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'High on the Hog' aims to eliminate the erasure of Black contributions to American cuisine
Amna Nawaz: "High on the Hog" tells the sweeping history of African American food, first as a book, and now in a highly acclaimed four-part series on Netflix.
Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talked with some of the show's creative team about why this approach has sparked such interest.
The story is part of our Race Matters series and our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: "High on the Hog" begins in Dantokpa market, Benin, West Africa, tracing the history both of African American food and the slave trade from there to the United States, a journey that helped host Stephen Satterfield explore his roots.
Stephen Satterfield, "High on the Hog": I just feel like the experience of seeing my own likeness reflected in the hair...
Jessica B. Harris: Isn't it? Isn't it?
Stephen Satterfield: I see our style in the garments and how we wear stuff.
Jessica B. Harris: And in our swagger.
Stephen Satterfield: Our swagger, our ingenuity, our resourcefulness.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: The show's title is based on the breakthrough book published over a decade ago by historian and writer Dr. Jessica B. Harris, whose work I have applauded in the past.
Jessica B. Harris, Author, "High on the Hog": They brought rice, the yams, peas, beans, black-eyed peas, fava beans. All of those things that now join us are things that came with us.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Harris guides Satterfield in the first episode.
Stephen Satterfield: I felt so nurtured and so honored to be a part of her work and legacy in this way.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Executive producers and creative partners Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback studied and marked up Harris' book for months.
Karis Jagger, "High on the Hog": Yes, hers is crazy.
Fabienne Toback, "High on the Hog": Every Post-It, every note.
Karis Jagger: Yes, look, mine is crazy, too,
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Looks like some of my books.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: How did you find her and how much help was she in your initial creation of the series?
Fabienne Toback: Well, a dear friend of mine sent me the cover of the book, and he said, read this, it's going to change your life.
I sat and read it in one sitting. Karis and I have been working together for 10 -- about a decade now. I gave it to her. And we just like read it and cried. And it just was like this is the culmination of many, many, many years of her work. So, we really wanted to treat it with the utmost care and consideration.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Like its source material, "High on the Hog" acts as a historical corrective, pushing back on the erasure of the contributions of African American chefs and cooks have made, like James Hemings, a Paris-trained chef, and, for most of his life, was Thomas Jefferson's slave.
Hemings helped introduce mac and cheese to America. But this legacy was largely unknown, even to his own descendants.
Stephen Satterfield: So, you must have grown up eating mac and cheese.
Gayle Jessup White, Descendant of James Hemings: Well, sure, we all did, didn't we?
Stephen Satterfield: Yes, we all did, right?
Gayle Jessup White: Yes.
Stephen Satterfield: And how did it feel when you realized that you were a descendant of the person or the family that helped popularize this dish in the U.S.?
Gayle Jessup White: Well, first of all, I didn't grow up with that knowledge. I didn't learn that until recently. And now that I know that, I'm wondering where my royalties are.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: A few decades after Hemings' death, free Black entrepreneurs in Philadelphia, like Robert Bogle, went on to found the nation's first professional catering businesses. These companies became a fixture of high society and served Black and white clients into the 20th century.
Lauren Monroe, Dutrieuille Family Descendant: My family was one of those first pioneers of that, the Dutrieuilles.
So this is one of the first photos that I saw of the family that I was like, wait a minute, people lived like this? How come I don't know about this? Like, what is her story? Where did she come from? What are they doing? So I love this photo.
Stephen Satterfield: Oh, she looks amazing.
Lauren Monroe: Just because like it's -- it says so much.
Stephen Satterfield: Yes.
Karis Jagger: The thing for us with the book was to constantly keep weaving the hard stuff with the joy. So, and I think that's the route that we were taking, because I think, without one, it becomes overwhelming. And you need to balance.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: That's such a great phrase you use, the hard stuff with the joy.
And Black history at the moment is being challenged throughout the country. Are you hopeful that the show will in some way add to the dialogue in a positive way?
Fabienne Toback: Absolutely.
When we looked at developing this book into a series, there's indisputable facts in the book. It's not an opinion piece. These are stories of people that are deeply woven into the nation and our nation's food. And we wanted to illuminate these histories, so that they have some sort of memory or recollection from where that mac and cheese, how it came here.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: "High on the Hog" doesn't only look back. It is also firmly rooted in the president. Jagger and Toback started their own food blog, "Hey Sistah," to find innovators and stalwarts of modern Black food culture, many of whom the show brings together.
Karis Jagger: It's about community and a way to come together. And I think that's something that we show in the show a lot. Every episode focuses on a communal table and a communal meal.
And, for me, that's what food is. It's about having my family come together, having my friends come together, breaking bread, learning things. And that's where I get my joy.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: The show was produced and led by a mostly Black creative team, including Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams.
Stephen Satterfield: There's so much power in each of us in connecting our own personal, ancestral, historical identities to the food we eat every day.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Did you think of an audience, or did you have in mind a certain audience? What was in your own mind as you pursued this?
Stephen Satterfield: We wanted Black people to feel seen and embraced and inspired and loved by this work.
And so what you have is something very unique for Black people, in which our stories are put into our hands and our care, without needed additional context, without filtration.
That is not to say that this is only for Black people. I think that there's a lot to be garnered for the ways in which we can simultaneously celebrate the contributions of a particular culture, but also, as human beings, appreciate those contributions for our collective lives and societies.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: In these racially divisive times, Satterfield and executive producers Toback and Jagger all feel optimistic about the power of inclusive storytelling.
Karis Jagger: We see negative cycles all the time. And I think we just have to -- we have to keep being hopeful that we manage to get out of them. A lot of things have changed since emancipation, and, unfortunately, a lot of things are the same. So -- but let's keep being hopeful.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Charlayne Hunter-Gault.