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‘High on the Hog’ Producers on How Their All-Black Creative Team Told the Story of African American Food

High on the Hog: How African
Netflix

Netflix’s new “High on the Hog” isn’t just a food show or a history show or a travel show. It’s a joyful combination of all of those genres, shot through with a deep reverence for the people and places that were formative to creating African American food — which in turn became simply American food.

Based on the foundational book of the same name by food historian Jessica B. Harris, the four-part series travels to Benin, West Africa, as well as around the United States, from South Carolina to Texas, Philadelphia and New York. In doing so, the show reveals stories behind the food of the African American table and its relationship to Black history.

“High on the Hog” was hatched by food-loving filmmakers Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback, who served as executive producers and enlisted “Life, Animated” filmmaker Roger Ross Williams to direct. Food writer, chef and sommelier Stephen Satterfield took on his first TV hosting gig with the project.

From an emotional moment at a memorial site remembering the slave trade in Ouidah, Benin, to a hunger-inducing tour of Juneteenth desserts and traditions, it’s an expansive and lushly-photographed view of both painful and celebratory moments in history, bookended with the traditional sounds of South Carolina’s Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters.

“It’s our agricultural knowledge tied to our culinary knowledge, with this historical and cultural context, which I feel just hasn’t been seen and presented as part of a cohesive story. Until now,” Satterfield tells Variety.

Here, Satterfield, Toback and Jagger talk with Variety about how they approached the production of the groundbreaking series.

How did you decide to base the series around the “High on the Hog” book?

Fabienne Toback: Writer Jeff Gordinier sent me the book. It was this beautiful connection to our love of food, and it made perfect sense. When I read “High on the Hog” there was so much information that I had no idea about. And as a Black American, I thought, “If I don’t know about this, how many other people don’t know about this history?”

Stephen, what was it like hosting a show for the first time?

Stephen Satterfield: I remember Fabienne reaching out and asking me if I knew the book by Dr. Jessica B. Harris. Not only did I know it, but it had such a profound impact on my life. I was so just effusively supportive that my mind wasn’t in a space of me hosting — I was just like, “I want the show to happen.” So it took a couple of conversations before I realized what was being asked.

Karis Jagger: Stephen kept thinking that we wanted his help, but we were like, ‘No, we want more than your help, we want you.’

You shot the first episode in Benin with Dr. Harris — what was it like filming there?

Satterfield: I was described in the New York Times as being “wonderfully green.” I think it’s sort of true. I’ve made a tremendous amount of media. But almost all of it has been with me on the other side of the camera. I just didn’t know what to expect. I was just in awe of the whole experience. It will always be a surreal experience. It was heightened by the fact that I was there with someone who was an intellectual and literary hero of mine.

How did you approach shooting the food scenes? It’s so much more than a cooking show.

Toback: When Karis and I were developing this series, we were very intentional that this is not a cooking show. It’s not a how-to step-by-step, but the food is an integral through-line of telling the story. So that carried through.

Jagger: Jerry Henry is an incredible DP and did a phenomenal job. A lot of those places — it was hot and he would spend that time making sure we got all those beautiful shots.

What was the most memorable food experience in Africa?

Jagger: There was this hot sauce that was banging! And there was another scene where food had been prepared by these women in local villages nearby. They were old recipes that were pre-colonial. It was really interesting with funky flavors that I had never had before.

Satterfield: I’m going to piggyback on the hot sauce because it was so elusive. I tried to replicate this hot sauce with all kinds of peppers. And I can’t figure it out. I’m convinced that it must be the terroir of the peppers that grow there because I can’t get the same nuance, flavor and spice profile.

It was in every restaurant that we went to, and we would ask about it. And they were like, “What are you talking about?” No one knew the recipe, but it was so much a part of their lives, that I don’t even think they noticed that they had the most special hot sauce in the world.

The second episode focuses on South Carolina, the Sea Islands and the Gullah Geechee community — why are they so important to the history of African American food?

Satterfield: I think one of the biggest takeaways from that episode is really about the foundational relationship between African American people and the United States. That story comes out in the story of rice. When we look at how the wealth of the nation was established, [we’re pushing] back against the prevailing narrative of Black people being enslaved because of our bodies, our physical beings, and being forcibly put into labor. The truth is, it was actually our minds that were the precursor to the wealth of the nation, because rice is such a difficult crop to grow. So part of what has been lost in this story is just a complete marginalization of how important the rice trade was in establishing the wealth of the country, but also how the African American people, the enslaved Africans, who grew that wealth did so not just with our bodies, but principally with our knowledge.

How did you decide to integrate the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters as part of each episode?

Toback: The second episode was shot first, and the Ring Shouters were featured in there. And then we realized every episode had to have that musical piece in addition to the chamber orchestra, the church music, the band at Texas University. Every episode had to have those beats. Music is such an important part of African American history. There wasn’t music from these pre-colonial periods that you could access, so bringing in modern versions of that became very important.

High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. Episode 1, “The Rice Kingdom”. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

What was it like working on a project with a predominantly Black creative team?

Satterfield: It was the part of the production that made me say yes right away. So much of the power of this project is about the content, but also, who had the agency to make the show. I think that what you see — us sharing these stories from our communities — is a level of care and sensitivity that I don’t think would have been possible without completely allowing those of us with the lived experience to be the arbiters and interpreters of these stories, to project and reflect back into the world. I don’t think it’s something that will be lost on Black viewers, either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.

Toback: We were so lucky to partner with Roger. He really got it. With “Life Animated,” he brought such a nuanced sensitivity to telling that story. We didn’t want it to make it just about food, but also to bring that sensitivity, to show the resiliency and the artistry. He had enough of the clout and an acumen to help us get this made.

There’s a lot of film artistry in there that Roger brought to the table, in terms of allowing space to reflect, where it’s not always talking. In that wonderful scene where Stephen is standing in the field, it’s like something’s going to happen, some sort of nugget is going to be dropped. And we’re giving you a pause to kind of take it in. That’s Roger.

Until recently, many food and travel shows have featured a lot of white guys traveling around the world. Do you think that dynamic is finally starting to change?

Satterfield: I hope I am a part of the changing dynamic. We’ll see. I’ve dedicated my life to food for a really long time. I’m so ecstatic for a generation of young Black children who will have the opportunity to see their likeness on the screen reflected back to them, and to see their history given the same care and attention as all of the other histories that we are taught to value and often prioritize. Especially in the world of culinary arts, we see a hierarchy with European cuisine at the very top and French cuisine at the tippy top of that hierarchy. So I’m happy to jump in early and I hope there are others who are right behind me.

What are you hoping that audiences take away from the series ?

Jagger: I would hope that people see the contributions that African Americans and Blacks have had on the American kitchen. Even something as simple as mac and cheese, which is something so familiar, now it’s just being reconsidered. Black cuisine is not monolithic. The broader we see our contribution, the less it gets siloed into, “Black food is bad.”

Toback: There’s a very high level of activism in regard to telling our story. When we were looking at people to populate the series, we were very intentional.

Jagger: There’s also a really beautiful thing of passing the torch and I think that was part of the beauty of having Stephen. There was a passing of the torch from Jessica to Stephen and you see it with BJ Dennis and the greens, and in every episode, there’s a feeling that the next generation needs to take the story to the next generation. So, Stephen will pass the torch on, hopefully to my son, and on and on and on.

“High on the Hog” is streaming now on Netflix.