High on the Hog
June 22, 2021
When I first saw that Netflix had a new show called High on the Hog, I thought of all the foods I stopped eating when I started keeping kosher, and I figured the show wasn't for me. But then I saw people on Twitter giving shout-outs to my friend culinary historian Michael Twitty (author of The Cooking Gene, which I reviewed here), and I realized the show isn't about treif, it's about African American food. Or maybe more accurately, it's about how "American food" is rooted deep in African ingredients and in the ingenuity and perseverance of enslaved Africans brought to these shores.
We begin in Benin. I've never been to Benin, though I was blessed to travel to Ghana twice when I was married. (My beloved ex had lived there after college, and worked there off and on for years.) As host Stephen Satterfield explores his first west African market with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, I remembered the sounds and scents and sensory overload of my first west African market visits, too. And I felt-with-him as he sees his family's features mirrored around him, as he encounters familiar okra and yams and rice in their original settings, as he walks on the red clay road the enslaved walked on their way to the slave ships.
At the end of the first episode Stephen stands where his ancestors stood as they were loaded onto slave ships, and he breaks down. I have never been to any of the death camps where six million of my fellow Jews perished, but I imagine that if and when I go, I will feel something like what I witnessed here. It is heartbreaking. And the scene does not feel staged: it feels like bearing witness to something important and real.
The second episode brings us to the Carolinas, to the rice coast. I've read The Cooking Gene, so the journey of these ingredients wasn't a new concept to me. But there's something about the visuality of this medium that brings things home in a new way. To see the red rice in Benin, the whole rice and the broken rice, and then to see the red rice being prepared by Gullah chefs now: the trajectory is so clear.
The third episode introduces the enslaved cooks who shaped the American palate. Washington sent his enslaved chef Hercules back to Mt. Vernon every six months because a slave who lived more than six months in Philly was automatically freed. When he suspected that Hercules might try to seek freedom, he sent Hercules back to do hard labor in the fields again. Meanwhile, Jefferson took his enslaved chef Hemings to France, and Hemings brought fine French dining back to these shores. Eventually Hemings bought his own freedom -- by binding his brother to continued servitude. Meanwhile Jefferson fathered at least six children on Hemings' little sister Sally. There's really nothing I can say about that.
I do not understand how any white Americans can look at the history of human chattel slavery and not recognize the horrific sin against Black humanity that was (and still is) perpetrated by that injustice. Human beings in chains. Families torn apart. Generations of Black human beings treated like animals. I guess we mostly don't look. I think we need to look, and then we need to take responsibility for creating repair.
My ancestors came here fleeing the Holocaust. It's easy to protest, "but we weren't slave owners!" The same people who fear people of color "replacing" the white inhabitants of this land also see Jews as "replacing" them. (Remember the Nazis in Charlottesville: "Jews will not replace us!") White supremacy harms us too. And, I still have pale skin. Which means I get certain privilege just by virtue of the way I look, where people with dark skin encounter prejudice that to this day is often deadly.
Some people argue that we must not teach the true history of our nation's foundational sins -- our treatment of Native Americans, our enslavement of Black people -- and how those sins continue to harm Black and Indigenous People of Color. It seems so obvious to me that we have to face our history in order to build a better future. I want us to live up to the ideals of liberty and justice for all. We're not there yet. In the words of R. Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l, "in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible."
High on the Hog aroused that anger in me, but the show isn't made with anger: it's made with joy. The show lets the horrors speak for themselves, and it wrests celebration from those ashes. High on the Hog shows beautiful, bold, creative Black people claiming their history and their foodways and their joy through cuisine. It honors the ingredients and foodways, and it honors their inheritors. These neshamot (souls) shine so vividly on the screen that their strength, their pride, their resilience, their creativity uplift me as a viewer. Talk about soul food.
Take Gabrielle Eitienne (episode two) who grows traditional foods (okra, collards, sweet potatoes) on the same land her family has farmed for generations. She hosts celebratory dinners uplifting the land and its produce and the people who grow it. Watching her feasts, I thought about my own people's history of poverty cuisine, like the gefilte fish I just this year learned to make. The work it takes to turn the offcuts into something beautiful. The heart it takes to create something beautiful for our loved ones, even when we're starting with almost nothing. I imagine a lot of us can resonate with that.
The final episode takes us to Texas. I never learned, in a whole year of seventh grade Texas history, that my home state didn't outlaw slavery until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The episode begins with an audio recording of an enslaved woman, recounting how when "the War" ended, old master came back from the war and he didn't tell them that they were free. That episode also opens with Juneteenth celebrations: parades, dancers in the streets, ebullient joy. Jerelle Guy talks about her apple pie, traditional for Juneteenth. "American as apple pie," right? And this is America: beautiful and bold and full of resilience. Or at least: this is a piece of America that I want to uplift. The racism is America too. That's the America I want to repair.
We meet Black barbecue pitmasters and Black cowboys, too: another piece of Texas history I never learned, though I went to the rodeo every year as a kid. (Of course, rodeo used to be segregated; that's how Black rodeos arose in the first place.) And, of course, the Texas barbecue I grew up eating has roots in enslaved foodways, too. I love getting this renewed glimpse of the state where I grew up, and learning that these quintessential pieces of Americana were always more multiracial than I knew.
"You actually feel your ancestors on these rides," says Anthony Bruno, the trail boss for the Northeastern Texas Trail Riders Association who keep these traditions alive. "It's a spiritual journey." He could be talking about the miniseries, too.
High on the Hog is exceptionally moving, and rich, and real. I'm grateful for its existence. If you haven't seen it, go and watch. This too is Torah, and we must learn.