‘It’s how we know who we are’: behind a docuseries on African American food
“Through food, we can find out that there is more that connects us than that separates us. What we eat and what we discover brings us together. It’s a communal table. It’s how we know who we are, and it’s how we know we’re connected,” says culinary historian Jessica B Harris. She sits beside food expert Stephen Satterfield and across from Benin-based food blogger Karelle Vignon Vullierme. On the shaded patio, the trio eat the feast visual artist Romuald Hazoumè has prepared: bowls of ata tchichi, mangi mangi, ayiman, and kan kan, ancient dishes eaten by the people of Benin before the advent of the transatlantic slave trade. As they eat, the trio comment on the taste and the familiarity of these foods they have never experienced before.
This is just the first of many feasts for Satterfield in his journey to understand and illuminate Black American traditions as the host of new Netflix show, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, a documentary series about African American food and the lost history of survival, lives lived and worlds forged through fire. Conceived by producers Fabienne Toback and Karis Jagger, the series was adapted from Harris’s book of the same name.
“With the death of Michael Brown and Ferguson [protests], we wanted to really sink our teeth into something a little bit deeper. That [event] weighed heavily on us,” Toback told the Guardian. The book by Harris was given to her by a friend who predicted the book would change her life. It did. “I read it and wept. Karis [Jagger] read it and wept. It was kind of like a no-brainer that this was our next project,” the executive producer said. In the book, the pair found kernels of black food history lost to time, even to the “lifelong foodies”, as Toback described herself and Jagger.
“There is so much history that Fabienne and I didn’t know reading the book, and we’re really connected to this history and food space. We felt like if we didn’t know these stories – probably other people didn’t either. We really wanted to share with a greater audience the profound influence that African Americans have had on American foodways,” Jagger said.
For Jagger and Toback, Netflix was the natural choice for the project. “We were really determined to make a beautiful project. We really felt Netflix was the best place for that in terms of creating something that had history and food and also looked gorgeous,” Jagger told the Guardian. Though it was the natural choice, the female film-makers still faced obstacles to get it acquired by the streaming platform. Initially, when the pair pitched to Netflix, they were rebuffed a bit, but not rejected completely. “We had pitched to Adam Del Deo [vice-president of original documentary programming] at Netflix. He kinda gave us a little breadcrumb trail of what we needed. He never said no,” Toback said. In fact, the Netflix executive pointed them in a direction which ultimately helped them deliver their vision. “He had spoken about being on this trip with this documentary film-maker named Roger [Ross Williams] and we realized that’s the person we need to get our yes. Lo and behold, six months later, when we walk into his office, we’re like “Look, we got [Roger]!” she chuckles.
The series aims to rectify the narrative behind the culinary traditions of Black America. As with any African American story, concomitant is the history of enslavement, a brutal institution which left enduring scars on the people and land of America. But amid the abject cruelty and pain, there was ingenuity and innovation like that of James Hemings, the enslaved chef of Thomas Jefferson who would go on to innovate classic American dishes like ice cream and macaroni and cheese, or the creation of the catering business, rarely attributed to the African American people. Chris Williams, executive chef of Texas restaurant Lucille’s, expresses such sentiment during an episode: “We’re the innovators of everything that’s beautiful and everything that’s pop culture now. It’s born out of this country and it’s born out of us, and it’s taken and it’s monetized and whitewashed and sent out all over the globe but it’s still ours.”
Though it does hold its place in Black historical food, High on the Hog ensures the southern fried chicken and its accoutrements of sweet potatoes and collard greens is not the foodway shared, showing the African American food history in the United States is far more intricate, inventive and important than typically considered. Each episode explores a different region with different stories to tell, from the familiar foundations of Benin to South Carolina’s golden rice and Gullah cuisine to the north-eastern empires of oysters and event catering to the south-western cowboy chow.
Guided by these aforementioned food traditions, the series remembers where whitewashing tried to erase and where time forgot the contributions of those enslaved and those freed. “In my work, it’s all about what the enslaved cooked and what they ate. I think that’s important for people to realize that their material lives and their food lives had nothing to do with what people called them, who they thought they were. They thought they were worthy of a decent meal, of a meal prepared from wife to husband, husband to wife, father to children, grandmother to grandchild. They thought they were worth their humanity,” says culinary historian Michael Twitty in the series, while cooking an okra soup for Satterfield.
“We call our food soul food. We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel, like love and God. It’s completely transcendental. It’s about a connection between us and our dead, and us and those who are waiting to be born,” says Twitty to Satterfield. Indeed, for the chefs and cooks of High on the Hog, cooking is a spiritual ritual where the metaphysical and the physical merge, present in the cooking, serving and communion of the meals. Twitty continues: “So when you eat the cooking that I try to pull together from the fragments of our history, I want you to understand that you are in the presence of your ancestors and that our job is to pass those traditions on, so that they, like the soul, never die.”
“One of the beautiful themes in the book and also in the series is the passing of the torch. I think this was a passing of the torch from Jessica to us to Stephen. We hope, as mothers, that we’re teaching our children and showing them this important history,” Jagger tells the Guardian. Certainly, there is a motif of the preservation and conservation of culinary historical curation, anchored by mechanisms like gardening and community dinners. The chefs and historians find themselves in communion with one another, ensuring a future where the legacy is reclaimed for a new generation while dismissing the idea of a monolithic African American food tradition. It is the mission of the series and the book: to preserve the rose that is Black food culture even in the face of the thorns. In one episode, Chef Omar Tate of Philadelphia asserts such a belief, over a community dinner he prepared from the menu of a historic black catering company, “A lot of times, our history is dark, you know, or we view it as dark. But there was just so much beauty between the lines.”