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A feast of African-American culinary contributions, baked into the South’s DNA

August 1, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
In chef and culinary historian Michael Twitty's new book, ancestry -- both his own and that of Southern food -- is a central theme. With "The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South," Twitty addresses the complicated story of race, culture and food and its legacy today. Jeffrey Brown talks with Twitty about his mission in writing this book.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: one man’s journey into his own personal history and into the roots and history of American cooking and cuisine from Africa to today.

Jeffrey Brown is back for this visit with the author.

It’s part of our series Race Matters.

JEFFREY BROWN: For chef Michael Twitty, farm to table has a deeper meaning than for most. Twitty is a culinary historian who explores the complicated story of race, culture and food. And he’s now the first revolutionary in residence at Colonial Williamsburg, where visitors come to learn about and experience life in 18th century Virginia.

Twitty takes part in the town’s historic recreations, wearing the clothing of the enslaved people who once toiled here.

MICHAEL TWITTY, Author, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South”: This is the kind of garden that an enslaved person would have. Imagine this is not in a big period garden space. Imagine that this is a space where this is behind your cabin or beside your cabin.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is your little plot.

MICHAEL TWITTY: This is your little plot in one place. And it’s designed to be as fertile and as self-sustaining as possible. If you’re working in a tobacco field sun to sun, and the only time you can cultivate this garden is early dawn, twilight and at night.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other thing that’s noticeable here, of course, is, these aren’t nice, neat rows.

MICHAEL TWITTY: No. No. No. No. No.

Our ancestors would have won every single environmental award. I mean, they were organic, they were local, they were sustainable, they practiced permaculture, they composted.

Those are all modern labels, but they were already doing that here. It’s an issue of people who are in exile adapting, adapting to where they are and figuring out how to make it work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ancestry is a central theme in Twitty’s new book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.”

He addresses what he calls discomfort food in the legacy of the South, in part with visits to tobacco and cotton fields previously tended by the enslaved. At Williamsburg, he joined Ed Schultz in a display field.

MICHAEL TWITTY: You know, as soon as cotton gin comes up, the domestic slave trade comes into play after that.

ED SCHULTZ: Right, and that encourages slavery elsewhere.

MICHAEL TWITTY: Right. Right.

ED SCHULTZ: And it keeps going. Keeps going. Keeps going.

JEFFREY BROWN: The old South comprising slaveholding states takes central stage in Twitty’s book, which weaves explorations of his own identity, including his conversion to Judaism, the roots of American food, and stories of his own childhood.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book you chose to write is also part memoir, right?

MICHAEL TWITTY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So , why use your own story and your own family to tell that story?

MICHAEL TWITTY: I was always intrigued by this notion of the black autobiography. I mean the kind of writing that Maya Angelou or James Baldwin did, how I got over, how I came to be this person, that we have passions that last our whole lives, and that we are extremely engaged in our own history and culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you didn’t start out that way.

MICHAEL TWITTY: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even by your own description, right? I wasn’t interested in soul food. I didn’t even really like being black, I think you wrote?

MICHAEL TWITTY: Right, exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, why suddenly explore all that?

MICHAEL TWITTY: I wanted to re-approach the sort of narrative of self-critique and self-hatred, but also letting people know that the food was my way in, the stories.

Like, I got a sense of pride in the people who I came from, my own family. And I felt like I wanted to put the microscope on myself. And I wanted other people to not be afraid to also follow the blueprint, and sort of really own every aspect of their identity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twitty, now 40, has delved deeply into his background, undergoing DNA testing and building an extensive family tree of ancestors from many parts of the world, including West Africa and Northern Europe.

You also got some surprises though, I think, right, I mean, like a Confederate captain?

MICHAEL TWITTY: My great-great-great-grandfather Richard Henry Bellamy was a captain of the Confederate army.

And when you do genealogy as an African-American, and you get your DNA results, you’re going to find tons of white folks that you’re related to. We are connected, the same way that those stories passed down from my grandmother said we were.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many of those stories were passed down to Twitty in the kitchens of his childhood around Washington, D.C.

At Williamsburg, Twitty often works with fellow chef Harold Caldwell in this 18th century kitchen to bring history to life for visitors. Here, as in colonial times, the cooking fire burns even on the hottest days of summer.

So, who are you thinking of as you’re cooking?

HAROLD CALDWELL, Chef: My aunties.

MICHAEL TWITTY: Right.

HAROLD CALDWELL: My great-aunties.

MICHAEL TWITTY: That’s it. Granddaddies of barbecue?

HAROLD CALDWELL: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right, and all the men who were in the kitchen. All my uncles cooked. But when people just label them just slaves, they put them in a class, like they don’t have a soul, like they’re not human beings.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you know the names of anybody that lived here?

HAROLD CALDWELL: We do. We know there was 28 enslaved people. We know every name of every enslaved person that was on this property, because of the inventory that they have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

HAROLD CALDWELL: Yes. So, we speak their name as much as we — as often as possible.

MICHAEL TWITTY: We like to think of these folks as the founders of American cuisine. You know, in their hands, European, native African, Asian food ways get combined, and recombined.

JEFFREY BROWN: An amalgam of cultures is the quintessential American story, but when addressing American food, Twitty says certain people have been left out of the narrative.

MICHAEL TWITTY: A lot of people have the argument, well, what is American food? And for some people, they will blurt out fast food. For some people, they will blurt out it’s food from all over the world.

And then, very rarely, someone will talk about the indigenous, as well as the naturalized foods and traditions. And so I want people to sort of include us in that conversation and that we have always been a part of it. We have always been a part of the narrative of creating American food, and always will be.

That’s also part of the agency factor, that you own your emotions, you own your facts, you own your opinions, and you also understand how we got here and how you got here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we can have that conversation over a meal.

MICHAEL TWITTY: And that’s what I really want to do. I mean, I’m this weird guy. I’m this gay, Jewish, African-American, Southern food writer who rubs elbows with genealogists and living historians and reenactors and museum professionals and teachers and academics.

And I want to sit all those people at the same table to feast on the idea that we are different, but we are very much the same.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s all fascinating.

Culinary historian Michael Twitty shares a recipe, and the story behind it, on our website. You can learn how to make sorghum-brined chicken roasted in cabbage leaves.

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