We often celebrate resiliency as a form of strength.
But there’s a dark underbelly to the reality of soldiering on in the face of trauma — of finding courage because the only other option is surrendering to incomprehensible pain.
This is the complicated truth food writer Stephen Satterfield confronts, with grace and vulnerability, in Netflix‘s already highly regarded series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.” Based on food historian Jessica B. Harris’ book of a similar name, the four-part documentary series explores the history of American food through the lens of the Black experience.
It’s crucial viewing for a country that’s only just beginning to emerge from a year of upheaval and unrest.
Why Satterfield’s vulnerability makes him an ideal host for the Netflix series
Understating the significance of this moment in American food culture is nearly impossible.
In the past year the restaurant industry has grappled with systemic issues including rampant toxicity in the workplace and the injustice of traditional power dynamics. Set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing national conversation about race and racism, there has perhaps never been a better time for Americans to critically examine our food system and question how we can make it more equitable and inclusive for all.
But before we can move forward, we must look back, widening our horizons to acknowledge those who have actively and consistently been overlooked by history.
It’s work that’s long overdue and no easy undertaking. Fortunately, Satterfield is a capable guide.
In the first episode of “High on the Hog,” Satterfield takes viewers all the way back to the beginning of the Black American experience. In Benin, he humbly walks the same red clay road that enslaved people traveled as left their homes and weeps at the site of a mass grave and monument honoring those who died before they left the shores of West Africa.
“It was strange to come home to a place I’d never been,” Satterfield says of his pilgrimage.
It appears cathartic for him to come face to face with these painful pieces of history. Equally so for viewers, who should be indebted to Satterfield for his willingness to bare it all to their benefit.
By the time he returns to the United States in the second episode to untangle the deeply intertwined histories of the American South, soul food and slavery, it already feels as if some weight has been realized.
Why ‘High on the Hog’ is essential viewing
There are undeniable moments of celebration in the show and Satterfield’s quiet and gracious revelry in the joy of food makes him a natural and appealing TV host. As he describes the delicate flavor of a fresh oyster or comments on the contrasting flavors and textures of a slice of freshly baked cake, it’s obvious he’s both knowledgeable and passionate about the subject matter.
But an undercurrent of tension — between the stamina and fortitude of Black Americans throughout history and the agony and injustice that required them to be those things — carries the series forward.
In one scene, Satterfield shares a beautiful al fresco meal on the homestead of a Black family who will soon be displaced after generations due to imminent domain. The forced relocation shades an otherwise joyous meal with a sense of grief. From New York to Houston, he introduces viewers to the culinary achievements of Black Americans such as Hercules Posey and James Hemmings, who made permanent and meaningful contributions to the way we eat and yet have failed to earn widespread recognition.
“High on the Hog” begins the task of uncovering and reclaiming these stories and obliging American history to acknowledge them.
As we continue crucial conversations about how to build a food system that values the dignity of the people within it, there is no path forward without first looking back and honestly taking stock of how we got here. There’s delight to be found in these stories, but there’s pain in the necessity of having to rediscover them at all.
The latter is what makes it essential. For as Satterfield says, our legacy will live on “in the people who guard the gates of our future.”
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Netflix’s ‘High on the Hog’ reclaims Black American food history