High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America 4 episodes from Netflix starting May 26

I haven’t seen it yet but here is a trailer for the series and an article that gives more detail:

excerpt from LA Times article:


Cooking the late-1700s-era recipe comes in the third of the show’s four episodes, which focuses on contributions of the chefs enslaved to the earliest presidents of the United States. They include Hercules (sometimes known as Hercules Posey), who cooked for George Washington, and James Hemings, whom Thomas Jefferson sent to France for training. Hemings perfected the recipe for what so many of us know and love today as mac and cheese. When bartering successfully for his freedom, Hemings wound up training his younger brother Peter to take over his responsibilities. Historical records can trace how a lineage of cooks from Jefferson’s kitchens spread throughout the growing nation, circulating Hemings’ base of knowledge.

https://www.netflix.com/title/81034518

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Thanks for the heads up! I have the book, but love the way Netflix does cooking shows.

We watched the first episode last night and really enjoyed it - very thought provoking and emotional in places.

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I haven’t read the book and can’t read the LA Times article (ad paywall and malware). I read the Esquire article as well as reviews of the book and the series in The Guardian and on Amazon. I’m streaming the show on Netflix now.

I think the story is told through a very biased, per-conceived lens. There are a number of errors in fact. Yams vice sweet potatoes is one: sweet potatoes were well entranced in Native American and Mayan cuisine long before African-Americans appeared on the scene. By the way, yams will indeed grow in North America despite the book and series saying otherwise. There is conflation of food and cuisines from poor North America and specifically African-American (pigs feet for example). Claiming rice originated in Africa just doesn’t hold up. That the complex agriculture of rice came to America from China and/or India by way of West Africa has some merit. To take credit for red beans and rice is more than just a stretch.

There is so much good to say about the Black influence on cooking in America both in home and professional kitchens, it is disappointing to make things up or fail to fact-check legend. BOH was dominated by Black people long before cultural shifts led to so many Hispanics in commercial kitchens. Black grandmothers passed down recipes and techniques as field workers passed down and built on agricultural techniques.

So far, the okra story (not my favorite vegetable, but no matter) is the only one I’ve seen or seen referenced that is supported by history.

Watching the Netflix series I see a lot of French influence likely from the colonial era when native people ended up in kitchens. The story of Mr. Hemings being sent to France for training simply builds on this reality.

Influence in the other direction such as tomatoes and peanuts native to the Americas taken back to Africa by slave traders (suspected) are ignored. Again the French influence is ignored.

The vignettes of slavery were well done and heart-rending. The accountability of what we might now call African warlords for their part of the slave trade is appropriate.

Here is a great story, lightly touched on in “High on the Hog” that deserves a read.

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Biased history ? Say it isn’t so!

I don’t remember hearing rice originated in Africa, but I DO remember the part about the connection between very early slavery and rice cultivation.

I don’t understand that. Do you mean yams vs sweet potatoes? What do they say about yams vs sweet potatoes? I am familiar with the notion that what North American’s call "sweet potatoes ", and what some people call yams ( the deeply orange colored sweet potatoes) were sort of a substitute for what is called a yams in other cultures. I have seen yucca or cassava used that way in other cultures as well. I assume yucca and cassava grow close enough to California to be common in Latinx and Asian markets.

The Netflix show says that African slaves used sweet potatoes instead of yams. Sweet potato cooking was deeply ingrained in the Americas long before the slave trade began. There is nothing wrong with adopting what exists. There is error in saying it is the contribution of a people when it was well established.

The show (first I think, maybe the second) said slaves brought rice to the Americas. That simply isn’t true. The agriculture does seem to have come through Africa although it originated in China and/or India.

To my understanding yam, yucca, and cassava (Oxford comma!) are closely related. All are grown in places with a lot of heat so North and West Africa as well as Central America, SEA, and India.

I do think I take your point that there is a LOT of history that is biased. The winners write the books. There is great merit it pushing back across the board and looking for credible footnotes.

I’ll point out that I push back on tomatoes as “authentic Italian.” grin It just isn’t. Peppers, key to cuisine across the planet, come from Central America. Only a few hundred years for their value to be engrained.

