A Break-Down of Netflix 'High on the Hog' series- Connecting the African diaspora and the Americas.
Earlier this year, during Black History month, I created a mini series on my channel to focus on celebrating the achievements of Black history all over the world.
One of the episodes focused on the similarities in food culture among enslaved folks in the south of the U.S, Nova Scotia and the Caribbean. I was able to put together the video with information from other food blogs, Youtube videos and a combination of my personal experience growing up in the Caribbean.
Video linked below
When the Netflix 4 part series, 'High on the Hog' premiered in May, I was over the moon because the series started from the beginning of how food from Africa, specifically Benin travelled to the Americas. I'd love to promise you that there won't be any spoilers but I 100% will as I'll be providing a summary of each episode and my key takeaways... so sorry in advance, but please do yourself a favour and go watch it.
The series covers the journey of food writer, Stephen Satterfield as he connects the dots between African cuisine and its influence on African- American food today. Each episode focuses on a different region and style of African influenced cuisine and dives deeper into the creative and intricate way our ancestors made their food.
OUR ROOTS- EPISODE 1
The first episode focused on Benin and its cuisine. Culinary historian and writer of the book, "High on the Hog" Dr. Jessica Harris was a featured guest and gave us a history lesson on the use of okra as a thickening agent and debunked the myth about sweet potatoes being yams yam.
Did you know that for a while, sweet potatoes were considered yams in North America? This has to do with the fact that yams were not able to grow in North America due to temperature and so our ancestors came up with the next best thing, sweet potato. So unless you're looking at something that looks like a hairy elephant hoof, it's not yam.
It was great to see Benin cuisine showcased such as amiwo, as I usually only hear about Nigerian and Ghanaian cuisine. Some Benin food pioneers featured were:
Valerie Vinakpon- chef and owner of Saveur du Benin (Taste of Benin)
Karlene Vignon Vullierme- food blogger
Sedjno Ahousansou- Head chef and co-owner of Chill n' Grill
Benin and the Salve Trade
At one point, Benin was known as the Slave Coast because the Kingdom of Abomey was the biggest kingdom of the slave trade. Not only were folks uprooted and taken away from Africa, but their food such as okra, watermelon were taken with them.
Fortunately, some folks were able to find safety during the slave trade. Ganvie, Africa's largest lake village that was formed in the 17th century by people who were looking for safety during the slave trade. To date, approxiamtely 30,000 folks live on the island. The people are called Tofinu people which means "water men/people".
Since they live on a lake, fishing is a big part of their lifestyle and so during the episode, Stephen was fed tilapia, cassava and tomato sauce. He was able to link a connection between this meal and a popular Sunday meal he would often have growing up in Georgia which was fried fish with spaghettis and tomato sauce. Another link that was made was between a Benin snack called councada which was made from peanut, sugar and oil which was called "baby ruth" in some parts of the U.S.
In that moment, I was blown away because I could immediately remember growing up in Jamaica and eating something similar called "peanut drops" which was also known as "tablet" in Haiti.
Benin dishes before enslavement
To end off the episode, artist, Romuald Hazoumé, hosted a dinner that showcased food that our ancestors enjoyed before enslavement. Only a few women from small villages that surround Porto Novo know how to prepare these dishes. There was very limited information found about these dishes but you can find a list below of the ones mentioned in the episode.
List of dishes enjoyed before enslavement.
Ata tchitchi- made from beans
Magni mangni- from a steamed paste of seasoned, ground black-eyed peas. Black-eyed peas are shelled and ground, then seasoned with onions, red palm oil, ginger, salt, pepper and chili. source: https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/magni-magni-2/
Ayiman- fish/ fish heads eaten kan nan which is corn
RICE KINGDOM- EPISODE 2
The significance of rice in the U.S
I'll be honest in saying that I do not know much about American history except for what I've watched or read so episode 2 was the first time I learnt that the ports in Charleston, North Carolina was the entry point for 40-60% of enslaved Africans ranging.
