“High on the Hog”: Cultural Productions’ Reckoning With American Food History and Its African/American Roots

By Philine Schiller

Eating high on the hog signifies status: leave the cheap meat to the others, the higher up you eat, i.e.the better the cuts, the wealthier you are. Both the Netflix documentary High on the Hog (2021) and the book it was based on, Jessica B. Harris’ High on the Hog – A Culinary Journey From Africa to America (2011) trace the roots of what today is considered American Food. Harris, who is a culinary historian and a professor at Queens College (New York), has published extensively on the foodways of the African Diaspora. (The term ‘foodways’ refers to social, cultural and historical practices revolving around food.) The book and the show critically examine the colonial past that brought a large number of ingredients and dishes to the American continent, as well as their transformations over the decades. Both journey not only along the height of the hog but along old voyage routes from Africa to America, covering both geographical space and social strata. Above all, though, they cover food. 

Cornbread, mac and cheese, barbecue, black-eyed peas, yams, collard greens, oysters, French fries, ice cream – these dishes and foods all, in their own way, seem distinctly American to us. What is often overlooked is how they came to be considered American, who prepared and cooked them and why certain ingredients were introduced to U.S. American cuisine in the first place. In 2021, centuries and decades after these foods became American staples, High On the Hog held up a mirror to a society that seemed to have largely forgotten, perhaps a little too willingly, that African ingredients, dishes and traditions were one of the major influences on contemporary American foodways. This is true not only of Southern cuisine, though it is perhaps the one most obviously influenced by African tradition, but of the United States at large. “Historically, American food TV has largely reduced African American cooking to Southern or soul food” (Severson 2021: 1). Throughout the four-episode journey the show takes the viewer on, traveling from Africa to America with host Stephen Satterfield as a gentle and reflective guide, it becomes increasingly obvious that it is impossible to untangle the history of American food from the history of America itself – and its legacies of colonialism, slavery and segregation. But it is also a story of transformation: both people and food have changed, and continue to change each other, over the course of centuries. What remains is indeed wholly American–as High on the Hog insists be not forgotten.

Overview of the Slave Trade Out of Africa

Take yams for example: today they are often part of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, perhaps the most American meal of all. Yams first came to the American continent with enslaved Africans via the Middle Passage. “Many have told tales of the newly enslaved Africans bringing with them in their hair or their clothing okra and sesame seeds, thereby transplanting them to the New World […] The arrival of African foodstuffs in this hemisphere during the period of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the result of a more brutal reality. The economics of slavery were such that slavers needed to feed slaves a diet on which they would survive” (Harris 2011: 30). The diet also had to be cheap and long-lasting, so the three main crops taken on were corn, rice and yams, the latter being the primary crop of the Gulf of Benin and what today is Nigeria (ibid.: 31). The word ‘yam’ has even persisted enough that today it is used almost synonymously with ‘sweet potato,’ although the two vegetables belong to entirely different families, the sweet potato being a New World crop. But since they look very much the same, it is assumed that the enslaved introduced the word ‘yam’ (likely from the Fulani word nyami, meaning ‘to eat’) because the potato seemed familiar to them, and the naming has persisted throughout the centuries. In fact, most ‘candied yams’ on contemporary Thanksgiving tables are no yams at all, although the tuber can still be found and bought in many regions of the US.

In the 21st century, owing above all to the internet, interest in food culture and the significance that food holds historically and socially has risen significantly within the general public. Food shows and documentaries are booming on streaming platforms like Netflix (e.g. Chef’s Table, Somebody Feed Phil, Ugly Delicious), which not only streamed but also produced High on the Hog. When Jessica B. Harris published the book the show was based on in 2011, it was very well-received, primarily by people already interested in the subject matter or in Harris herself. However, while the book laid the groundwork and was highly successful in its own right, it was the Netflix show which fully transported the narrated food histories into the public sphere of interest. With the book on the market for ten years, the New York Times called the show “sorely overdue”. Harris herself makes an appearance in the first episode and states about the reception of the show: “What we are seeing is extraordinary […] This is a social movement writ large, and food is a very big part of it.” She especially emphasizes the important timing of the release with regards to the political climate in the US and recent public debates and movements around racism and racial injustice. 