What I find truly deficient in the show is ignoring the huge Creole development of the African diaspora in the Caribbean. That is where a lot of innovation occurred that also came to the US mostly in the South and Gulf regions. That is the home to my understanding to classics like red beans and rice and peas and rice. Lots of chicken and goat dishes. Turtle. Conch. Lots of pelagic fish. The show is about pre-modern French cooking made by people who happen to have skin of a particular hue.

Running through the shows a second time noticed one of the restaurateurs in Africa trained in the Caribbean.

I’m going to have to review those parts in the book.

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I found this passage:

“. As early as eighteen thousand years ago, some Nile Valley communities in Upper Egypt made intensive use of vegetable tubers. Later humans began to care for wild grasses as well, but did not establish true cultivation until about the sixth millennium B.C., when people started to domesticate plants and animals and evolved lifestyles that were less nomadic. Many of the crops they cultivated then were native to the continent and are still cultivated today. These include some types of yam, African rice, and cereals such as sorghum and millets. Evidence of early agriculture has even been found within the Sahara, which then had a moister climate. Over time, these peoples migrated south, driven by the increasing desertification of the Sahara. In the western part of the continent, they settled in three different areas, each of which depended on a major grain or foodstuff as the basis for nourishment…”

And this one;

“A wide band below the Sahara spanned from Sudan in the east to Senegal in the west and developed around the cultivation of sorghum and several varieties of millet. A coastal area and the Niger Delta region, including what is today Senegal and the Republic of Guinea, depended on rice and fonio, a native cereal grass that produces a small mustard-like seed. A third area, also on the coast, ran from today’s Côte d’Ivoire through Cameroon and cultivated yams. These three crucibles—cereals, rice, and yams—also marked three distinct areas from which enslaved Africans were brought to the United States. Each had its own traditional dishes centered on the starch that was its preference. Those from the rice crucible were among some of the earliest transported by the Transatlantic Slave Trade to what would become the United States. They brought with them their knowledge of rice cultivation and their memories of a rice-based cuisine, like that of today’s Senegal, where wags say that the Lord’s Prayer should be rewritten to say, “Give us this day our daily rice”! Those from the yam crucible arrived later, as the voracious slave trade made its way down the West African coast from Senegal to the Gold Coast, then south to the Bight of Benin and beyond. They saddled the United States with eternal confusion between the New World sweet potato and the Old World tuber whose name it came to bear—the yam. Those from the cereal crucible were inland and therefore not an immediate influence on American tastes until the inception of the slave trade. They depended on millet and on fonio, which were traditional, and by the time they were involved in the trade, on large amounts of American corn.”

Regarding “African rice”, this is from Ricepedia.org

“African rice has been cultivated for 3500 years. Between 1500 and 800 BC, Oryza glaberrima propagated from its original centre, the Niger River delta, and extended to Senegal. However, it never developed far from its original region. Its cultivation even declined in favour of the Asian species, which was introduced to East Africa early in the common era and spread westward. African rice helped Africa conquer its famine of 1203.”

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The implication from the show was that African-Americans were instrumental in making sweet potatoes a common food in the Americas. That simply isn’t true. You could just as easily say they assimilated, just as Chinese and Irish and other diaspora did.

As I understand it, rice and other cereals came to broader Africa from the Fertile Crescent. How rice got to the Americas is less clear, at least to me, but it is apparent that the methodology for growing rice efficiently, developed in China, India, and SEA got to the Americas through the slave trade. Credit there.

The series says yams won’t grow in the Americas. They do. I can’t speak to the book.

I think the series research is suboptimal. Not enough fact checking. Pointing to white potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes as part of the cultural diaspora associated with slavery when those foods originated in the Americas and were taken to Europe and Africa where they were accepted and embraced is just silly. To go further and spend the bulk of the third and fourth episodes of the series celebrating (my word) French cuisine (which without substantiation I associate with the colonial era) as an African-American contribution to American cuisine is bad journalism and unacceptable academics. There are so many real contributions, for this sloppy documentary to stand is sad.

Now about okra… grin

To be clear, there appeared to be some really great cooking in the show. The two historical figures and handful of current African-American chefs highlighted deserve recognition. I’m sure there are many others as well. I know well the history of black US Navy sailors who labored in galleys and kitchens to keep our service members well fed. I’m old enough to remember when black people made up the bulk of BOH in commercial kitchens before the cultural shift to Hispanics.

