'High on the Hog' shows how Black history shaped the way America eats

In the first episode of the new Netflix series "High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America," host Stephen Satterfield explores a West African open-air market with historian and author Jessica B. Harris.

With all due respect to barbecue, Ben & Jerry's and TikTok's baked feta pasta, the way to humanity's heart is not just through our stomachs. The heart needs nutrients. The brain requires refreshment. The soul must be sustained.

Fortunately for the portion of humanity that is hooked on food TV shows, Netflix has delivered a new series that is not content to wow us with fabulous food and charismatic chefs.

Over four illuminating episodes, "High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America" nourishes viewers on multiple levels.

As it explores the influence of Black American foods on the way America eats, the series serves heartening portions of history and perspective, along with an appreciation of culinary traditions, pioneering chefs and mouthwatering dishes that will stick to your ribs like a bottomless bowl of rice and beans.

Based on Jessica B. Harris' 2011 book "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America," the TV journey starts in the West African country of Benin. There, host Stephen Satterfield joins the legendary Harris for an information-rich stroll through one of the largest open-air markets in West Africa.

Yams and sweet potatoes

It is during this visit that Harris explains the difference between yams and sweet potatoes while also getting to the heart of why this show matters.

Yams, which Harris helpfully describes as looking like "a hairy elephant foot," are mostly grown in Africa, not in America. So, when Blacks were brought here, the yams of the homeland that was no longer home were swapped for sweet potatoes. And the dishes they made from those sweet potatoes — including candied "yams" and sweet potato pie — became the centerpieces of America's Thanksgiving table.

As Harris and Satterfield walk arm-in-arm through the Technicolor hubbub of the market, Harris makes another culinary and historical point.

Despite the market's overflowing bags of rice, Benin was not the rice coast, Harris says. But it was the slavery coast. And when Black Africans were taken from Benin to America to be sold as slaves, the rice came with them.

The rice that (barely) sustained the men, women and children who were packed into slave ships went on to become one of America's biggest moneymaking crops.

"This is the thing that built the wealth of our now-nation, before it was even a nation," Satterfield says.

Mouthwatering episodes

From the first episode through the last, the connection between enslaved Black people and the foods all Americans eat today is analyzed and honored. In the debut episode, Satterfield and Harris eat at Taste of Benin, where chef and owner Valerie Vinakpon serves them grilled chicken with an assortment of hot sauces and Satterfield considers the many ways this small country shaped the world.

"A lot of that impact came through our stomachs."

If what you want from your food TV is food, glorious food, "High on the Hog" is not stingy on that front. You might want to fuel up before you sit down or prepare to start chewing on the throw pillows.

In Benin, Satterfield and Harris chow down on chef Sedjro Ahouansou's sweet potato mousse with shrimp. In Ganvie, a Benin village built entirely on a lake, Satterfield hits a floating market for fried dough and a peanut snack that reminds him of a Baby Ruth bar. Then he and his guide, Ganvie native Eric Kiki, head to a floating restaurant for a homey dish of tilapia and cassava that reminds Satterfield of Sunday fish fries in his native Georgia.

In later episodes, Satterfield goes to Charleston, South Carolina, home of the prized Carolina Gold rice that became part of America's thriving rice import trade. He joins culinary historian Michael Twitty for a hearty one-pot meal of rice, okra and crab (and onion, hot pepper and rosemary) cooked over an open fire.

‘Hemmings & Hercules’ dinner

He goes to South Carolina's Sea Islands for a whole-hog roast prepared by chef and Gullah food expert BJ Dennis, then to Apex for a community dinner featuring gleaming roasted chickens, a bean-and-turnip salad and hickory smoked beet cornbread from cultural preservationist Gabrielle Eitienne.

And at Hatchet Hall in Culver City, California, Satterfield savors veal sweetbreads, braised rabbit over grits, and an elegant "snow egg" dessert, featuring meringue "eggs" floating in custard.

It is the restaurant's "Hemmings & Hercules" dinner, which features a menu inspired by James Hemmings and Hercules Posey, the two men who introduced fine dining to America when they were the enslaved chefs of Thomas Jefferson (Hemmings) and George Washington (Posey).

Rice, okra and sweet potatoes. Fine dining, macaroni and cheese, East Texas barbecue. These and other foods and food traditions are just a few of the ways that African American cooks and cuisine shaped America.

Tribute to enslaved Africans

But the abundance came at a cost.

At the end of the debut episode, which was gracefully directed by Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (who is also one of the show's executive producers), Satterfield and Harris go to the former Benin slave port of Ouidah. At the Door of No Return monument, they pay tribute to the more than 1 million enslaved Africans who were exported from Ouidah to the Americas.

It's an emotional moment for Satterfield, who ends up falling into Harris' arms as she encourages him to hold on. To breathe. And when he collects himself, Satterfield — a former sommelier, now a publisher, writer and multimedia producer — encourages viewers to listen. To learn. To remember.

"More than 1 million people were forced to walk through these gates, leaving their homes behind forever," he says. "But they brought with them their resilience and their courage. And all the way across the ocean, and (to) the place I call home, their skill and innovation would transform American cuisine."

"High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America" is streaming on Netflix.

Karla Peterson is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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