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‘High on the Hog’ host Stephen Satterfield dives into Black food’s revolutionary history

Show’s new season highlights how food activism is a tradition passed down through generations

On Season Two of Netflix’s High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, host Stephen Satterfield once again dives into the history of Black American food. While the first season focused on how we have retained our African origins and built new diasporic traditions, this season hones in on Black food’s role in resistance in the fight for our humanity in this country.

For this second installment, Satterfield explores the iconic bean pie and the role Black Muslims played in the Civil Rights Movement, how many elements of the movement were about the right to dine with dignity or have access to healthy food, and the importance of returning to the land.

Satterfield’s work expands far beyond the acclaimed Netflix series. As the co-founder of Whetstone magazine and founder of Whetstone Media, he and his teams have been releasing diverse and radical stories about food across the globe since 2016. “I’ve wanted to use food to mobilize people, to activate people, engage their thinking, belief systems, politics,” Satterfield said. “I wanted them to feel they had the agency to have access to their own traditional foods.”

Whetstone has also recently launched Hone Talent, an agency that represents some of the best talent in food, such as food and culture writer Alicia Kennedy, urban farming advocate and expert Jamila Norman of Patchwork City Farms, and master sommelier Femi Oyediran, among many others.

Satterfield views himself as an “instigator,” which is why the revolutionary tones of this season fit his work. But food isn’t just about revolution for him. He also loves to eat, which is the best place to start. “I just love indulgence. And that is actually how I got into food activism,” he said.

In this season, Satterfield shows us that food activism is not a new trend in the Black community but a time-honored tradition passed down for generations. As Satterfield said in the episode titled The Defiance, “It was food that both mobilized and funded the [Civil Rights] Movement,” especially the fight to end segregation in restaurants.

“That episode for me is deeply personal because it takes place in my hometown in Atlanta,” Satterfield said. “It highlights what the larger theme of the season is about — food as resistance — with respect to the Civil Rights Movement in particular.”

Conversations about Black radicalism in the Civil Rights Movement tend to focus on the Christian tradition, which is rich and beautiful. But there is another religious group whose resistance — and food — contributed to our fight for freedom. The food culture that arose out of the Nation of Islam has long been discussed less by food writers and scholars. But growing up in Washington, I remember my dad buying copies of Muhammad Speaks and bean pies from the Nation of Islam, even though he wasn’t a member. Bean pies are almost reminiscent of a sweet potato pie, but made with navy beans. The Nation and its restaurants, which promoted self-sufficiency, healthy food, and buying Black as core values, were part of our community, as integrated into our daily lives, even though the historical record has perhaps not reflected this reality.

Those bean pies are also a treasured memory for Satterfield, growing up in Atlanta. In the episode, he speaks with Malikah Jordan, baker and founder of MJ’s Pies & Chai’s, whose recipe is three generations old. “I was always at my grandmother’s side in the kitchen, watching her make the bean pie mix. She came through the Nation of Islam, and they put your bean pie to the test. It had to be legit,” Jordan remembered fondly, saying that the masjid’s approval of her pie established her in the community as “the bean pie sister.”

“I grew up in a Christian household, but they were a staple. I knew this was from my dad’s Muslim friends, the brothers and sisters with the bean pies,” Satterfield said. “But I didn’t fully have an appreciation for it until I came back to Atlanta as an adult many years later and was like, ‘Oh, this is a whole other ecosystem and language. There’s cultural preservation happening here.’ ”

Zaheer Ali, a historian of Islam in America and African American history, also told Satterfield the Nation of Islam “radically affirmed Blackness in all of its ways.” Though he noted that by the mid-1970s, most of the community had shifted to a more traditional practice of Sunni Islam, the radical tradition continued in many of these masjids — and the bean pie is a treasured part of past and present. “The bean pie is a signifier of autonomy and sovereignty and an independent identity and seeking something as free as possible from the legacy of slavery,” Ali said during the episode, claiming the sweet potato pie was seen as a legacy of a slave diet. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, it’s undeniable that the Nation of Islam’s attempt to reconnect Black Americans to their roots changed the conversation about the movement and our food.

There are many reasons we often don’t hear perspectives from Black Muslims and Nation of Islam participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Satterfield pointed out that many of the critiques of their leadership and mobilization were well-founded — imam Elijah Muhammad’s alleged sexual exploitation of his secretaries and other women in the Nation of Islam and his suspected involvement in the assassination of Malcolm X are just two examples. But the Nation of Islam and the people who went on to practice more traditional forms of Sunni Islam after these incidents came to light cannot be reduced to their leaders.

“We know that most of the time, the people who organize on our behalf and look out for our community, albeit with faults, are the only people doing that at all,” Satterfield said. “So when we have the opportunity to highlight, celebrate and uplift the legacy of our ancestors, we need to exalt that.” 

The history of the bean pie was one of the things that stood out most this season, and Satterfield also delved into how food ran the parts — and fed the leaders — of the Civil Rights Movement that we’re more familiar with.

Cheryl Day, a pastry chef, fine-tunes a cake during filming of High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.

Netflix

For instance, he featured Paschal’s, an Atlanta restaurant where civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders held many meetings, ordering its famous fried chicken and fish. He also delves into the history of chef and activist Georgia Gilmore. On the show, James Beard semifinalist and baker Cheryl Day, whose great-great grandmother Hannah Queen Grubbs was an enslaved pastry chef, described Gilmore as “one of those hidden treasures that made such a difference in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Gilmore’s underground kitchen, called the Club from Nowhere, was a secret club of cooks and bakers who sold cakes and pies that helped fund the fleet of cars that replaced buses during the 13-month Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. The arrest of civil rights activist Rosa Parks sparked the boycott, and the fleet of cars ensured that Black people had a safe way to get to work while protesting. Day and a group of Black Atlanta bakers continue the legacy of her ancestors, Grubbs and Gilmore, by baking and selling pastries to fund social movements. One of those iconic dishes is the beloved peach cobbler, which Day expertly made on screen.

Satterfield loves watching the work of other Black food writers, scholars, and chefs opening up these conversations. “I’d love to see Black foodways better integrated across disciplines, especially in schools. By connecting curriculum to school lunches to local food systems, we can address many overlapping disparities that disproportionately impact Black people, especially from a health and food access perspective,” he said.

When asked if the show has changed how he interacts with food in his own life, Satterfield gave a surprising answer — it hasn’t. 

“This has been my personal religion for almost 20 years now,” he explained. “I started learning about how deep these traditions are and have been doing that for so long. What’s different is I’m honored to be doing this work even more. My whole thesis in life is talking to people about these ideas that felt very esoteric to me even five years ago when I thought most folks outside of a very small community wouldn’t notice or care.”

It’s undeniable now. Today, more people care and are hungry for more knowledge about our food and its revolutionary roots.

Nylah Burton is a travel, lifestyle, and entertainment writer with bylines in New York Magazine, Vogue, and Travel + Leisure.