Culinary historian Michael Twitty has made it his personal mission to draw connections between food and race in America. He has studied his own family’s history and culinary roots, from his ancestors' beginnings in Africa to their experience as enslaved people in the American South, and later, as free people there.
Southern food is a unique staple of American cuisine, and has strong ties to African-American identity. In his recent memoir, "The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History In The Old South," Twitty unpacks the question of who Southern culinary tradition belongs to, and whether food can bring about cultural understanding and healing.
On Americans’ diverse ancestral backgrounds
“I’ve always wanted to walk in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, because guess what, there’s a lot of us black folks — you hear that Boston? — a lot of us black folks, who are part Irish and Scots-Irish. That’s the reality of early-American history, and it’s a legacy … we are a mixed multitude. And if we are family to you, if we are all family, no matter what region we come from, where we come from in the world, then we should change the tone and tenor of our dialogue with each other.”
On embarking on his “Southern Discomfort Tour” and visiting his white ancestor's grave
“I found the big house. I found the offices. The kitchen was in ruins, but I saw where the kitchen was. … it was pretty astounding. I was confronted with the grave of my white fifth great grandfather, [he] was born during the revolution and died during the beginning of the height of the antebellum South, and it was his grandson that fathered my great-great grandmother in Alabama. I was actually looking at this plantation — and by the way, it’s still surrounded by cotton and tobacco fields, it’s like the whole image is there, it’s very haunting — and I didn’t know how to feel, I didn’t know how to feel towards this man. And one of the things about that part of the book is, based on his probate record, which was amazing, he had steak plates and waffle irons and a beaten biscuit breaker. For me as a culinary person, it was wild … he obviously liked to eat, and I said, well that’s the gene connection right there. ... And I’m thinking … you would never have been allowed to eat with your own fifth great-grandfather. You wouldn’t have had that power, that ability to define your reality in those terms at that time. And that is the conundrum that we face when we confront our history."
"I wanted things that were uniquely me and not just whatever. I didn’t give away my grandmamma and them’s fried chicken recipe because that’s like gold. I don’t play that."
On using cooking to tap into his African ancestry
"[You’re using] heavy pots with the water and the fire, and chopping the wood, and being up early in the morning and working through it the whole day and really thinking about what that really would’ve been like. When I went to West Africa, I went to Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria … and I remember the first time I saw a kitchen in the village, one of the traditional villages in Senegal. And tears — I couldn’t stop crying … I said, ‘I’ve been here before.’” And they understood exactly what I meant. And one of the Senegalese people said to me, “Michael, we are your new family, but you are our old family.’"
On how he chose which recipes to include in "The Cooking Gene"
"I wanted things that were uniquely me and my story, not just whatever. I didn’t give away my grandmamma and them’s fried chicken recipe, because that’s like gold. I don’t play that. But I did put in the things that show my black and Jewish identity, or the things that show my emotional connection to my mom, or things that show the hard tack of slavery — the ash cake and trough mush — people used to eat from a trough! I wanted people to see that the food is not just about comfort, and that sometimes, yes, it is about comfort, it is about love. The food is our DNA."
Michael Twitty, scholar in residence at the Jewish Arts Collaborative. His recent memoir, "The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History In The Old South," won the James Beard Award. He tweets @KosherSoul.
This segment aired on June 12, 2018.