Recognizing that I have a predisposition to seeing messages in entertainment that may not be intended, the movies East Side Sushi and Ramen Girl come to mind, of contributions across cultural lines. Even Chef (stereotypical middle-aged white guy cooking Cuban food) applies.

In the series I think the vignette about Mr. Downing become the Oyster King of NYC says more about resilience and motivation than anything else in the program.

I love ALL stories about resilience and motivation. Amen to that, and I am not "religious ".

I am watching episode one now, so I will have to get back to you about how one can say who was instrumental and who was not, but I am always alert to gardening references, so I want to make sure I understand what you are saying about growing “yams”, and their relatives.

I think you are saying they “All are grown in places with a lot of heat so North and West Africa as well as Central America, SEA, and India.”, but they do grow in the Americas, and the documentary should have acknowledged they grow in Central America.

“There are so many real contributions, for this sloppy documentary to stand is sad.”

I want to say “beggers can’t be choosers”, but I should check out the origin of that expression. To me, no history, or only European history, is sadder.

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What I learned growing up was “beggars can’t be choosers” but that is nit picking. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/beggars-can-t-be-choosers

I fully understand the issue of being unheard. It is my opinion that putting forward a story that is easily debunked is counter-productive.

I’ve been through (streaming as background but I multi-task pretty well) the Netflix series twice now. I stand by my original assessment that it is biased and based on preconceived opinions. The good stuff is overwhelmed by the errors easily identified by quick Google searches.

I ask you to take at face value that I am NOT a PC person. I am color blind. Story: my last big corporate job HR came to me asking why my “numbers” for minority and gender inclusion were so good and how they could replicate that across the company (I had about 1200 people in a very big company). Answer: I don’t pay attention to things that don’t matter (gender, race, religion, sexual preferences, etc.). I pay attention to performance and work hard to get training and experience to staff to advance them. I promote from within when I can, and hire the best I can find from outside. When staff excel I find them their next job and throw the baby bird out of the nest. Every senior staff hire included me thinking about whether I would want to work for that person. HR thought what I was doing was great but could not be replicated. sigh Is it any wonder that high performing people who felt that they weren’t treated fairly came to work for me?

I do look forward. Looking back is to learn from past mistakes. I don’t hold people accountable for things they did not do, so the reparations arguments are lost on me. I don’t take offense easily so if you have questions about my perspective I’m happy to address them civilly. I have great respect for you and don’t expect anything different than civil discourse. We have to respect HO guidelines of course. My interest in having you adopt me stands. grin

Realy? You will get no argument from me there.

I appreciate your work leadership style, hope it works in other industries, and I do enjoy your input.

Today I appreciate how we noticed different things about High on the Hog.

I disagree that race, gender don’t matter. I think that’s crazy talk, but maybe that doesn’t matter.

It’s media. It’s entertainment. What is the origin of “Don’t get your panties in a bunch”? You should meet my brother. He is in that buisness. Talk about rabbit holes.

Oh, and about the adoption thing, no! That’s “no backsies”. I’m in for foster care, with a stipend for the non-pc business.

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Interesting. I’d welcome your case but I don’t think HO is the place. I suspect it devolves to the equal opportunity vice affirmative action discussion. dave@auspiciousworks.com

Just checked. My panties are not bunched. grin I do have an irredeemable tendency to run down rabbit holes. Checking again - nope not bunched. grin

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HO is for me, an escape from some realities. I like that.

I’m going to look up using the word “vice”. I am apparently thinking of something different.

I’m on episode 3. I was in the marching band at Howard University!

Almost Juneteenth !

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If you find that ‘vice’ is not a synonym for ‘versus’ or vs please let me know.

Another movie reference: “Drum Line”

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Young wippersnappers! ( but it’s a nice homage to HBCU marching bands).

How about School Daze! Not something I am 100 percent proud of, but again, that thing about beggars.

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Shrink-wrap, your calm ability to engage here impresses me. The intense politics buried in claims to be a- or un-political set me off and often risk my ability to participate/ enjoy HO. I’d try to engage (especially as there are many interesting articles circulating on the topic of this show-- directly and obliquely). But instead, my brain is this.

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Sorry, I see autocorrect got the best of me in that post.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold