Netflix’s ‘High on the Hog’ Continues to Explore Black Food Traditions | Civil Eats

With Season 2, ‘High on the Hog’ Deepens the Story of the Nation’s Black Food Traditions

The Netflix docuseries starring Stephen Satterfield and Jessica B. Harris charts the historical paths of African Americans in the U.S. and the food legacies they carried with them on their journeys.

Stephen Satterfield and Jessica B. Harris watching the sunset at the beach, in a still from Netflix's High on the Hog Season 2. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Stephen Satterfield and Dr. Jessica B. Harris, in a still from the second season of Netflix’s High on the Hog. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The Pullman porters. The Nation of Islam. The Black Panther Party. These are just some of the legendary groups that the Netflix docuseries High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America explores in its wide-ranging second season, which airs on November 22.

The first season offered a poignant history of Black American food, linking it to its West African roots and enslavement in the United States. The current season leaps ahead to the 20th century and explores the momentous changes Black Americans experienced during that period and how they informed their relationship with food.

These changes include the Great Migration, which took place from roughly 1916 to 1970, and saw over 6 million Black Americans leave the rural South in hopes of better jobs and fairer treatment in the industrialized North. As the Great Migration unfolded, African Americans working for the railroads became unionized for the first time, forming in 1925 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. In the second season’s opening scene, host Stephen Satterfield dines on a train car and speaks with a 99-year-old former railway waiter and the son of a porter to examine food’s role in the Great Migration.

Just as trains took the Pullman Porters all over the country, Satterfield takes viewers across America—stopping in cities including Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles. At times, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, the culinary historian and author of the book from which the series takes its name, joins Satterfield on the journey.

The strength of the second season lies in its exploration of the little-known links between food and Black American progress. Most people know that civil rights activists desegregated lunch counters, but it is lesser known that Black restaurateurs hosted civil rights strategists, while home cooks sold cakes and pies to fund actions such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. During the Black Power Movement that followed, the Black Panther Party launched their free breakfast program for children, an idea the federal government would later appropriate.

In addition to speaking with activists to uncover the links between food and justice, Satterfield visits Villa Lewaro, the palatial estate of self-made millionaire Madam CJ Walker. Once a cook, the wealthy entrepreneur and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, entertained the nation’s Black elite before and during the Harlem Renaissance.

Civil Eats spoke with Satterfield and Harris about High on the Hog’s sweeping sophomore effort and how, like the first season, it highlights the ways that Black innovators have left an imprint on the country’s culinary landscape.

This season of High on the Hog mentions that many Black people have avoided agricultural work because of its association with enslavement, but points out that they are increasingly starting urban farms. Are Black Americans’ perceptions of working the land changing?

Jessica Harris: It is changing in the Black community, but we are far from monolithic. A lot of people moved away from the land, and with deliberateness. I think what has happened is many of those folks who migrated to the North lost land that they owned, or their families lost land, so now they have a desire to return to the land. There are people who, like Matthew Raiford—who is not in the episode but he’s a sixth generation farmer who has returned to his land in Georgia—and Karen Washington, who is in the last episode. She has a group for Black urban gardeners, and it’s an enormous group that’s bringing people back to the land in real and productive ways.

Stephen Satterfield: In part of the scene where I have a conversation [with former sharecropper Elvin Shields], I have an expression on my face like I’ve heard something surprising. He is inferring that the plantation . . . is something to be reclaimed. I had frankly not ever thought about that, and I felt challenged by that notion. But I thought it was a perfectly logical position, especially considering his life, what he’s seen, and what he’s fought to protect. I appreciated him for that enlightenment.

Dr. Harris, you mentioned Karen Washington. The fact that she coined the term “food apartheid” is discussed in this season. How much of a game changer is this term and why is it more accurate than “food desert” to describe challenges to food access?

Harris: Apartheid is caused by someone. Deserts are caused by nature. So, I think that’s part of the distinction that Karen may have been making very deliberately. I think the whole notion of where do you go for what you eat is something that merits a considerable amount more discussion than it’s getting, and it gets some of that discussion in episode four. Where do people get their food? What kind of food are they getting? Can they walk to it or do they have to have a car? Is there public transportation?  So, you have all of those questions as well.

I found the interview with the former railway waiter and son of a porter very interesting. Can you discuss the significance of these workers both in terms of food and the labor movement, because Pullman porters really paved the path for other Black workers. 

Harris: The Pullman car porters are important in the foundation of African American wealth and the migration of African American food. [George] Pullman came up with his railroad cars within a decade or two of emancipation. So a lot of people who had been enslaved as house people got jobs on Pullman cars, because they knew something about service.

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The Pullman cars then took them all over the country. Anybody who was alive, or who has been alive as long as I have, will never forget A. Philip Randolph, who was the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the way that he organized his union. The way that that union advocated for African Americans was of cardinal importance. He was one of the forces behind the 1963 March on Washington. He was galvanizing and that all grew out of that same culture of African Americans on trains in service.

