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There is a moment when this documentary reaches in and touches the core of who we are as Black people, unleashes our stories on the world and reveals us to ourselves through our roots. It is from the very beginning, guided gently through the stories of Dr Jessica Harris.
Food. When Black people cook, it is more than just the ingredients and seasoning, it runs deeper than the flavour profiles. We are calling on our ancestors, there is a story to every layer, that goes back centuries, beyond the dark days of slavery when our forefathers used what they had to create the bounty of what we have today- because of them, we can.
High On The Hog is a journey that transcends food. From the opening scenes, it holds you in. The journey starts in Africa, in the Benin Republic. The food here is familiar to me and eating with hands is something I talk about in the first episode of my podcast, a traveller’s story, on my journey to Lagos. There are layers in how we do things; from how we taste with the back of our hands, not from the spoon- my mother, grandmother, nanny, cook… all did this- to the rhythm of the pounded yam a distinct memory from summers spent in Asaba on my grandmother’s farm, to celebrate the New Yam Festival, to what palm oil means to us; an oil I still cook with today. The sourness of Eko, or Kan nan as it is known in the Republic of Benin; fermented corn moulded in banana leaves which I still eat today, and the patience and long memory of moi-moi (mangni-mangni) which I talk about in this blog post…
This documentary takes us back to visit lives that time conveniently forgot, ones that live on in us and is long in our memory. This is a history lesson, that takes us to a place most sacred; within. It is where our food comes from. because our food was meant to be felt. In the words of Culinary Historian Michael Twitty, “…a connection between us and our dead and us and those waiting to be born.” Reliving a past that has eluded us, making it ever more present as we guide it forward into the future, that our stories may live on. The intrinsic nature of being Black anywhere in the world is the weight of our history and we are forever tethered to it; no matter how far we have come. The foundation of the world is rooted in Africa and varying aspects of our culture besides our labour; the food, music, art, etc. Based on the book of the same name by Dr. Jessica Harris and narrated by Stephen Satterfield, through whose eyes the viewer also travels, this series is intentional in its Blackness, and deeply protective of it, knitting together stories that connect us across the seas. Our culinary cultures laid the foundation for a wider cuisine, a truth constantly overshadowed in favour of angry white men chefs with inflated egos. This is gentle and enchanting yet in its softness it reveals a hardness and underbelly of American history. Through eminent domain, Andrew Woodard, uncle to Culinary Preservationist Gabrielle Eitienne, is being forced off his land. A place he has called home, land that goes back generations, but in the midst of that heartache he wants to make sure guests of his niece feel a sense of home at a time when he is being displaced from his, by dropping off wine they made together. It is heavy and heartbreaking yet brings home the importance of communion within our community.
That communion is felt in the still working kitchen where James Hemmings created the much loved American staple Mac n’ Cheese, a simple dish with a complicated history, that will prove a little harder to swallow in some quarters. James Hemmings, was a founding father of American cuisine and enslaved Chef to Thomas Jefferson, founding father of American Democracy and author of the declaration of independence. Jefferson would only agree to Hemmings freedom if he found a replacement for him in the kitchens. James trained his younger brother, Peter to replace him in the service of Jefferson, as an enslaved chef. James and Peter were also brothers of Sally Hemmings who would allegedly go on to have six of Jefferson’s children. A controversial claim some dispute, but one with evidentiary support. James Hemmings reportedly drinks himself to death. Slavery goes beyond the physical trauma of the enslaved, the generational emotional trauma left behind trails us for the rest of our lives. The levels to which our stories and history was owned and told by people other than us, those who felt the right to possess another person simply by dint of birth and skin colour, to establish dominion over them intellectually, physically, historically and otherwise… it could not have been easy to live a life like that knowing freedom was not a remote possibility but that story eventually becomes the fabric of a nation that denied one their humanity… It is too heavy a burden to comprehend. However, we must press on because our stories matter.
