“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you where you are from,” famed Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoumè told Stephen Satterfield, host of Netflix’s inspiring new travel show High on the Hog. The phrase could double as the thesis of food historian Dr. Jessica Harris’s book of the same name, which resonated so much with production duo Fabienne Toback and Karis Jagger that they chose to adapt it for their first full-length documentary.
On the show, Satterfield, who founded the high-minded culinary quarterly Whetstone Magazine, takes the same voyage Harris does in the book, journeying all the way back to Benin’s expansive Dantopka market, with its stalls full of okra and yams, to understand the history and ingenuity of Black cuisine. Across four episodes, Satterfield revisits the pre-colonial food of Benin, the Gullah traditions of coastal South Carolina, the cooking techniques developed by enslaved chefs working at President’s House in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, and Texas barbecue to highlight an underappreciated truth: As Harris argues in a recent piece for Eater, Black cuisine is the backbone of American food.
But in seeking answers about the history of Black cuisine, Toback, Jagger, and Satterfield end up finding parts of themselves. In episode one, Satterfield breaks down in tears at the Gates of No Return, a memorial in Ouidah, Benin honoring the lives of those who were exported as slaves. Scenes like these don’t just teach us about the geographical and cultural origins of the food we eat; they offer a moment of catharsis for those of us whose ancestors were forced to cross those shores.
The narrative about Black food is often one of resilience—a history of dishes and cooking passed down from one generation to the next as Black people survived subpar and inhumane conditions. While part of that is true, High on the Hog is not afraid to complicate that narrative by reconsidering Black cooking through a lens of abundance, and even luxury: It provides context around the lives that were lived before enslavement, and highlights the successes and innovations of Black chefs and food purveyors here in the States, such as free Black oystermen like Thomas Downing in the 1800s.
Ultimately, what the series is attempting to capture is the “soul” of soul food. It is a spirit that can be hard to put to words, even if you can feel it in the pit of your stomach after a spoonful of sweet yams and savory macaroni & cheese. Together, the combination somehow “tastes like home,” even if we’ve never been to Africa.
Toback, Jagger, and Satterfield sat down with VICE to explain how Black cuisine connects us all, despite generations of displacement.
I’m happy to see Dr. Jessica Harris’s book High on the Hog serve as the inspiration for the series because culinary books about marginalized communities are not always accessible. But by giving it a visual treatment, you upend that. What was your relationship to Dr. Harris’s book?
Fabienne Toback: A dear friend of mine sent me the book and said, “Read this. It’s going to change your life.” Karis and I are both real foodies. I went to culinary school. Karis is an amazing home cook. We’re both Black. There’s so much about this history, about my history that I had no idea about. Immediately we were like, “We have to make this into a series.” We emailed Jessica [Harris] and she said yes to a couple of middle aged women, so we were off and spent six months crafting it into a series.
Karis Jagger: The thing that’s so interesting about this book in particular is that it’s a personal story for Dr. Harris. She’s combining this beautiful history, but it also has a part of her own journey. That was something we wanted to replicate with Stephen and to see Dantokpa through his eyes. The book opens there and you’re so awed by the vastness of it. It was the biggest market I’ve ever been to and to get to see Stephen see it for the first time is what makes the show magical.
Stephen, you appear to be so enamored by just being in Harris’s presence and being in the entire experience. As a Black person watching it, I thought about how it’s rare that you see two Black people connecting over food on a travel show in the way you guys have done it.
Stephen Satterfield: I read the book a couple years after it first came out [in 2011]. For me, it was the text that I had been waiting for. I had already worked for a number of years as a sommelier and had been working in South Africa with Black winemakers and Black and Indigenous folks in the wine industry around South Africa so my work was already so intentionally connected to reclamation, food, and agriculture as a means of identity, understanding, justice and education. The food anthropology that Dr. J’s scholarship provided through this Afro diasporic context was really deep for me.
Like Fabi, I went to culinary school as well, I was a sommelier and our education in food in a professional context was so Europeanized. We only learned about food through a French context—even down to the word “restaurant.” I have always found her work to be in the space of reclaiming and teaching. I really was in awe. That was real for me because of the magnitude of her contributions. I’m glad this was an opportunity for people to come to her work. Everyone should read [Harris’s memoir] My Soul Looks Back as well to really get a more clear picture of her legacy that extends far beyond food.
So much of what is told in the mainstream when it comes to Black cuisine is the emphasis on our ancestors being given scraps. But High on the Hog does a great job in reiterating that although that may be true, there is also luxury associated with our technique and centers the conversation on abundance versus lack. What was the most important way for you to do that with the production so that it came across on screen?
Jagger: A huge part of the book talks about artistry, ambition, and African Americans as tastemakers. We wanted to show all that range. Dr. Harris talks about hospitality, food, and ritual all coming from Africa. It was about bringing that to the next stage and getting to see how that evolved once people were here. Starting with that beautiful table where Stephen is with Romuald [Hazoumè], Karelle [Vignon-Vullierme], and Jessica and seeing that pre-colonial food in Benin, that was about ritual. Even down to the way the food was eaten. Every episode we wanted to have some sense of hospitality and community. That’s what makes the experience so important.
Toback: We’ve already explored our contributions to music and now we have this to show that African Americans have been entrenched in our food culture in a deeper way than I think people realize. It’s undisputable who Thomas Downing was or James Hemings. Mac and cheese goes way back.
There are all of these elements in Black cuisine that essentially makes something “taste like home.” What do you think allows so many of us to describe what home tastes like although so many of us are disconnected from what home actually is?
