High On The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America is a four-part exploration of how much of what we consider American cuisine was originated by the African American population, many of whom went through generations of enslavement. In the first episode, host Stephen Satterfield goes back to where it all began, in the tiny West African country of Benin.
Opening Shot: Scenes of host Stephen Satterfield exploring different crops and having meals with people from different areas. “I think a lot about food,” he says in voice over. “How it connects us through time, across geography, from generation to generation.”
The Gist: Satterfield, a chef and writer (he’s the founder of Whetstone Magazine) hosts this four-episode exploration of the history of African American cuisine and how it’s shaped American cuisine in ways that most Americans don’t even realize. It’s based on Jessica B. Harris’ book of the same name, and in the first of the five episodes, we see Satterfield and Dr. Harris in a weekend market in the tiny West African nation of Benin.
Why Benin? Because its ports were where many of the people who were sold into slavery from that region left Africa for good, on the way to the New World. And as Dr. Harris explains to Satterfield, much of the food that was ingrained in the culture of Benin and the surrounding countries was brought over on those slave ships. Crops like black-eyed peas, yams (not sweet potatoes!) and okra, for instance, were brought over because slave traders knew they needed to feed the people who they had forced to get in those ships to begin with. Dr. Harris makes those connections to a surprised Satterfield as they dine in a restaurant whose owner keeps the cuisine of Benin alive.
In the city of Cotonou, Satterfield and food blogger Karelle Vignon-Vullierme, whose family is from Benin, dine at a modern restaurant whose chef takes traditional ingredients and turns them into new dishes. Then Satterfield goes deeper into his journey, both emotionally and gastronomically. In the village of Abomey, he walks the road that people who were sold into slavery by the power-hungry tribe from that area had to walk, in chains, for miles to the port city of Ouidah.
He then visits the lake village of Ganvie, where everyone lives and works on the water. The main religion practiced there is Voodoo. Then, in the capital city of Porto Novo, he talks with artist Romuald Hazoumè, who feeds Satterfield, Dr. Harris and Vignon-Vullierme foods that were regularly made during the slave trade era. Finally, in Ouidah, Dr. Harris takes Satterfield to a memorial on top of a mass grave, where enslaved people who died before getting on the ships were buried. There, the two of them make that spiritual connection to their ancestors, who were forced to come to the New World, bringing the food they knew with them, though they refused to eat on those ships as a maens of control and protest.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of?High On The Hog is a hybrid of Anthony Bourdain’s various shows and the more origin-seeking bent of Padma Lakshmi’s Taste The Nation. But, based on the first episode, the journey Satterfield is going on is much more emotional than any of the other shows we just mentioned.
Our Take: That emotion and sense of connection is what drives High On The Hog, directed by Roger Ross Williams. Through Williams’ direction and the series’ cinematography, you get a real sense of what it’s like for Satterfield to be exploring each aspect of the history of the African American experience through its food. But Satterfield himself is a perfect ambassador to bring out these stories and make the connections to how African American cuisine has, in a lot of ways, become American cuisine.
Satterfield looks like he’s completely laid back, but there’s an intensity to his laid-back nature that cuts through and makes you pay attention. He speaks slowly and deliberately, whether he’s doing scripted narration or talking in real time with someone on camera, but he also intensely locks eyes on who he’s talking to and pays close attention to what that person is saying. Even the best of the best in this genre don’t always look like they’re doing that.
Why is Satterfield so intense? Because tracing the history of African American food — heck, the tracing of history of American food, period — is his life’s work. And seeing him express how comfortable and welcome he felt in Benin, and seeing the connection he made to the resiliency of the enslaved people who survived their journey across the Atlantic and survived despite the unimaginable hardships they faced as enslaved people, really made us feel the genuine emotions that he was going through via this experience.
Parting Shot: Back in the U.S., we see the inside of what was likely quarters for enslaved people on a plantation.
Sleeper Star: Vignon-Vullierme was so charming that we decided to follow her on Instagram, even though her feed is in French.
Most Pilot-y Line: Could Satterfield look a bit unpolished at times? Definitely; when he’s asking questions of the people he’s dining with or walking through markets with, his lack of on-camera experience comes through. But when he does get into real conversation with his companions, instead of scripted questions, his passion comes through. That passion is what we look forward to seeing in the series’ other three hours.
Our Call: STREAM IT. High On The Hog is not only informative, but makes a real emotional connection between food and the history behind it, and a lot of that is thanks to the “relaxed intensity” of Satterfield.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.