The format may sound familiar to fans of other Netflix food shows, but make no mistake, High on the pig do something different. The series explores the culinary history of African American people, starting in Benin, where host Stephen Satterfield and historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris visiting the Slaves Cemetery in one particularly profound scene, the memorial to the mass grave of West Africans who previously died in the activity they could be loaded onto ships to America. It is the survivors of this trip and their resilience, which is evident in countless contributions to American culinary culture, that populate the following three episodes.
The result is a sense of long-awaited reassurance, for both those deeply rooted in the African American barbecue tradition and those who first saw the Mac her grandmother’s cheese recipe is almost identical to the version that James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, introduced to this country. And when you complete the entire series, one feels that, given its place on a streaming platform routinely watched by millions, this show has the ability to transform, or in the future, a wider cultural awareness of African American culinary history at least the profile of his featured stewards such as Omar Tate, BJ Dennis, Toni Tipton-Martin, Michael Twitty and of course Dr. Raise Harris to the level of recognition they deserve.
High on the pig also offers a new spotlight for Satterfield as spectator guide and deputy. But the founder of Grindstone media wants to make it clear that he understands the inclination to thank the host of such a show – and in the weeks since it premiered, he says he is thankful for releases like this from grateful viewers around the world have praised the show for its cultural significance – it is just a “receptacle for the material”. The series is based on a book of the same name by Dr. Harris, and it was Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback who read this volume and believed it was going to be a TV show. And High on the pig would not be what it would be without contributions from other black creatives, including director Roger Ross Williams, whose “talent and confidence Netflix has in him allowed the show to get the green light,” and showrunner Shoshanna Guy. “All of the nuances required, all of the care that it takes to put the material on, it really took a Black woman to be on the show running side,” says Satterfield. “And Shosanna did a great job.”
I met with Satterfield about the culmination of this effort and the effects of it High on the pig. This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Esser: How do you feel now that it’s in the world?
Stephen Satterfield: I am very relieved. It was really weird to be in limbo since the announcement was made and the show has not yet been released, but obviously we’re past that point. The reception was wonderful; it even exceeded my expectations.
What were your expectations?
It’s weird, I knew you would ask me that, but the truth is, I actually didn’t have any expectations. I think what I was trying to say is that I never expected the kind of feedback we got. We had never seen anything like it in the food and travel genre. With the creators of the show, the theme of the show, it was really about us reflecting our love for black people and black culture and appreciation for all of these contributions, and I believe that blacks across the diaspora have that attention, that care and love. For me, that was by far the most enjoyable part of the whole experience.
The show does a great job of delving into the past and dealing with it, but the overall feel is one of the delight. I think this quote from Omar Tate in the third episode embodies this idea: “Often times our story is dark or we consider it dark. But there was just so much beauty between the lines and I have the feeling that menus and food are the synthesis that arises between the lines, between the story. ”
Did you think about it when you wrote it, and how did you draw the line between presenting and recognizing the story, but not lost in the darkness of it?
We didn’t have to prepare for that because that is what I believe is the authentic nature of blacks in the United States and everywhere really. This word, which so often precedes every description of a black man in the United States, is resilience, has a reason, and speaks of the incredible ability and quality of recovering and enjoying ourselves despite all the atrocities our community has imagined.
We didn’t have to give direction in the parts of our history that were bleak or difficult. That sober feeling, that bad feeling, is very easily accessible. It’s always close to the surface, but black love and joy and fellowship is close to the surface too. Omar is a homie, he’s someone I respect. Filming in his company, eating his food – that is joy, that is a festival in itself. Gabrielle [Eitienne] is someone I love, admire and respect. BJ [Dennis] and so many other incredible talents from our people, our culture, and our history are reflecting them back to the world in incredible ways. It was just an honor to be able to share this experience with them.
Another thing I really appreciated about the show was its size. As I watched, there were parts that I learned from and others that just evoked a deep sense of appreciation; As we go through the show, we can see that you experience both sides of it. What were some of these learning moments for you?
Everything in Benin was definitely a revelation. Romauld Hazoumé, the artist, like great artists, I found so enlightening and illuminating in his work with the oil cans and the breaking up of geopolitics between Nigeria and Benin through this work of art.
Learning about the Dahomey Warriors was a story I’d read about. But to be in Dahomey, to be on this red clay, to get a feel for what life was like on the continent hundreds of years ago, how the many tribal groups all existed and lived side by side, and of course, as we see in the film , are complicated – difficult complicity is also part of the story. These are things to read about, but seeing the physical environment, speaking to descendants, and speaking to educators and historians in that place and space is a really profound learning opportunity that will stay with me forever.
In the first episode, food blogger Karelle Vignon-Vullierme says: “I don’t understand why African food is not as popular as Asian or French cuisine.” You can feel that High on the pig will this needle move?
It’s only been a week but I think this show not only has the ability and potential to change the culture, but also [also] show [running] Culture. We have seen repeatedly in the media, and especially in the entertainment sector, that black creators are being given resources to tell their own stories, that they are extremely successful. We have seen the results of this repeatedly in Hollywood. And, in terms of food media and food travel, I hope this changes the idea of who can host and how we can tell stories about food.
You have a long and established career in the food industry; Does the Netflix spotlight feel like a completely different arena?
It is absolute, yes.
Where do you want to go from here? What’s next for you
I am currently the CEO of Whetstone Media. I have a great responsibility to run and grow our company. This is what I will continue to focus on and do exactly the work I want to do. Similar to High on the pig, the work we do revolves around reclamation. It’s about defending ourselves against narrative exclusion and erasure and distortion and obfuscation and regaining our own identity and power and being connected to our history. You can see that in the way we present and promote this dialogue.
I think, if anything, the answer confirmed for me my general professional thesis that food is a powerful way to connect with people’s identity, to radicalize people, and to instill the necessary pride in their own culture that it makes them feel enables you to be yourself in the world. And hopefully, by being safe in their own place in the world, they can make the world safer and more open to other cultures. I think this show showed that there is a lot of truth in this thesis based on the really personal, intimate responses I see from people all over the world.
Can you share one of these answers that moved you in particular?
One thing I’ve seen many times is letters from Brazil, from our cousins on the other side of this trade, who have been statistically even more affected than we are in the United States. That need for connection and the intensity and intense gratitude of your writing let me know how deeply influenced you have been by the show. This cousin connection hit me in the chest the hardest and also let me know how deep this material goes.