Charleston was the capital of America's slave trade and for those who were kept in Charleston, they worked on plantations, mainly for the productions of rice, which drove most of the wealth of America. In the 18th-19th century, Carolina Gold Rice became such a popular and heavily desired that it was exported to Europe and Asia.
Traditions passed down
Michael Twitty, a culinary historian teaches about African-American food history in a unique way by wearing the attire of the enslaved and using the cooking utensils and methods that the enslaved used to prepare their meals. It's no secret that the enslaved were not treated with dignity and so they took some of their dignity back by carefully preparing tasty meals that were often made from the desirable parts of meat they were given and leafy vegetables that they grew in their small gardens.
One thing that stood out to me while he was cooking was how something as simple as the way we taste our food was passed down from generations. My mother taught me to taste food, not by putting your mouth on the spoon, but by dapping some on the back of your hand or your palm.
The cuisine in Charleston is very rich in southern cooking which has great influence from the cooking style of The Gullah people. Chef Bj Dennis is a pioneer for Gullah cooking via his pop-up dinners hosted all over the country. His mentors Bill and Sara Green are owners of Gulla Grub.
Back in the days when malaria was widespread in America, slave owners would go into the mountains to the escape the disease and so the Gullah people, who were more immune to malaria, were able to hold on more to their heritage as a result of isolation.
So, what is Gullah cooking? "Gullah cooking is cooking first of all with love and cooking in season. Everything that you eat, you eat it according to season"- Sara Green.
Rice, vegetables and fresh seafood, especially mullet fish, is popular in the Gullah cuisine.
The tradition of cooking a whole hog/s was typically a once a year event, mostly held in the winter as a community event to help with survival throughout the winter. They were cooked in a variety of way such as: salted for ham, smoked and used to make sausage.
OUR FOUNDING CHEFS- EPISODE 3
The first celebrity chefs
This episode starts off by focusing on the legacy of Hercules Caesar and James Hemmings who at one point were enslaved on plantations in Virginia.
Hercules was the enslaved chef for President George Washington when the president's house used to be in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In an effort to keep Hercules enslaved and as his chef, President Washington would send Hercules back and forth to Mount Vernon because state law said that if an enslaved person was on Pennsylvanian soil for 6 months or later, they were automatically free. James Hemmings was an enslaved chef for Thomas Jefferson.
Both of these chefs master cooking delicious meals over open fire known as hearth cooking.
Hercules was known for doing French service but he didn't use French techniques as he mostly did English-style food while Hemmings cooked French food because he did an apprenticeship in France when he was 19 years old.
Hemmings cooking influence is carried on and can be seen in some of Virginia's cuisine, especially in Monticello where the cuisine is half- Virginian, half- French. In order for him to get his freedom, he had to train his younger brother to replace him and the kitchen that he used to do that training, is still in working condition today. It is also where the famous mac and cheese was made. Dr. Leni Sorensen, a cultural historian gave a tour of the kitchen and cook mac and cheese the way Hemmings did in which the noodles were cooked in half water, half milk. It is speculated that he learned to make it while he was in France and introduced it to the U.S which today is now a favourite meal enjoyed by many..
Fun fact: 6 months before his death in 1826, Jefferson bought pounds of raw macaroni which can be an indication that mac and cheese was a very liked dish by his household.
Oyster's place in Black History
I have a question for you. Have you ever tried oysters? Are you making a disgusted face right now by the thought of the name? Lol... bet you haven't tried it.
Did you know that back in the1800s, a freed black man named Thomas Downing with the support of the working-class black oystermen, made an empire in the heart of New York and was known as the oyster king? Back then, dishes like oyster stew was very popular.
Chef, Omar Tate is making it his mission to show the flip side to African-American cooking that is more than just southern cooking where our ancestors cooked with scraps they were given but also the fine dining aspect. He admitted that his first time eating oyster was when he was 22 years old. This was because he started to cooking professionally and worked at a fine dining restaurant in Philly and of course most of the customers served were white folks so he assumed oysters was a white folks thing. When he learned about Thomas Downing and his contribution to fine dining, he felt the need to reclaim that history through his cooking and introduce it to the community
Fun fact: At the time, it was said that New Yorkers ate over 600 oysters a year as it cost about half a penny at the time.
