The journey of soul food, and by extension, Louisiana cuisine, can be tied to centuries of hard work and tradition passed down from generation to generation. Soul food emerged from slavery and colonialization, and eventually evolved into the rich Louisiana cuisine we know and love today. The Netflix documentary “High on the Hog” details the creation of Soul food and its ties to Africa. By studying the history of Soul food and Louisiana cuisine, the history of the people and places that brought it to life is amplified in abundance.
“High on the Hog” is a documentary hosted by Stephen Satterfield, a renowned chef and writer. Mr. Satterfield documents the journey of African American cuisine from Africa to America. In the first episode, Satterfield travels to Benin in Africa. Here, he sees familiar ingredients like rice, okra and yams. He also visits the graveyard of Africans who died on slave ships headed to the Americas. The slaves who survived the horrifying journey were taken to Charleston, South Carolina, which was the slave capital of America at the time. These slaves were taken from the rice-producing regions of the West African coast and forced to farm rice crops across the South.
In Louisiana, rice is essential to any meal. For example, Jambalaya is a rice dish made with spices and meats such as sausage, chicken and seafood. This dish can be made throughout the entire year, and is in the monthly rotation for many Louisianans. Rice is also featured in other dishes such as dirty rice, etouffee and Gumbo. “Gumbo is a soup-like dish that features two or three meats like chicken and sausage or seafood” (louisianafollklife.org). It also contains vegetables such as onions and okra.
The word Gumbo is derived from the Bantu word “nokombo,” which means okra. Okra originated in Africa, and over the centuries, the vegetable made its way through the Middle East, North Africa and even South Asia. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Okra made its way to the Americas through slave ships.
Many Louisiana soul food dishes are similar to African dishes. Jambalaya and dirty rice (a spicy rice dish with minced sausage, liver and other vegetables) is comparable to Jollof rice, which is commonly eaten in Nigeria, Ghana and other West African countries. Gumbo can also be reminiscent of Okra Stew, a dish popular in Nigeria, Guinea and Benin.
Two other staple foods that can be seen in Louisiana cuisine are beans and whole hog. In the documentary, Mr. Satterfield sees beans in the market and later tries traditional versions of red beans in a floating village in the same area. Red beans are essential to the diets of people in Benin because they are plentiful, and have been served there for centuries.
Red beans and rice is one of the most famous dishes in Louisiana cuisine. It is a dish that is made up of red beans, some kind of meat such as sausage and vegetables in a creamy broth. It is commonly eaten throughout the year because it is inexpensive and relatively simple to make.
In the film, Satterfield attends a gathering with the Gullah people of South Carolina. There, he sees the traditional process of cooking a whole hog. Hog has a long history with African Americans and Louisiana. Slaves would be forced to cook the whole hog for their masters. They were given less palatable parts of the pig such as the pig intestines (Chittlins’) or pig feet. Slaves used these discarded portions of meat and made meals that were flavorful and kept them full for their long days in the field.
Today, many in Louisiana also enjoy whole hog cooking. In South Louisiana, there is a festival called “Cochon de Lait Festival” where people gather to cook whole hogs. Every part of the animal is used. The popular Louisiana snack, cracklings, is also a byproduct of whole hog cooking. Cracklings are fried pork skins seasoned with spices.
Another theme that permeated the documentary was the concept of gathering together and eating. Each episode featured Satterfield eating at someone’s table and discussing history and food over delicious-looking meals. The concept of communal eating is not only familiar to American culture but to Louisiana as well.
Each May, the Mudbug Madness Festival is held in Shreveport, Louisiana. This North Louisiana tradition celebrates the end of crawfish season. Louisiana also has the Peach Festival in Ruston, which celebrates the harvest of peaches, the Zwolle Tamale Festival in Zwolle and many other food-related communal events across the state.
All of these festivals feature the best food that Louisiana has to offer. The idea of communal eating also carries on in the churches and homes of Louisiana residents. Many gather on Sundays after church to have Sunday dinner, either at the church or at a relative’s home.
The documentary “High on the Hog” presents an amazing depiction of the history of Soul food in America. While soul food is the focus of the film, Louisiana cuisine can also be included because it is a part of the lineage of the original dishes created years ago by the enslaved people who lived there. Soul food is less about the region or ethnicity of the cook and more about the way the food affects the spirit of the person enjoying the food.
The first taste of red velvet cake or the first spoonful of gumbo gives one the feeling of love, comfort and happiness. No matter where food is prepared geographically, it will always affect the soul the same way; it showcases the hard work, dedication, love and historical significance that goes into each and every dish.
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