“The truth is, a lot of American food has its roots in African American food, traditions and ingenuity.” That’s one of the first lines in the opening sequence of the new Netflix series, “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.” The voice belongs to host/narrator Stephen Satterfield. And the food that he is referring to may come as a surprise to many viewers; American favorites such as mac and cheese, vanilla custard, barbecue and fried fish are very much the handiwork of Black Americans and their enslaved ancestors.
Based on the 2011 eponymous book by food historian Jessica B. Harris, the four-part series is full of illuminating surprises and aha moments, and that seems to be exactly the point. Harris’ work, long revered within the food community, is at long last getting mainstream attention with this gorgeous and groundbreaking visual adaptation. The use of the word “groundbreaking” is intentional, because until this moment, the story of African American foodways, which is indelibly linked to the brutal horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, has been selectively edited for a white audience. With this series, Americans can learn the history of slavery that was not taught in schools.
That lesson begins in Benin, West Africa, a bustling hive of culinary activity as well as the home of the “Gate of No Return,” a major port for slave ships. The show does a masterful job of bridging the ugly past with a more hopeful future, featuring a new generation of chefs and storytellers keeping recipes and cooking traditions alive.
As I watched, I noticed several themes emerge; here are just a few, based on my notes.
Black food firsts
In the third episode, the viewer meets two of America’s two earliest chefs who were charged with making sure that America’s founding fathers ate well. A slave named Hercules cooked for George Washington in Philadelphia, when it was the capital city, and a slave named James Hemings cooked for Thomas Jefferson in Virginia at his Monticello estate. We learn that Jefferson takes Hemings to Paris, where he trains to be a chef, the first American to do so. He cooked at Hotel de Langeac, Jefferson’s estate along the Champs Elysées, where he served as a foreign minister.
Hemings’ influence would be far reaching; upon his return to Monticello, he brought a potager, also known as a stew stove, the forerunner to a stove top cooking apparatus and a technological upgrade to the open-fire hearth stove. He is credited with popularizing mac and cheese, which in the late 18th century was known as macaroni pie. And he is well known for his recipe for snow eggs (oeufs a la neige), a French dessert of poached egg-white meringues floating in a vanilla custard known as a crème anglaise. (As a culinary student, I learned to make snow eggs, but never learned the Hemings connection. I’m glad to finally know the backstory.)
An early caterer
The viewer also meets Robert Bogle, a free Black man in Philadelphia, who was considered a founding father of catering. He opened a business at Eighth and Sansom streets in Philadelphia around 1813 that would set the stage for a Guild of Caterers and inspire a flourishing catering industry run by several free Black families in the city over the next 150 years. One such family, the Dutrieuilles, operated out of their home at 40th and Spring Garden streets in West Philadelphia for 50 years.
The oyster connection
Also in the third episode, the viewer travels to lower Manhattan, where a free Black man named Robert Downing owned a fine-dining oyster restaurant on Wall Street in the late 1800s. His empire was made possible by the Black oystermen who lived on Staten Island, a community of free Black families called Sandy Ground. We learn that Sandy Ground, which in its heyday grew to 180 families, “is the oldest continuously inhabited African American community in the United States settled by free blacks with descendants still living in the community.”
There is so much to learn, in fact, you may want to rewatch the series, as I already have, or join a growing chorus hopeful for a second (or eleventy-millionth) season. This is television for eaters of all ages at its finest, and you don’t need to know much about food, either. If you subscribe to Netflix and know someone who doesn’t, consider inviting them over for a watch party.