beautiful. Seeing how much energy goes into the actual preservation of those traditions and keeping those horses alive and organizing these trail rides—it’s really incredible.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

High on the Hog premieres today on Netflix.

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. Angela
    I just watched the first episode of High on the Hog and I am blown away! I have to visit Benin!
  2. DMarie
    That was such a good interview/article.
    I've enjoyed the series and the power of our stories as it relates to food and life. Thank you

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