A post in several courses
My recent newsletter about pageants, particularly those pageants that are highly specific, caused a couple of you to send me links. WHICH IS AWESOME.
Related: this short film about Miss Wheelchair Tennessee.
And then there is this brief history of food queens, which includes a nod to Knoxville’s Biscuit Fest, which I have always wanted to attend but it was started after I left Knox Vegas and seems to be no more.
High on the Hog: How African Cuisine Transformed America, which is a four-part documentary series on Netflix, has nearly nothing to do with odd pageants but everything to do with food — specifically how American cuisine1 is built on the backs of enslaved people.
Host Stephen Satterfield starts the story in Benin, where with the help of Dr. Jessica B. Harris, he eats his way through this small country and discovers how many of the dishes he2 knows here actually came from there. And from there, he comes back here and connects what he’s learned to James Hemmings, who was trained in France in order to satisfy his owner Thomas Jefferson’s tastes. Satterfield visits the Gullah Geechee rice belt and the oyster king of Brooklyn and the Black cowboys of Texas. It’s a story about the journey of ingredients, yes, but it’s also something so much deeper than what we put in our mouths.3
High on the Hog is about reckoning with the past: both from the perspective of Satterfield, a Black man, and from that of the dominant culture who extracted every last thing of value from a part of the world and its people. This series could be a good start for a longer conversation about racism,4 as well as one about what it means to honor the worth and dignity of other human beings. Hog draws you in with rice and okra and barbecue, then shows you how we got where we are.
It’s very good, is what I’m saying, and only sort of a food/travel documentary a la Bourdain or Phil Rosenthal, who are two food TV people/writers who eat first and think second. Satterfield and crew flip those two acts.
That being said, while the show is well-made, Satterfield himself is the weak link.5 While he’s a great producer, his discomfort in front of the camera makes it hard to be comfortable watching him try to put his metaphorical hands. It feels like he is continuously putting an edit together in his head as he’s talking to people rather than actually engaging with who they are. The story and the volumes of research do nearly all of the lifting here. With a different host, this series could have been even more profound.6
This season7 of Top Chef proves that long-running shows should always seek to improve, no matter how bulletproof their format seems to be. Padma, Tom, and Co took a page from The Great British Bake-off and cast chefs who all seem like decent people that you want to see succeed. Plus, they’ve also decided to dig into the city they are in, rather than simply use it as set dressing as they have in season’s past. If you’re not a regular viewer, drop in on the episodes on pan-African cuisines and on Indigenous foodways just to get a taste8 of this franchise’s welcome new attitude.
An edible snack for the road:
Recent work by yrs trly: A Tale of Two Runs at Another Mother Runner.
Did you enjoy this meal?
like so much of American everything
Admittedly, I ended each episode starving and sad that I had none of these meals in my kitchen ready to go.
I’m not a stranger to these conversations and still had moments where the rug I thought I was standing on was ripped out from under my feet.
I’m sure he’s a wonderful human whose heart is big and brain is bigger.
That being said, his moment near the end of the Benin show is just …. oooof. The vulnerability he invites us into is brave and powerful. As a culture, I don’t know how we can ever make good on the past but it’s clear we can’t keep pretending it never happened.
Portland, Oregon. And, yes, there are plenty of bird-related jokes.