The phrase “high on the hog” is literally about hogs. When it comes to the quality of pork, the best meat is from the back and the upper legs. Literally, the top of the hog. So if you live “high on the hog,” you are able to afford better quality food. Meaning, you were affluent enough to be able to eat well. Even when Black people are beyond poor, they eat well. And those foods have carried and sustained us, not only as a people but as a country, since this country began. The Netflix show “High on the Hog” does a great job of blending travel show, historical documentary and food show without making it overly complicated or difficult to follow.
“High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America” is based on a book by Dr. Jessica Harris. Both the show and the book do the same thing. They trace how influential African American food is on American food, going back to when enslaved people were brought here during the transatlantic slave trade. The show’s host, Stephen Satterfield, travels to places like South Carolina, Philadelphia, Texas and New York to show how Black people and our culture is literally baked into all facets of American culture.
In the show’s first episode, Satterfield visits Benin in West Africa. Benin was a major port in the transatlantic slave trade, and many enslaved people brought their food and culture from there to the United States. While in Benin, he meets with Dr. Harris and they go on a culinary tour of the country, meeting food bloggers, chefs, and spending time in an open air market. (It’s during their time at the market where we learn the true difference between a sweet potato and a yam.) They show how West African food and American food are intrinsically tied. Especially through things like peas, rice and beans.
“So part of what has been lost in this story is just a complete marginalization of how important the rice trade was in establishing the wealth of the country, but also how the African American people, the enslaved Africans, who grew that wealth did so not just with our bodies, but principally with our knowledge,” Sattenfield explained in an interview with Variety.
While learning about how enslaved people brought their food and culture to the Americas was absolutely fascinating, the most profound and impactful part of the first episode and their time in Benin is when they visit a memorial to the slave trade in Ouidah. You can feel the weight of those souls, the souls of our ancestors, weigh very heavily on Satterfield and Dr. Harris. He wears his emotions all over his face in that moment, a mix of continuing to carry their weight on his shoulders and the reverence for our people. You can’t watch that moment and not feel choked up by it all. Enslaved people had no idea what was going to happen to them, but they knew the ways to bring their homeland with them — the love they have for it continued in the food they made here.
Black food has always been about love. “High on the Hog” shows that in every way possible. In the Gullah islands off South Carolina, Satterfield meets with some local chefs who share their secrets. Gullah food is so good because it’s made with love. It may seem like an absurd concept, but it’s true. Food tastes better when you make it with love.
Growing up, food was always infused with love. For my mom, cooking is genuinely a joy, and you can taste it. But that love goes beyond just the love she pours into her food. With Black food, it’s all about legacy. That’s the crux of “High on the Hog” as a show. While in Virgina, Satterfield goes to learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s beloved enslaved chef, James Hemmings (yes, brother to Sally Hemmings.) During his time there, we learn that we have James to thank for one of my favorite foods in the whole world, baked macaroni and cheese. Mac and cheese is a staple in Black households, and mine was no exception. And my mom’s mac and cheese tastes like love. I remember the pride she had sharing not only her recipe with me, but the stories of my grandfather making it for her as a kid.
Now I pour that same kind of love into my mac and cheese and all the food I make, and my partner tells me all the time that my food tastes better because of it. So it was extra special to learn the legacy of my favorite food. James Hemmings was brought to France with Jefferson and there learned how to be a chef. It was during that time he learned how to make what was then known as macaroni pie. He brought it back to the States, and now you can’t imagine a Black Thanksgiving table without it. There are things James Hemmings did that I will now try with my own mac and cheese to honor the legacy of those who came before me. That’s what African American food is all about.
Like I said, “High on the Hog” isn’t just about African American food, but Black culture and how it influences American culture. During his time in Texas, Satterfield visits with Black men carrying on the legacy of Black cowboys. It’s a little known part of American history, but most of the early cowboys were Black and Indigenous. The history has been whitewashed by Hollywood to make you think that the only cowboys looked like John Wayne, but that’s simply not true in the slightest. As we learn in the show, the word cowboy has roots in slavery. During slavery (and beyond) Black men were referred to as “boy.” You had your “house boy,” your “field boy” and your “cow boy.” These men were the ones who tended to the cattle and livestock. And they largely shaped the cattle ranching industry in America, as well as heavily influenced rodeo culture.
In an interview with The New York Times, Satterfield explained “the cowboys — that was the moment when I realized, we really touched everything. There’s not one part of what we consider to be the culture, custom or identity of the U.S. that was made possible without Black people.”
Satterfield visits a Black rodeo, where he feasts on a giant turkey leg and chili, and during a cattle drive has a hearty stew made over an open fire with beans and beef organ meat — food heavily associated with rancher culture. These meals tell the story of our history. Not just Black history, but American history.
“High on the Hog” also shows how many Black chefs there are continuing the legacy of the food our ancestors created and passed down. So much of what we see in the media is about white Euro-centric cuisine. When we think about famed chefs, they’re almost all white, right? But these Black chefs are out here creating cuisine on the same level. They’re showing how these foods we associate with blackness, this “soul” food, is equal to the food they serve in five star restaurants. During a dinner in Houston, the chef makes rice grits with Carolina Gold rice (a rice we learn was the foundation of South Carolina’s wealth in episode 2) topped with fucking caviar. In Brooklyn, Satterfield visits Mothershuckers, an oyster cart operated by Ben Moody. We’ve always been on the sidelines of the culinary world, but we deserve to be in the middle.
This is so much more than a food show. “High on the Hog” shows how Black people have not only persevered, but thrived in a country that wanted us to fail. And hopefully after watching this show, people will begin to understand how Black history is American history. That’s why so much of our food became integral to our American culture. And there are Black people out there who are continuing our legacy through their love of who they are, and who we are as Black people.