Stephen, your grandfather was a Pullman porter, so this history is personal for you, right?

Satterfield: I never had a chance to meet my grandfather; he died before I was born. But he, like many Black folks, left the South to migrate to Chicago in the mid-20th century, as one of the modern industrial revolutions was underway. My family story is a pretty accurate microcosm for this story that we were telling about migration. Even though I was aware that he was a porter for many decades,  I had never been on trains. There’s, of course, something to be said for the visceral quality of the lived experience. Really being there with someone close to my grandfather’s age, hearing him tell me about the hard parts of the job but, also, the mundane parts, was really a joy and, hopefully, a revelatory story about that part of our history.

Stephen, what was it like visiting Madam CJ Walker’s famous estate?

Satterfield: For A’Lelia [Walker] and Madam CJ Walker—food is at the center of everything. Whether it’s street food, rent parties, or the food in a juke joint, we’re going to get it in. The [Harlem] Renaissance was all about a kind of maximalist creative expression of brilliance from a very specific moment in time, a specific geographic radius in the way that’s like—you had to be there. Of course, for many of us who weren’t there, that lore and that magic still lives on. I think we tried to capture that in our Harlem episode.

Dr. Harris, your book and this series discuss the important connections between restaurants and the Civil Rights movement. Restaurants like Paschal’s in Atlanta served activists returning from demonstrations, for example. They sold desserts like pies and pastries to help fund the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But many of these stories have been  ignored. Why was it important for High on the Hog to highlight these links?

Harris: [The Rev. Martin Luther] King strategized in places like Paschal’s and Deacon’s. The idea of Black restaurants as community hubs was very important to that time period. Places like Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans were safe spaces, some of the few places where African Americans and whites could meet. It was illegal, but they could do it.

Georgia Gilmore and the Club from Nowhere baked pies and sold them in Black beauty shops and  barber shops to fund the bus boycott. All of those things are the hidden underpinnings of the Civil Rights movement that we will hopefully now begin to talk about. Think about the church suppers. Think about the restaurants that fed the Freedom Riders when they returned from jail. Think about all of those things. And when you put all of that together, you somehow manage to get a full picture. Food is a basic part of the human condition. If we don’t eat, we die. Food is connected to all of it.

Stephen, what was it like to meet some of the activists who fought to desegregate lunch counters as Atlanta University Center students?

Satterfield: It was a real highlight for me personally, especially in my hometown. It was extraordinarily humbling. It was one of those moments when I was rather unconcerned with the cameras. I was bearing witness to their detailed, gripping, and inspiring journey in a very historic restaurant, sitting at the same tables where people like Martin Luther King organized and strategized at for Black liberation. I felt a huge amount of pride, and I hope if people take anything away from that scene, it will be to consider how much planning, strategizing, and coordination went into those activations.

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I also loved the inclusion of the Nation of Islam and the bean pies they sell. The show referred to it as a sort of “food ministry.” Many people who don’t belong to the NOI are fans of the group’s bean pies, including Meghan Markle and her mother, Doria Ragland. What is the appeal of the bean pie?

Satterfield: I loved [the bean pies] growing up. The one I had on the show was amazing. When something’s really good, there will be a market for it; it will likely be coveted. People will try to replicate it or, maybe, imitate it, but they can’t. I think that’s the larger point. Why is that? We touched on that a little in the scene, but it’s a source of pride in community.

Harris: Most people don’t know that [longtime Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad actually wrote two food treatises. They are about foods that he felt were digestible and foods that he felt were indigestible and that go beyond the rules of haram in Islam. The bean pie grows out of that. He felt that those beans [in the pie] were the most digestible of beans. I certainly remember it being sold on the streets of Brooklyn, along with what was called Muhammad Speaks.

High on the Hog also includes an interview with a former member of the Black Panther Party that discusses the party’s free breakfast program, which influenced the federal government’s decision to begin providing breakfast to students in schools permanently. In some ways, that is a success story. In other ways, this is a sad story because the government sabotaged the party’s program.

Harris: All history is complicated if you look at the multiple sides of it. I wish they’d been given credit, but I’m glad that kids are eating. Those are my thoughts in a nutshell. I was alive during that point in time, and I didn’t know that [the national school breakfast program] was a result of the Black Panther Party. But, once I did, I appreciated just how extraordinary that was, and I think it is one of those things that will [show] all Americans how our food. . . .influenced and informed the foodways of this country.

Satterfield: One of my favorite stories in U.S. history is about the social programs of the Black Panthers. My favorite is the free breakfast program. It really speaks to an active, vibrant, and flourishing movement that is bringing our people back to the land in urban spaces.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Nadra Nittle was a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats until 2021. She is currently an education reporter for The 19th News. 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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