The beginning of the catering business
The episode ends off with a brief history lesson about how the catering business started in the U.S during the 1800s. The Dutrieulle Family was a known catering family in Philadelphia who had a very thriving business and provided services for many private events
Before catering was known as a profession however, Robert Bogle, who is known as the Father of Catering as he served the Black community but was also the "caterer of choice for the white community.
Common catered dishes
Honey Dew Melon
Bellevue broth- broth mixture of chicken and shellfish broth with whipped cream and parsley.
Virginia Ham and Greens- stewed down ham with collard greens, mustard greens and dandelion greens, onions, garlic, and vinegar
Frankfurters and Krout
Crab salad on crackers
As a Guyanese native, I was intrigued to find out that pepper pot, which is the national dish of Guyana, was the most popular street vended dish in Philadelphia during the 18th to 20th century . Known in this region is pepper pot stew, It was sold as a street vended item, mostly by free women of colour. It was made from oxtail and has connections to the West Indies, with the addition of scotch bonnet peppers and is tomato based with seasonings like paprika, garlic, onion, thyme. - Omar Tate
FREEDOM- EPISODE 4
Up until watching this episode, I never really understood what Juneteenth represented for Black Americans. It represented emancipation from slavery for Black Americans, specifically those living in Texas. Although slavery was abolished in 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, for those living in Texas, freedom was delayed for another 2 and a half years, June 19, 1865.
Food blogger and author of Black Girl Baking Jerrelle Guy shares her take on emancipation with her baking, which she uses to express herself and feel empowered.
Fun fact: Did you know that almond flour was used in baking by a lot of Black cooks in the past because they didn't have cake flour? This amazing substitution apparently gives the cake a nice softness. I might have to try that hack one day.
Jerrelle made a red velvet cake and as a substitute for red dye, she used beets instead. Yes, you heard right... Beets! Team natural and organic wins again.
Eugene Thomas, Juneteenth descendant expressed that Juneteenth for Black folks of Texas is the equivalent of what the Fourth of July is for the rest of the U.S. The colour red is significant during this celebration because it is a reminder of the blood shed before emancipation.
This year, President Joe Biden signed a bill to observe Juneteenth as a federal holiday in the U.S.
People participate in a parade to celebrate Juneteenth in Atlanta on Saturday, June 19, 2021.(Megan Varner/Getty Images)
Do you know the real history of the American Cowboy? Despite what is mostly seen in the mainstream media, America's first cowboys were actually enslaved black men. During slavery days and segregation, black men were often called "boy" by slave masters. They learned how to handle mules, horses and cows and the skills they learned was used to gather cattle. Texas had an abundance of meat and those up North needed that meat which made a lot of money for slave masters. In the mid-1800s, they helped to herd roughly five million cattle out of Texas- (excerpt from High on the Hog). If you'd like to know more about the history of black cowboys, another Netflix recommendation is Concrete Cowboy . If you're ever in Rosenberg, Texas, you can also visit the Black Cowboy Museum.
A meal that was common eaten by cowboys was "cowboy stew" also known as "son of a gun". It was made from the organs of the cow and included: kidneys, marrow gut, heart.
There is no doubt that Texas is known for it's famous BBQ and brisket. Enslaved African Americans who were moved from west Tennessee and other parts started BBQ in Texas. Although the BBQ style of central Texas seems to be the only style used to define BBQ in Texas, there are multiple BBQ styles differ based on region. East Texas is heavily influenced by African American influence, South Texas has Latinx influence, Central Texas is central European.
All in all, this 4 part series is a must watch as I'm sure you'll be able to make some cultural food connections from your own country/culture and have a lot of "aha" moments like I did. It was also great to get all this information in such a beautiful way and understand the history of food in the U.S. Hopefully, we will have a series like this one day for Caribbean islands and African Canadians. If you know of any, please feel free to share them with me.
For melanated people, our history is connected not only in the pain of slavery but the history of our foods tells a story of our creativity, persistence, and community building to make a better life for ourselves that we know we deserve. We are more connected than we think.