In the new Netflix documentary series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” Stephen Satterfield leads viewers on a delicious journey, from the markets of Benin in West Africa to the rice fields of Carolina’s Low Country, from Thomas Jefferson’s elegant Virginia home to the dusty rodeos of Houston. Along the way, he meets chefs, bakers and writers, like chef B.J. Dennis of Charleston, baker Jerrelle Guy and culinary history Michael W. Twitty, who illuminate the joy and depth African American food contributed to America.
The four-part travel series, which starts streaming on May 26, was inspired and adapted from the groundbreaking 2011 book “High on the Hog” by food scholar Jessica B. Harris, who in the first episode guides Satterfield through the Dantokpa Market in Benin.
Satterfield is a leading new voice in food writing and founder of the independent food magazine Whetstone. He spoke to The American South about the importance of new series and the new generation of Black culinarians on the rise across the South.
The American South: What impact did Jessica B. Harris’s book “High on the Hog” have on you?
Stephen Satterfield: As a Black man from the South who’s interested in food as a means of understanding humans and anthropology, I’ve been tremendously impacted by her scholarship. She created an intellectual blueprint for many of us.
TAS: To film “High on the Hog,” you traveled across America and to Benin in West Africa. What was that journey like for you personally?
SS: I had been to some of the places. But there was something about going back within the context of “High on the Hog” that was as enlightening as going for the first time. I think of Houston, in particular, where I saw the incredible legacy that the Black cowboys and Northeastern Trailriders are maintaining. I admire the sacrifice the trail riders have made to preserve their legacy and I’m just in awe of their skill as cowboys.
TAS: As you look across the South, what do you see among the rising generation of Black chefs and food leaders that are featured in “High on the Hog”?
SS: If I had to share a theme among this new generation, I would say that it’s a reclamation movement based on rejecting all of the things that we either learned in culinary school or were presented to us on screen about what is enviable cuisine. We are most interested in our own food narratives and histories, re-mixing and presenting them in a way that feels like our own but connected to a historical and cultural lineage.
TAS: When you talk about television travel shows, Anthony Bourdain of “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” looms large over the genre. Did you think about his work while making “High on the Hog”?
SS: It’s not possible to host a food travel series without Anthony Bourdain coming to your mind. He is the godfather of this genre as we understand it. He was a great hero of mine personally for many years, even before his mainstream success. The greatest impact he had on my life happened years and years ago and moved me to this work, through that sense of curiosity and building relationships and connections through food.
TAS: What has been lost and overlooked by the fact that so many of our television travel guides have been white men.
SS: It means the genre hasn’t properly been explored yet. That is a disservice to the viewers, but it is also an opportunity for the people in positions of power to make these shows. We see over and over again examples of shows with Black or Asian leads, producers or directors where the results are often phenomenal, if not record breaking. There has long been a great appetite to see diversity in storytelling and diversity in the narrators. I’m happy that it’s come to this genre with “High on the Hog.”
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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