The new four-part series featured on Netflix, “High On The Hog: How African-American Cuisine Transformed America,” begins its food journey in Africa itself. As much travelogue as it is a food show, “High on the Hog” chronicles the role of African-Americans in America’s culinary history, and attempts to broaden perceptions about the depth of those contributions.
Noted food journalist Stephen Satterfield travels from West Africa, to America’s Deep South, West, and the Northeast. He does so alongside James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Jessica B. Harris, the author of twelve books about African-American cuisine, one of which is the inspiration for the Netflix series.
On each stop, Harris and Satterfield break bread with culinary notables such as Kirkus Prize winner Michael Twitty and Toni Tipton-Martin. She is the author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks and Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking. Tipton-Martin is also a Baltimore resident.
States Tipton-Martin, High On The Hog has had a profound impact for similar reasons that my books have achieved the acclaim they have. It has brought content to the mainstream that has previously only been in the academic realm.”
One of the most intriguing stops in the series is in Texas, where Satterfield sheds light on the enormous contribution that Black cowboys made to America’s behemoth beef industry, moving cattle to stockyards for shipment to northern factories. It also discusses Black American Texan cuisine, including what has come to be thought of as traditional Juneteenth dishes. Satterfield tells Baltimore Times, “The red-colored drink, sorrel, tea cakes, and smoked meats are seen as traditional Juneteenth foods.”
There is the popularly held notion that red foods, like red velvet cake are symbolic of Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1867, when the last of America’s enslaved were informed they had been emancipated.
Tipton-Martin, who appears in the Texas episode, suggests that the symbolism of red velvet cake as a Juneteenth staple must have come about over time. “Red dye would not have been available at the time of early Juneteenth celebrations so we want to be careful about that,” she said. She agrees that contemporary Juneteenth celebrations though, do tend to include, “BBQ, red- colored drinks, and watermelon.”
Speaking to Baltimore Times, Tipton-Martin reiterated the overall goal of her work.
“I have functioned as a journalist, looking interdisciplinarily across all kinds of platforms for evidence of African American expertise in order to be able to set us all free from the stereotype about Black cooking as just survival cooking.”
The two-time James Beard award winner believes shattering that stereotype as well as the notion that Black cooks’ talent came purely from instinct rather than intelligence, also “frees the broader community from limited representations of us on the page, in film, and in other ways.” She states that once she “became free from the encumbrance of the mammy stereotype,” she used those ancestors as role models, and hopes the newer generation of Black chefs and restaurateurs do so as well.
Tipton-Martin also noted Maryland’s “rich food tradition,” pointing out it is “Obviously centered on crab and oysters.” She also touches on Maryland Black cuisine history in Jubilee. “It discusses the Black women who displayed deviled crab beautifully, and sold it in order to reach economic independence.”
One of the most famous figures in the history of American cuisine, James Hemings (brother of Sally Hemings) is also discussed at length in High On The Hog., who died likely by suicide in Baltimore around 1801. “The story of women, particularly women who served in professional capacities tends to be the part of the story that is neglected. Records for the men have been better maintained and that’s why we know more about James Hemings,” states Tipton-Martin.
“It’s not disputable,” she stresses, that Hemings, who was brought to France by Thomas Jefferson to learn French cooking, “contributed to elements of French cooking being evident here. One of the main points of my cookbook and recipes from plantation cooks is our understanding that those people all had classic technique embedded in the foods they prepared.”
According to Satterfield, Tipton-Martin gets credit for broadening the narrative surrounding African-American cuisine and the people, particularly the women, who created it. “Toni has done such a good job of practicing what she is preaching thanks to an incredibly meticulous collection of Black recipes.”
Of High On The Hog, Satterfield states, “We’re hoping people see the show as not purely as a hardship story as is so often projected but a celebration looking at the next generation of food scholars, that we’re here and have ‘arrived’ in a sense.”