Our Take: 4.5 Stars
Acclaimed American film director, rapper, and activist Raymond Lawrence “Boots” Riley once said when discussing the history of race and its role around the globe that, “Culture is created by what people do while they are surviving.” It naturally follows that the first nexus of culture and survival would come with the foods we eat everyday, and that the story of a people can often be traced through the hardships and the triumphs of their cuisine.
Nothing encompasses the tragedy and the beauty of this sentiment as well as Netflix’s latest limited series, “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.”
With a humble release on Netflix at the end of May, the algorithms that guide many user’s profiles may have overlooked sending “High on the Hog” to the front of the “Recommended” section, but this does not mean that viewers should not seek out this gem of a series for themselves.
With incredible heart and a painful acknowledgement of the reality of slavery, this half documentary, half visual hors d’oeuvre traces the roots of African American cuisine from the waterways of Bénin (located in sub-Saharan Western Africa) to the coasts of the Carolinas of the U.S., to the heart of the Lone Star State, with travel writer Stephen Satterfield as our guide.
Along the ”High on the Hog” journey, we are greeted by many experts, from Dr. Jessica B. Harris, author of the book by the same name, to chefs proficient in BBQ, mac ‘n cheese or oysters. The series explores the origins and evolutions of African-American cuisine meal by meal.
Mouths will be left watering as scenes of steam, smoke and spices in intimate nooks, wide open fields and up-scale restaurants are interwoven into Satterfield’s historical exposition. Feasts of smoked pork, glazed yams, fried okra and roasted chicken begin to tell a story that likely looks familiar to many Americans.
The series tells the story of not only African-American cuisine, but also of American cuisine as we know it today. From shaping the tastes of the Founding Fathers to popularizing many modern “American” staples, the fingerprints of those enslaved and their ancestors form the mortar between the bricks of this nation’s foundation.
“High on the Hog” relates the history of African-American cuisine to the economic incentives of the slave trade and its socio-cultural repercussions. While it celebrates the cuisine, it does not overlook the impacts of slavery, segregation and gentrification, as the influences that have impacted the means of survival of African-Americans in the US have also impacted cultural expressions through food.
The series explores this nuance through the individual stories of people such as Gullah chef BJ Dennis, Houston chef Chris Williams and those attempting to keep the memory of Hercules, and James Hemmings, the famous enslaved chefs to Washington and Jefferson, alive.
Following the success of other works such as Netflix’s “My Octopus Teacher” and HBO’s “Exterminate All the Brutes”, “High on the Hog” serves as an entry into the re-emerging genre of the subjective documentary. Without making sacrifices in quality of information, “High on the Hog” brilliantly weaves together the narratives of individuals within the scale of human history into one cohesive and stunning tableau.
As the series comes to a close, far from the coasts of Africa where it began, one may be filled to the brim with an array of visual delights, so vivid that the smells fill the air around the TV — but it is just as likely that one will be left with the itch of injustice lingering in the atmosphere.
“It was strange to come home to a place I had never been,” Satterfield states in the opening episode — “fragments of a lost memory were everywhere.”
Ultimately, the series may leave many viewers with this exact feeling — that fragments of a lost memory of African-American culture lay scattered across the nation. While it may be easier to think of these fragments as lost, “High on the Hog” makes it clear that they have not been “lost” to history, but purposefully written over time and time again.
The culinary artists and activists who share their stories throughout this limited series are determined to correct the history books, to shift the American consciousness and to approach injustice with humility and hunger. With the high caliber of storytelling of “High on the Hog,” viewers would be hard pressed not to join them both in celebration of African-American culinary excellence and a hunger for social betterment.