Melissa: Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to The Takeaway and we've been spending this entire hour on the farm. Now, in the new Netflix series High on the Hog host and food writer, Stephen Satterfield traces the history and significance of African American foodways. The show was based on a book of the same name by the renowned historian and cookbook author. Dr. Jessica B. Harris.
Stephen: Are you familiar with the phrase high on the hog?
Speaker 1: Oh, yes. Going back to back in the slavery days call was a big deal. Folks on the plantation would kill it for the master but all they got was the parts of the hog, the feet, and the tail, and that intestine.
Melissa: Park culinary show part travel log. The four-episode docu-series follow Satterfield as he travels to West Africa and across the US to bring audiences the stories of the Black people who have shaped US food culture past and present. The chefs, historians, preservationists, activists, and more.
Speaker 1: When you understand your history and understand where you come from, that understanding gives you purpose.
Stephen: We call our food soul food. We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel love and God for
Melissa: For more on the importance of a show like High on the Hog, we're joined now by Osayi Endolyn, a James Beard award-winning writer and co-author of The Rise Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food. Osayi, welcome to the show. Thank.
Osayi: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.
Melissa: Let's just dig right in. Why does this show have such a view wrote in the New York times profound significance?
Osayi: That significance occurs on many levels, but that significance happens, first, just in the existence of this narrative itself. This history is not new as years of the show have come to realize of readers of Dr. Harris' work from known for quite some time, but we haven't seen it presented in this way. That begs the question why is that? That starts to turn our attention toward the decision-makers and the gatekeepers and the realm of media and entertainment who get to decide just who it is that gets to be on planes and boats, traveling to far-off lands, explaining to American audiences what food is important or interesting or curious and what cultures are worthy of closer looks.
That hasn't really ever been a privilege extended to Black people or Black creators, not necessarily with the budgets that we're accustomed to seeing in other travel odds. I felt that it was important to articulate that. The timing of this story is important, not just because of what is happening in African-American history right now, but because of how long it is taken for us to get such a core element of our history portrayed in such a clear and artistic and beautiful way.
Melissa: Really is beautiful. I have to say there's this one portion, one storytelling that just had me screaming and hollering and jumping in my living room as I was watching it. It's really the story of James Hemings. I've taught that for a lot of years as part of my courses in American politics. Can you tell us a little bit about the story of James Hemmings?
Osayi: Yes. I'll have to say that one of the best people to consult for that is Adrian Miller, who wrote a beautiful book called the President's Kitchen Cabinet, the details, the experiences, and the history of Black people in and around the White House throughout our nation's history. He's in two episodes of High on the Hog, but James Hemings was a chef who was trained in France. He was an enslaved chef who worked for Thomas Jefferson.
It was through the training that he received and France and his own innovations and creativity and craftsmanship that he brought back to the United States that he helped establish the fine-dining culture that we have come to understand as being uniquely Eurocentric and aspirationally Americans. It is in fact many Black people who have been part and parcel of forming that legacy for us. That in itself is surprising to many people, but not to folks who perhaps have been closely watching the restaurant industry over the last couple of centuries.
Melissa: For me it also-- it's part of connecting back to your point around sort of who has the budget to travel log. It was also thinking if you go to Mount Rushmore there's like a little plaque that will tell you,"Thomas Jefferson created ice cream." Not Jefferson right. I'm like, "We need to go to Hemings." It's always about asking that question behind. I think that's part of what I find fascinating about High on the Hog is that it actually doesn't start with enslavement here in the US. It begins in West Africa in Benin and for those who haven't watched the series yet, why does it matter to begin there in West Africa?
Osayi: It matters because that's where our ancestors are originated from. When you understand that these human beings brought with them traditions and practices and cultures that were already well in existence. You understand that they took what they already had and made the best that they could with what they were offered, which wasn't very much but upon arrival to what eventually became the United States. That's a point that gets missed per se in a way that I think is so prohibitive to all students of this history because it robs us both have an understanding that the continent of Africa lost something too in the transatlantic slave trade.
In modern times you might call that a brain drain if you work for a tech company but there's an incredible loss of resources of intergenerational presence that happened on that side too. Of course the colonial impact in Africa is still incredibly harmful and damaging. One of the things I really like about High on the Hog is that it also articulates that the culture in Benin and in the neighboring countries, as you might surmise is not static in that those culinary voices are changing and adapting as well. As much as you have people still trying to make the food of their grandparents and their great grandparents, they're also taking the experiences and the other influences of different cultures and travel experiences that they're doing to affect their cuisine and what they want to put on the table.
Just as people here are saying, "I'm not only going to cook with the ingredients that are available in my backyard. I want to incorporate the experiences that I had in Japan or the experiences that I had in Princeville in the food that you're having here." Which if you are of African descent, becomes a lot easier to do and connect those dots once you understand the movement of Black people throughout the diaspora, because where we go our food went to.
Melissa: My one advice for folks who are watching this series is be sure you've got some food in the house to cook because it is going to make you hungry. Moving from all the way from James Hemings to Michael Twitty it gives us that intergenerational look. Thank you so much Osayi Endolyn. James Beard, award-winning writer and co-author of the Rise Black cooks and the Soul of American Food. Thank you so much for joining us.
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