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Book 'High On The Hog' Inspires Netflix Docuseries


Ten years ago, Jessica Harris wrote a book called "High On The Hog." It chronicled the history of African American cuisine, and it inspired a food writer named Stephen Satterfield.

STEPHEN SATTERFIELD: When I talk about Dr. J., I use words like iconic, brilliant, someone whose literary life and canon should be better known and celebrated.

MARTIN: That's part of the premise behind the new Netflix show "High On The Hog." Satterfield is the host, and Dr. J. - as he calls her - travels with him to Benin in the first episode.

JESSICA HARRIS: It's a small place, but it's had an extraordinary impact on the history not only of the United States but of the hemisphere because it is the place that probably sent more human souls across the Atlantic than anywhere else. And so it's an incredible place. And it has incredible food (laughter). It has just amazing, amazing food.

MARTIN: But the show is about so much more than food. In one of many powerful scenes, Satterfield and Harris visit a mass grave memorial to enslaved Africans who died before crossing the Atlantic. I talked to both of them about what it meant to stand there in that place.

SATTERFIELD: Well, it was a moment that I will probably always struggle to completely articulate, a moment that caught me by surprise, really, in how visceral it was. This way of re-engaging with our past has always been, for me, something that felt a little too traumatic to touch. And so what would have been for many of the final walk of their lives and the final steps of their lives, heading toward an unknown ocean and an unknown land was just an emotional - the first of a couple very emotional moments.

MARTIN: Dr. Harris, what was it like for you? Presumably, you had been there before, but it was a new experience to watch Stephen absorb the place and the power.

HARRIS: It is heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching, soul-wrenching, the first time and the second time and the third time. But I've been almost 20 times, and so for me, the part that was wrenching was watching Stephen and members of the crew going through it. Stephen was so overwhelmed that he just broke down. Other members of the crew also felt the need to honor those folks who survived that. It's sort of a concept that's almost too big to fit in a human head. It's almost like a tactile connection. It's something that happens to and on your skin. It's almost inexplicable.

MARTIN: There's a theme in, I'd say, most food shows on TV of food and communal dining as unifier - right? - as the thing that brings us together. And that's present in this show. But also, especially in that first episode, you're telling a more complicated story, a truer story, really, about how food can be used to divide people, as evidence of the violence. How did you think about that kind of duality?

HARRIS: The thing for me is that the food came with us. The technologies came with us in our heads and hands and hearts. And I think that's the thing that then becomes the connecter. I think the divisiveness - or divisiveness - of it all is when other people start the non-acknowledgement, if you will, the deliberate and sometimes inadvertent separating - like, oh, this is you; this is me.

MARTIN: I guess in closing I would ask each of you how making this show changed the way you think of your own role in preserving the legacy of African American food, of giving it a new story. What did it mean to you?

SATTERFIELD: Gosh. I really feel, personally, changed quite simply by having had the honor to have filmed this with Dr. J. in Africa. And I think it's important for people to understand, you know, my life's work is really dedicated to this question of food anthropology. And, you know, food as I understand it and often describe it is about the migration of people, plants and information as Dr. J. says, you know, and technology. And so for me, it was really an affirmation to move through such an incredibly personal journey, and I hope that many can pursue a different way of thinking about food that is more in keeping with a spirit that asks what it means to be human.

HARRIS: Wow. I think the thing for me with this is it's made me have to acknowledge and to try to step up to being an elder. And I think that it's something I've perhaps danced around and avoided for a long time. But I think that just seeing the young folk who are doing extraordinary things, how they are moving things forward, just means, OK, you've got to step up, be an elder and do the best work you can do. And that's what it has meant to me.


MARTIN: Jessica Harris, author of "High On The Hog," and Stephen Satterfield, host of the new Netflix show of the same name. It comes out Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.