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High on the Hog: The history and impact of Black American soul food

Stephen Satterfield, host of Netflix series "High on the Hog" that explores the origins of African American soul food and its impact on American cuisine.
Akron Roundtable
Stephen Satterfield, host of the Netflix series "High on the Hog," which explores the origins of African American soul food and its impact on American cuisine.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Though the phrase was first published in 1825 in a book by French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, I only found it a few weeks ago while watching Netflix’s High on the Hog, when African contemporary artist Romuald Hazoumè said the words to African American food writer, entrepreneur and host Stephen Satterfield.

“High on the Hog” is a docuseries named for a book by Jessica B. Harris, who holds a doctorate from New York University. The book highlights the African roots of African American food, and how the dishes, ingredients and recipes shaped American cooking.

By the time I finished the fourth and final episode of the first season (a second season is on its way), there were still so many people I wanted to hear from and takeaways I wanted perspective on. Fortunately, Satterfield is appearing today in conversation at the Akron Roundtable. And luckily for me, I have the opportunity to lead that conversation.

We have so much to talk about.

I grew up eating soul food without thinking of it as soul food, let alone thinking of it as something that could shine a light on my ancestral lineage. As a Black girl growing up in Cleveland’s predominantly white suburbs, I learned to view my family’s recipes as something unique to us — as something that tasted great, but reached only as far as the distance between the plate and my mouth.

And let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I watched Satterfield travel to Benin, a country in West Africa that was once a major departure point for the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a country rich in African culture and cuisine. Satterfield and Harris talked about ingredients like okra and rice, and discussed the difference between yams and sweet potatoes (the real yam looks like a big, hairy elephant foot!).

The show introduced me to families in the South, where people like Gabrielle E. W. Carter spoke passionately about her family’s connection to the land they lived and farmed on for generations. I felt her heartbreak knowing that land would be taken away.

I learned about Hercules Caesar and James Hemings, two Black, enslaved chefs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, and how their cooking illustrated the intersection between traditional Black cooking and fine dining cuisine, and popularized dishes like French fries, ice cream and mac and cheese. I learned about, and purchased, cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin and Jerrelle Guy that put a modern twist on traditional Black dishes.

I saw Black people, Black culture and Black history represented in all aspects of American dining. It was truly eye opening for me.

I finished every episode feeling emotional, though the emotion itself is still undetermined. I felt sad, maybe, to have gone through so much of my life without knowing much about who I am. Or disappointed that I clearly hadn’t spent enough time in the kitchen with my mother and grandmothers to develop the same love and passion for our cuisine. I felt a longing knowing that each episode taught me more about our collective ancestors, but brought me no closer to naming my own.

But I also felt proud seeing myself and my family reflected in the hands that prepared each dish, and realizing that my family’s small moments and practices could be shared and reflected back at me through millions of Black people throughout our country's history.

Most importantly, I felt inspired. I felt motivated to let go of the chipotle-and-shrimp-flavored ramen noodle packets I survived on in college, and finally develop my own relationship with Black food, Black culture and the Black people that made it all possible.

“High on the Hog” made me eager to find out who I am.

I'm excited to get a chance to speak with Satterfield about the series' impact, and to see what he can reveal about season two. If you want to hear more about “High on the Hog” from Stephen Satterfield, tune in to WKSU at 8 p.m. next Thursday, Feb. 23, to hear our conversation.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.