Yams. The most poignant moment for me was when Dr Harris dispels the inaccuracies about yams which are absolutely NOT sweet potatoes. Yams are an intrinsic part of the Igbo culture, in the eastern part of Nigeria. It is defining. The New Yam Festival, marks the end of the planting and harvesting season. All crops grown are collected and the best ones are packed together by the community and on an appointed day, they are taken to the Igwe’s palace. Everyone attends dressed in their very best, but nothing is eaten until offerings have been made to the gods. The Igwe will pray to the ancestors, thanking them for a good season and seeking their blessing for the coming season. It is the most important and sacred of times because it highlights the important relationship with the ground, Mother Nature. Back then, the land was cultivated by hand, with a hoe and cutlass; seeds planted and harvested manually and in so doing there was a deeper level of care for the land. Yam is supremely significant because without yam you cannot celebrate milestones in life, the birth of a child after eight days as is the tradition, a new home, a marriage or engagement etc. in a sense, yam is the most important food because it signifies favour from the gods, a blessing from our ancestors, and as such, is the chief of foods. The yam is not a sweet potato, it is a travesty to call it as such.
all of those things that now join us are things that came with usDr Harris; High On The Hog
Memories make us forever beholden to our past; the scene in the market when the rice trader talked them through the different levels of rice, was very emotive, particularly as Dr Harris informs us on the importance of rice to the South in America. In the second episode chef Glenn Roberts talks about the importance of Carolina gold rice to Charleston and how the economy of the South fell by nearly 80% with emancipation of Slaves, who had the expertise to plant and grow this rice. A link between Benin Republic and the transatlantic slave trade. It is a revelation in our closeness as people and the importance of preserving what we as Africans, have contributed to the world as it was and as it is today. That interconnectivity within, beyond borders of our countries; the Voodoo religion in Ganvie with similar attires to those worn by Cherubim and Seraphim worshippers in Nigeria, a religion founded in the 1920s as an anti-thesis to the European religions introduced to Africa by way of the missionaries. Religion is deeply intense in Africa, because it is a way to hold on to hope in the midst of a hopelessly tangible predicament. It is literally faith. The Voodoo elder states it with pride; their uniform belief in the religion and how it is they came to be on the land they call home. The story sounds oddly familiar and commonplace, even in its wildness. To the outsider it may seem flimsy but to those within, these signs mean something profound. These are practises that enhance the connection we have to our past, whether or not we are physically involved in them, they remain that familiar thread. They remind us of our roots, our foods that were farmed and harvested on our free lands, where our ancestors lived, built and loved as free men. These are the memories they took with them as they were stolen from their homes, memories that took them back if only in spirit and soul to remind them of the very best of the lives and loves left behind whom they never saw once past those gates of no return.
Freedom in all its facets is radical, severing ties to histories that enslave us and making room for memories that reveal the land of our forefathers to us; the land meant for us. The baggage around the perceptions of Blackness is endemic in history but this documentary gives us another way of navigating our relationship to our lineage; it celebrates our lives outside the common narrative. Our Blackness is beyond oppression, a concept the West, especially the media, does not promote. Our stories are rooted in the facets of our character as a whole and in the crevices, which gives us the ground to explore the fullness of our Blackness; our music, food, art, books… these stories matter.
Food connects us in a way nothing else can, from how its spelt, okro or okra; I grew up with the former, so I still say it today, to how it is eaten in different parts of the world, I didn’t grow up eating okro with rice, I eat it with swallow; pounded yam or eba but its better with pounded yam in my opinion. Food sears through the narratives often framed by outsiders without understanding and brings it within to those who have a connection to it. High On The Hog gives us space to celebrate our stories and cultures, retell and revel in, them. It gives us a place to enjoy those stories, without needing to codify them to suit the western gaze. In this story, we are the explorers and the story tellers; our cultures are laid bare in all its revelations, embedded in the stories of our ancestors as told by those who were very nearly there. Here we witness the strength and influence of Africa in its entirety. It reframes the narrative, elevates Black joy in a space of peace, without the context of pain and suffering, that overarching Hollywood narrative.
At its core, this is a celebration of our humanity. We return home as free people, walk the roads once walked by our ancestors as slaves. The earth remembers us, our gait is familiar, the wind swirls in welcome… and just before we round the corner, we take a glimpse back to see the joy on their the faces, because we are their wildest dreams come true.
HIGH ON THE HOG, NOW SHOWING ON NETFLIX