The fourth episode of High on the Hog: How African Cuisine Transformed America, a new Netflix documentary series, begins with the voice of Laura Smalley. In a crackly recording from 1941, Smalley, a former enslaved person in Hempstead, tells the story of the day she learned she was no longer shackled to the land she tended—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. “You know what? Ol’ master didn’t tell you no one was free,” Smalley recalls. “Turned them loose on the nineteenth of June. That’s why we celebrate that day.”
The striking decision to start a Texas-centered episode with Smalley’s voice is the first of many careful considerations we see in the series, which is based on a 2011 book by culinary historian Jessica B. Harris. High on the Hog, now available for streaming, takes viewers on a journey to celebrate Black American history and food. The four-part documentary centers Black Americans’ crucial, and often erased, contributions to American food culture.
Stephen Satterfield serves as our host and travel companion, moving from Africa to Texas to meet with chefs, writers, historians, and preservationists who work together to unpack the expansiveness of Black food. Satterfield, the founder of food and hospitality agency Whetstone Media and a chef himself, is charming and inquisitive. He’s also a Black man who asks the uncomfortable questions.
The show’s travelogue style—and some of its content—makes comparisons to the food world’s favorite TV host inevitable. Watching Satterfield visit Charleston, I was reminded of an episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown in which host Anthony Bourdain interviewed Glenn Roberts, the founder of the grain company behind Carolina Gold Rice, about what his products mean to the South. As with far too many conversations surrounding Southern food, Bourdain failed to acknowledge the history of slave labor. In the second episode of High on the Hog, Satterfield also speaks with Roberts. He questions Roberts specifically and earnestly about his role as a white man profiting from grains originally grown using Black slave labor. With Satterfield at the helm, these conversations are poignant and substantial. He is invested in the journey, and we feel him learn and see him cry. He cultivates a safe space for conversations about us and with us, and by intentionally gathering Black folks for meals over the course of the series, he ties the past to the present.
If we spent 2020 as a country talking about reframing history, the only correct place for High on the Hog to start is where Black people were taken from. The series opens in the West African country of Benin, where Satterfield and Harris walk through an open-air market comparing produce of African origins with today’s Black American food culture. Okra, various types of rice, black-eyed peas, and watermelon all have West African roots and were brought to the United States via the transatlantic slave trade. We make our way to Charleston, South Carolina, once the capital of the nation’s slave trade, and up to Philadelphia, where we learn about the enslaved people who created some of America’s favorite foods, like mac and cheese. Then we land in Hempstead.
The Texas episode is titled “Freedom,” in honor of Juneteenth, and we begin in the kitchen of James Beard–nominated baker Jerrelle Guy. The author of Black Girl Baking: Wholesome Recipes Inspired by a Soulful Upbringing, Guy explains that her time in the kitchen is when she feels most free. “There are, especially as a Black woman, all of these ideas of what I have to be or what I can’t be. I feel like the kitchen is one of the safest spaces for me,” she tells Satterfield, with tears welling up in her eyes. “It gives me a feeling of empowerment, and I think that is really important for a lot of Black women who maybe don’t have a space like that.” That statement feels especially powerful considering the historical roles Black women have had in domestic servitude. “I can’t wait to taste the iterations of your freedom,” Satterfield responds, sincerely.
Guy’s freedom tastes like a spread of Juneteenth-themed desserts—raw raspberry-hibiscus cheesecake, a brown-butter and Crown Royal whiskey apple pie, and a four-layer red velvet cake with maple cream cheese frosting. Guy says her use of bright colors, especially red, was inspired by merchandise, decorations, and other paraphernalia seen during Juneteenth celebrations. But dinner guest Eugene Thomas, a descendant of people freed on Juneteenth, gives us the deeper context: that red symbolizes the blood shed by their enslaved ancestors.
The show continually treats the past with respect and reverence. After dessert, we near Houston to learn about America’s first cowboys, of whom one out of four was Black. Satterfield tries cowboy stew as cooked by Anthony Bruno, the trail boss of the Northeastern Trailriders Association in East Texas, an organization that pays homage to the enslaved and freed men who became this country’s first cowboys. Because this is an episode about Texas food, we also get the obligatory mouthwatering shots of a knife cutting through brisket. Greg Gatlin, owner of Gatlin’s BBQ, and soul food and barbecue scholar Adrian Miller (whose book Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue was released last month) talk us through the origins of barbecue in Texas while chowing down on a marvelous brisket spread.
“This shows the craftwork, the artisanal quality, and [how] African Americans have been doing that,” says Miller, holding up a piece of smoked pastrami turkey. “But it just hasn’t been talked about that way. You see the art here, and the love. We really have to [rewrite] barbecue history to show that we have a deep legacy, a deep tradition that you’re honoring in a place like this,” Miller says. He explains to Satterfield how different parts of the state have made barbecue special to their respective regions—East Texas, where the episode takes place, has a heavy African American influence because of formerly enslaved Black people who moved there from Tennessee.
Slowly and carefully, Satterfield and his guests (with a big assist from Harris’s research) are rewriting American culinary history. This time around, what has been left out before is purposefully accounted for. You can almost feel the history being rewritten through the screen. African Americans have liberated themselves through many crafts over time, and in this excellent series, freedom means food.