It makes perfect sense that Netflix’s new series High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America would include Gabrielle E.W. Carter. The Apex native and cultural preservationist has done a little bit of everything, from working with acclaimed chef JJ Johnson to hosting communal dinners inspired by her family’s culinary traditions.
More recently, as a co-founder of Tall Grass Food Box (alongside Gerald C. Harris and Derrick Beasley), Carter created a way for Triangle residents to directly support local Black farmers through and beyond the pandemic.
Hosted by sommelier and Whetsone Magazine founder Stephen Satterfield, High on the Hog is a narrative correction, focusing on the foundational role that African ingredients, techniques, and culinary knowledge played in the formation of the American table. It also illustrates the countless historical and current Black and African American figures who drew from this wellspring, including Carter, who is one of the most recognized standard-bearers and inheritors of that proud tradition in this region and state.
In a recent conversation with the INDY, Carter talks about her preservation work, family land, and reclaiming red-hot links.
INDY Week: There’s been a celebratory outpouring in admiration for High on the Hog, including the portion of Episode 2 that highlights your work and your family’s homestead in Apex. What stands out to you about the responses you’ve been getting directly?
GABRIELLE E.W. CARTER: I think how necessary it is and how we’ve been needing something like this for a long time. All types of Black folks throughout the diaspora are reaching out—from Brazil and Panama and all over, directly and more broadly—who are just excited to see themselves in this context and to have something that feels like it’s for us. It was written with us in mind. The whole process was done thoughtfully and non-linear, which I think is a very beautiful and Black way of telling stories.
What does the series mean to you personally?
I had a few friends over to watch the first two episodes and we just cried so many different types of tears. First, it was awesome to see Stephen [Satterfield] telling the story. To see his vulnerability and honesty and transparency on the screen like that was powerful. And then also to see them in a place like Benin telling a story of culture and art and food that didn’t center enslavement—talking about life before that and how those traditions remain and exist and are being passed forward. That felt very powerful, and like something I have never seen.
In a recent Instagram post, Stephen Satterfield refers to you, writing that “her family becomes a proxy for ours.” What does that mean to you?
I love that he said that. I think of my work as a cultural preservationist. I hope to create a framework for other artists to intentionally preserve the culture. It’s really about the questions we ask, the time that we spend, it’s about us deeming these things important, and archiving them in whatever way we can. I hope that my work will serve as a framework for others to do the work of preserving our culture. It’s going to take all of us telling our individual stories and unearthing some of the older stories that are with some of the griots and culture keepers in our communities.
There’s this sense of discovery that comes from this work that helps me ground myself in something bigger than myself. To see other people discovering their family history is rewarding in a way that I don’t have words for.
One thing that’s changed since filming this back in 2019 is the pandemic, which led you to co-found Tall Grass Food Box. For folks who are unfamiliar, can you introduce the project?
When there’s a need, people in my neighborhood turn to fundraisers, whether it’s a fish fry or a food drive. This started, at least for me, as a very casual thing where we would buy the produce directly from farmers and sell some boxes. We started with 30 boxes and now we have around 200+ families that we’re feeding.
At the peak, we were doing this awesome program with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association to feed hospitality workers. When that was up and running, we were feeding 400 families. We’ve reimagined Tall Grass, which initially was more like relief, and now it’s more like, Oh, we have agency to figure out how we want our local food economy to look and grow and work and to empower the people we want to empower.
Being intentional about putting this money into Black land and Black food—that just feels good to us as a team and our customer base.
In High on the Hog you talk about how the state of North Carolina is seizing your family’s land in front of the farm to create a highway. How are you and your family persevering in the face of this displacement?
We had to sell a portion of our land and a lot of my relatives were displaced in that process. All of the work that we were doing prior to this even becoming a threat is still moving forward, maybe more fiercely because of this situation. That’s not to say that seed-keeping and winemaking were not important prior to the highway project, because they’re the reason I moved home.
The entire process was very harmful. I feel I feel a lot of things, but I especially feel good about the way that I’ve pulled people in to archive how things were prior. There is this sense of erasure now that the houses are no longer there, and the plants are no longer there, and the trees are no longer there. That was all a very violent process.
Coming out of something like that, the information, the people, the understanding, the seeds themselves—all of those things are still here. I’m finding a lot of power in reimagining what’s most important, because as much as the houses and the proximity meant to us, it’s important to keep sight of the individuals and stories and the other things as well, and all those things we still have access to.
How can people get involved in the work you’re doing?
Revival Taste Collective is something that I’m bringing back to life. I’m looking at that as a platform where I’ll be able to bring in people like Uncle Andrew and different elders and youth who are doing really beautiful culture-keeping work.
I started a Patreon specifically for some of the food preservation work that I’m doing. I’m currently in the R&D phase of a fermented food and beverage line. It’s going to be a small-batch, kind of thoughtfully curated collection of items that are co-inspired or co-created by people like Uncle Andrew and the various farmers that we’re working with who have these long, familial food traditions and histories. I’m centering us and our stories: Black and indigenous people from eastern North Carolina.
A great inspiration comes from my Grandma Nancy, who had a whole wall of canned goods that she canned or dried herself, from crab apples to pickled squash and okra. I’ve already started playing with some different things that we grow and source from farmers at Tall Grass.
Do you have an example of that?
I’m playing with some ideas that represent our history but also are tied up with our Southern nostalgia. I’m currently working on reclaiming the red hot [links]. It’s this mildly spicy, super-red sausage. Every good cookout had red hots on the grill, and the good ones were burnt. You just eat it on white bread or a bun with some mustard.
I wanted to reimagine red hots knowing what I know now about where that meat is sourced from and how many types of dye are in that. I’m in the test kitchen trying to recreate this dog with pork that is sourced from one of the farmers who’s actually in High on the Hog. I’m going to try and get the same crazy red, but with hibiscus and paprika, and things that I don’t feel sad about putting in my body. I don’t know if you know Andrea [Reusing] from Lantern, but she is my co-conspirator and we’re trying to figure it out. That’s exciting and fun right now.
Can you say more about who inspires your work?
My grandfather, Mayfield, definitely inspires my work, and his brothers Herbert and Andrew. My great uncle Herbert, he’s a chef who worked in the legislative building for 20 years and cooked for presidents. Back in the day, him and my grandfather had a little spot called The Basement. They were doing a little hangout spot, but it also had a line outside of it for their wet, batter-fried chicken. That’s one of those recipes that it’s like, Oh, we have to preserve this. Their passion around growing food has inspired me, and how it’s given them access to what feels like wealth and abundance.
And who do you aim to inspire?
First, Black women. They are my audience and my inspiration, too. I always love seeing when little girls are first introduced to something like being on the land and some of the practices that I’m working to preserve. Watching them light up around that information and recognizing there’s a pathway to something different; that’s exciting and inspirational to me. I’m focused on trying to make sure they have access to this information, and that they know this is their culture and their inheritance to take forward however they want.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Visit patreon.com/gabrielle_ewcarter to learn more about Carter’s work.
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