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.Michael Twitty-Culinary Historian
I recently completed the series High on the Hog on Netflix, and I must say that I have been even more inspired to learn more about African American history in this country. The limited documentary series premiered on the platform at the top of last month, and in my opinion, is nothing short of phenomenal. The documentary follows the African American foodways, cuisine culture, and history from its origins of Africa to Texas. Just as the platform has categorized the limited series as Inspiring, Emotional, and Feel-Good, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America expresses and showcases the richness of African American pioneering, resilience, innovation, and resistance.
Perhaps what makes this limited series so unique is that it comes before and during African American Soul Food Month, observed in June. Still, it also highlights many of the historical facts whitewashed in television and film portrayals. These portrayals often omit African American’s and their contributions to American history. The limited series features four episodes with Our Roots, the first episode exploring the origin of African American food back to Oudiah, Benin; a place that I learned during the documentary was one of the starting points of the slave trade to North and South America during the 1600s. The next episode, titled, The Rice Kingdom, details the history of rice production in Charleston, South Carolina, and how the legacy and richness of the Gullah people and food is still be preserved and shared with many locals and visitors to the region.
The third series episode, Our Founding Chefs, details historic chefs James Hemings and Hercules. These men were historically known as President Washington and Jefferson’s enslaved chefs that supplied numerous culinary contributions and innovations during their time. They ultimately groomed the nation for what American cuisine is today. And the final installment is Freedom which takes the story of African American cuisine history from the east coast to the southwest in Texas. Much like the great migration of the 20th century, African American people and cuisine traveled out west during the explanation of the nation and emancipation of slavery. In this migration, High on the Hog examines the origins of red meat dishes such as barbeque and black cowboys.
In the documentary, the word “cowboy” was identified as a term crafted by the black men that cow herded. “Cowboy” ultimately was systemically stolen and repurposed for white and Eurocentric media and commercial propaganda. It’s pretty easy for me to list the notable Hollywood actors’ versions and portrayals of cowboys from Clint Eastwood’s, John Wayne, and Yul Brenner. More often than not, these portrayals were either fictitious or loosely adapted from real-life stories. However, listing Nat Love, Bill Pickett, John Ware, and Bass Reeves might evoke intrigue or draw a complete blank depending on where you have lived and how well you have been exposed to or searched African American history.
In all, the documentary transcends the conversation of food. It provides the intersection of history from tradition to celebrate that African American’s legacy, trials, and experiences did not die despite systemic attempts to erase it. I also believe this is at the heart of why critical race theory is such a hot-button topic. I have interpreted its functions to provide a varying lens outside of the lens that has been the gatekeeping view of African American and American history for so long. I don’t see it as an attempt to condemn people and their ancestral actions, nor is it a way to shame people of their cultural heritage. It simply provides a narrative that shapes and supports a more accurate history that can inspire and uplift people who don’t realize or are taught to value their heritage and cultural roots.
Through the story cuisine, writer, chef, and the documentary guide Stephan Satterfield connects parts of the missing pieces within American history that support our current actions and the current state of this country. Although the pain of the past can and will not be erased despite valiant efforts, it can be viewed, studied, and processed in a way that allows generations of people to heal. Just as Nigerian-American actress Yvonne Orji mentioned in an interview recently, I wholeheartedly agree; when slavery ended in this country, no form of therapy was provided to the newly freed or their descendants.
Instead, people were expected to shake off 400 years of trauma as if it were a bad dream and move forward with the new life they’d been granted without resources and or complete knowledge of the system they’d help to create and establish. In High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, the viewer will see the crux between the freed and the enslaved. Much like the resilience and plight of our ancestors, African Americans often took a little and made gold and grandiose institutions.
This history deserves to be highlighted and celebrated. And just as Satterfield himself stated near the ending of the series, African American history and cuisine is as much as American history as anything else. Aside from checking out the documentary on Netflix, check out the discussion around the documentary below.