Satterfield: I put it in a space that I very rarely speak on, publicly or privately, which is about trying to articulate something that I can only compare to spirituality. It is the separation where that feeling lives, that intensity too. All immigrant communities, diasporic communities, refugees, folks who have been severed from their homeland feel this feeling when they return to the homeland. It’s such a hard thing to describe the feeling that’s why I can only talk about it in these ethereal terms because it’s such a strong and distinct emotion. I don’t know how you explain it. I don’t know why you reach the soil and you feel like you’re home, but you feel like that. For me, that feeling is easy to access, it’s very close to the surface in my normal life, and as you saw the culmination of the company, the place, and the context was really overwhelming and necessary.
The reason why [the show] is so resonant for Black people is because that’s really who it’s for. It’s for us. That’s why we were intentional with language like “us” and “ours.” That’s the feedback that we’re getting from people who feel seen in this work in a new way.
In that scene with the pre-colonial dinner, you tell Romuald and Karelle that they are essentially from the same neighborhood, and Romuald corrects you and says this is our home. If you were welcome at the table then it meant that all of us at home watching were welcomed at the table too. That was a very important moment for us as Black people, collectively.
Toback: Even Valérie [Vinakpon] says that. She says we welcome our brothers when they come here. I wasn’t quite prepared for that connection and reaction from people. It was my first time in West Africa as well. There’s a graciousness that the people have that I’ve never experienced before.
So much of the first episode underscored that African food varies so much regionally, but even so, is overlooked in the larger conversation of international food. What do you think it would take for it to get that recognition? Sometimes I even wonder if that recognition is something we even want because that’s when traditions get co-opted.
Satterfield: I don’t actually think it’s possible to gatekeep how we want to. The flow of information is so free and fast, and as we’ve seen with the proliferation of social media, all of the trends, just like offline, originate from Black culture. In the past, there would have to be a passage of time before things could leave our community and become inevitably part of mainstream culture. Whereas now, if we get it poppin’ on Monday, people are biting on Tuesday.
What I do think is possible and what I’m advocating for is more shit like High on the Hog. We have the ability to speak directly to Black people across the diaspora. And yet, be able to do it in a way that everyone can watch and learn and enjoy. You can get some of this Black culture but it’s not yours. There is a way in which our media projects our culture out into the world. There should be more ownership and gatekeeping on behalf of our culture about how that stuff gets out into the world. You don’t need that filter there. So often that filter gets put there to make it nice and neat and make it accessible. Removing that filter allows us to own more of our culture and makes the culture and the influence of the culture more accessible to other people.
You guys even explore the threat of eminent domain and how, at any point in time, the land you have been cultivating can no longer be yours. We see this in the story of Gabrielle, whose family will be displaced to break ground for a new highway. Is there a way Black families like Gabby’s can protect themselves? The entire process seems like another way to erase the agricultural contributions of Black growers.
Satterfield: That story is one of the most commented-on parts of the whole series. Unfortunately when we’re talking about speaking to each other, we know the dark side of that too. That’s also painfully familiar, which is our displacement from the land. I wish I could tell you that Uncle Andrew’s story ended differently but it’s real out here. I told Gabrielle, the value of what she learned for her community is worth infinitely more than whatever level of productivity that land provided for her and her family. It doesn’t mean that it’s not messed up and that we shouldn’t feel outraged. It means that we have to hold that very difficult story with a measure of pride and hopefulness in her.
When you look at the work she’s doing with organizing farm boxes in her region in North Carolina. Feeding her community. Making art. Making beautiful films. Sharing her process, sharing her authenticity. Unfortunately, when we talk about Black folks and our communities, in terms of resiliency, what is implied in that word is the hard times too. The bounce back. She embodies that resilience and that bounce back and unfortunately what she’s bouncing back from is something that’s hard and real and continues to plague Black people in this country through the wealth disparity, income disparity, ownership disparity and redlining. We don’t even have to get into all of the ways in which our displacement on the land has been abetted by the US government. Her story shows us what that looks like in 2021.
So much of the series talks about the importance of origins, but I thought it was interesting that some of these origin stories take places in cities that are now famous for being landmarks of the Black Lives Matter movements, particularly in Charlottesville and Charleston. I’m curious what you all make of those connections?
Toback: When our kids got bigger, Karis and I wanted to find something we could sink our teeth into. It was right around the time of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Within a year, we had gotten the book High on the Hog and we were like, “Here we are. This is important and this needs to be told.” There were lots of protests and it was like, “Are we gonna miss the moment?” And sadly, we’re still in the moment. That undercurrent was never explicitly talked about, but it’s something we all live with every day. I have a 20-year-old son and he’s been stopped by cops. It’s just part of our reality. With that shared knowledge, it’s something we don’t even have to discuss because it’s ever-present.
Satterfield: To speak to origins, my personal philosophy is rooted in reclamation. I believe that origin and providence is political because it’s land-based. It’s culturally based. What ends up happening with land and culture is those stories are coerced, corrupted, obfuscated. Our stories are erased. Origin reclaims the original providence of, in this case, ingredients. But it’s not just the ingredients, like we learn in episode two. It’s our intellectual technology. That’s how we ended up in South Carolina, which is not the story that is told. The story that is told is the story that perpetuates the racist mythology of the intellectual ineptitude of Black people. That’s a convenient story for white people. We understand why that story has been perpetuated. Now we see in episode two the shift in saying we’re not here because of our physical bodies, we were here because of our intellectual capacity. These are subtle shifts in terms of understanding the narrative power and where it’s being placed. We can easily identify that.
What it does for the culture—that proper credit being given as it’s related to origin and one’s own culture. Now you can walk with your back up straight because now you know the real story. You can push back with confidence against the racist story that is inevitably going to be perpetuated through this country and many others. Anti-Blackness: That’s the story.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.