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Historic Gardens

In an age of political disquiet, misinformation and rising censorship, shows like High on the Hog are doing important educational work. Tensions are rising around book censorship in education (see i.a. the recent banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus), Republicans in Florida are intending to pass a ‘Stop W.O.K.E. Act’ and Critical Race Theory is being banned across the board, while other books containing blatant misinformation remain in the shelves without scrutiny. To give one example, food historian Michael W. Twitty pointed out in a recent Twitter post a children’s book that depicted Thomas Jefferson toiling in his garden with a smile. “He dug up potatoes from his garden,” the book says, and goes on to show him preparing ice cream, not only glossing over the fact that Jefferson himself likely never touched any of the garden tools his slaves were using, but that his talented and highly-trained slave chef, James Hemings, not only cooked but also introduced the American public to some of the most famous and beloved American dishes of our time, such as mac and cheese (Ep. 3 “Our Founding Chefs”). “We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans,” W. E. B. Du Bois criticized in “The Propaganda of History” in 1998, a critique that has lost none of its validity.  

Adding to misinformation, we also find a lot of devaluation when looking at the reception of African American food in America. As Harris puts it in the introduction to her book, “[o]ur culinary history is fraught with all the associations with slavery, race, and class that the United States has to offer. For this reason, the traditional foodways that derive from the history of enslavement that many of us share are often perceived as unhealthy, inelegant, and hopelessly out of sync with the culinary canons” (Harris 2011: 1). The Netflix show aims to explain and rectify some of these perceptions, while also addressing the un/popularity of some foods. In the first episode, food blogger Karelle Vignon-Vullierme says, “I don’t know why our [African] cuisine is not as popular as Asian cuisine or French cuisine” (“Our Roots”: 17:45-17:59). Looking at the dishes that follow in the episode and beyond, viewers might wonder the same–which is exactly the starting point the show sets out from. “Given its place on a streaming platform routinely viewed by millions, this show has the ability to shift wider cultural consciousness around African American culinary history going forward” (Burton 2021: 1). In an interview with the prolific EATER online food magazine, host Stephen Satterfield says about the show and about his other endeavors as CEO of Whetstone magazine: “Much like High on the Hog, the work that we do is about reclamation. It’s about pushing back against narrative exclusion and erasure and distortion and obfuscation and about reclaiming our own identities and power, and being connected to our history.” Thus, the cultural work that High on the Hog is performing should not be underestimated and is sure to have a lasting impact on the media landscape.

Old Glory Tuna Sandwich

The same goes for food discourse in general: food serves as an excellent prism through which a multitude of pressing issues can be examined. Its close links to culture and identity and its ubiquity in society enable it to become at once a connector and a tool of analysis – reclaimed histories, community building, social movements, health issues, education and politics can all be linked in one way or another to food and food issues. While academia long overlooked the study of food with regards to the social sciences, with the rising fascination for eating, chefs, gastronomy and all things food, Food Studies as a discipline has now entered into university classrooms as well. Looking at today’s literature and media landscape, it seems like it is here to stay. “If these stories are just now being presented in 2021,” Stephen Satterfield posits in a High on the Hog review on food52, “what areas of your life stories maybe need to be investigated? What stories are missing?”


About the Author

Philine Schiller is a doctoral student at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, where she received her M. Ed. for English and Spanish philology in 2020 and currently works in the department of education. Her academic and literary interests include contemporary literature, food studies, popular culture, fantasy, horror and science-fiction. She can be contacted at schiller@heiedu.uni-heidelberg.de.


References

Burton, Monica, 2022. “The Lasting Impact of ‘High on the Hog’.” Eater. [Accessed 4 May 2022].

Darnton, Julia, 2022. Michigan State University Extension. “Foodways: When Food Meets Culture and History.” MSU Extension. [Accessed 18 May 2022].

Du Bois, William E. B., 1998. “The Propaganda of History”. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.

Endolyn, Osayi, 2022. The Profound Significance of ‘High on the Hog’. Nytimes.com. [Accessed 4 May 2022].

High On The Hog, 2021. Netflix, www.netflix.com.

Harris, Jessica B., 2011. High On The Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America

Samuel, Isoke, 2022. ‘High on the Hog’ & the People Preserving Black Cooking Traditions. Food52. [Accessed 4 May 2022].

Severson, Kim, 2022. The Making of ‘High on the Hog,’ Bringing Black Food History to TV. Nytimes.com. [Accessed 4 May 2022].


Images

Header: Yams! by phot0geek, August 7, 2006, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes made to the original image.

Overview of the Slave Trade Out of Africa: A21a Slave Trade Overview by howard_morland, January 2, 2017, CC By 2.0, no changes made to the original image .

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Historic Gardens by Sheila Berrios-Nazario, July 28, 2018, CC By 2.0, no changes made to the original image .

Old Glory Tuna Sandwich by Jocely McAuley, November 26, 2006, CC By-NC-SA 2.0, no changes made to the original image.



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2022, May 25). “High on the Hog”: Cultural Productions’ Reckoning With American Food History and Its African/American Roots. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg5t

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