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Why you can’t talk about the Southern kitchen without slaves’ contributions

July 4, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
The recipe for the bestselling brand of American whiskey wasn’t simply the invention of its founder — it was greatly influenced by a slave who worked for the distiller. That public acknowledgment by Jack Daniel’s helps raise broader questions about America’s culinary heritage and the under-appreciated contributions of African-Americans. John Yang talks to culinary historian Michael Twitty for more.

JOHN YANG: Grilling outdoors and drinking cold refreshments aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Declaration of Independence, but they’re both a big part of how we celebrate the Fourth of July.

This next segment was inspired by some recent revelations about the bestselling brand of American whiskey. Last week, The New York Times reported that Jack Daniel’s founder actually learned a lot about making whiskey from a slave who worked for the same distiller.

While that’s been known before, it hasn’t been widely advertised. Now the company is starting to acknowledge their complicated history on its distillery tours in Tennessee. That has some people asking questions about the heritage of American whiskey and about other culinary matters in the South.

Michael Twitty is a culinary historian. I sat down with him to get his perspective.

Michael Twitty, welcome.

MICHAEL TWITTY, Culinary Historian: Hi.

JOHN YANG: How common was this? Jack Daniel’s knew for a long time about the role of this slave named Nearis Green in the development of the company, but they just never talked about it. How common was that in the development of food and drink across the South?

MICHAEL TWITTY: Enslaved people were involved in every single aspect of Southern life.

Even when someone didn’t — quote — “own enslaved people” or own slaves — we prefer to say enslaved people or enslaved person — enslaved folks were doing the work.

And it’s very interesting, because you read these journals and writings of Southern planters, and it’s as if their hands are in the dirt, it’s as if their fingers are on the bricks, it’s as if their hands are in the kitchen and their hands are on the shovels. But they are not.

And so enslaved people are often hired out to work for other people. Distillers were experts. They were skilled workers. So, that is another form of income.

So, if you are only making so much of a cash crop, a lot of your money is going to come from in the hills and the piedmont from making alcohol, which is substantial. So, that enslaved person would have been very valuable and very necessary to an operation of that sort.

JOHN YANG: But they weren’t just providing the labor.

MICHAEL TWITTY: No.

JOHN YANG: They were helping develop and create the craft of what they were doing.

MICHAEL TWITTY: Oftentimes, they were the brains.

And, unfortunately, because enslaved people were considered three-fifths of a person, they aren’t being given credit for their intellectual capital. So, when an enslaved person invents something or innovate something, they improve something, that credit is being given to the slave holder, not to the enslaved.

And that this does over time is, it sets up for a really bad paradigm, where we think, these poor people, they were just the machines, they were just set to do a task. And the reality is, no, these were innovative, entrepreneurial, intelligent people.

You don’t set — you don’t bring a bunch of idiots to your country to build it. You bring geniuses. And a lot of times, that is what was going on. They were expert horticulturists. They were expert blacksmiths. They were expert distillers.

But the unfortunate part is, we know there were more people like Mr. Green, but will we ever know their names or their stories or what they could have been had they been free men and women?

JOHN YANG: And the influence is more than just liquor and distilling and fermenting alcohol.

MICHAEL TWITTY: Yes.

JOHN YANG: It is was through what we now think of as Southern cooking, right?

MICHAEL TWITTY: Oh, absolutely.

And I was just part of an ongoing debate, which will never end, over the ownership of Southern cooking. And the best way to put it is, is that this is a co-created world. It’s a co-created world between Africans, Europeans and Native Americans and others who are making up Southern-ness and American-ness as they go.

But I would like to always quote art historian Robert Farris Thompson, who says, until you know how African you are, you don’t know how American you are.

So, all of these pieces are woven in together. And you can’t possibly talk about the Southern kitchen without talking about peanuts or sesame or okra or watermelon or deep frying or barbecue or other forms of cooking techniques and spicing and ways of looking at food that are uniquely part of the African diaspora.

JOHN YANG: What do you think of Jack Daniel’s distillery now acknowledging the role that this man played in the development of the company and of the product?

MICHAEL TWITTY: Well, I think it’s pretty critical.

I think that we are at a point where the pushback — and I have led some of that pushback — talking about cultural appropriation, talking about giving credit where credit is due — sometimes, I recoil, because I feel, oh, I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing.

But when I hear news like this, I know I am. And other people who are like me are rewriting the history of American food and drink, not just because we want to talk about the past, but we have brilliant black mixologists, brilliant black bartenders in the now whose legacy we can not only celebrate, but preserve, so people know that Mr. Green didn’t die in vain.

JOHN YANG: Michael Twitty, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL TWITTY: Thank you very much.

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