Where does Southern food come from? In a new book that’s part memoir and part history, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty argues that much of it has African roots, and is intertwined with our history of slavery.
In “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South,” Twitty weaves together family stories, genetic tests, historical documents and passed-down recipes to show how enslaved people brought over seeds from Africa (such as the sweet potato pumpkin), cultivated vegetables in the gardens and farms where they were enslaved (often in a organic and sustainable way) and created new recipes (such as those of James Hemmings, a slave in the home of Thomas Jefferson).
“They’re making other people’s food, but also putting their own stamp on that food,” Twitty told NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown in a recent interview. “They’re also inculcating Africa in a way… through the food, through the ingredients.”
This project is a history of a U.S. region, but it’s also personal for Twitty, who said he wanted to re-examine the collective narrative of self-critique and self-hatred that African-Americans can experience.
“I felt like I wanted to put the microscope on myself,” Twitty said. “I really wanted to understand deeply who I was, why I was. And I wanted other people to not be afraid to also follow the blueprint, and sort of really own every aspect of their identity.” Food was his way in, he said, because “I got a sense of pride of the people who I came from.”
In a chapter focused on sweeter foods, Twitty tells a family story he calls “Sugar’s Revenge,” about how his great-great grandmother, who was enslaved in Alabama in the mid 1800s, got into a fight with her overseer and drowned him in a barrel of cane syrup. Twitty then immediately transitions in the text into a recipe for Sorghum-Brined Chicken, whose inclusion he said was a way of honoring the legacy of African sorghum.
“I wanted ways to kind of reclaim sorghum. Sorghum recently has become a boutique ingredient,” he said. “But you don’t really often hear the story of how it is an African cultigen. That’s very important to me.”
Below, listen to Twitty talk more about the roots of that recipe, and try the recipe out yourself:
Sorghum-Brined Chicken Roasted in Cabbage Leaves
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sorghum molasses
5 cups cold water
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock; I prefer homemade of your choice
5 pound roasting chicken, whole
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened; or lard or canola oil
One large cabbage
1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Dissolve salt and sorghum molasses into the stock. Allow liquid to cool. Add cold water.
3. Remove giblets. Wash and thoroughly clean chicken., and submerge in brine in a large bowl for 2 to 4 hours. Remove and rinse.
4. Mix 2 tablespoons of pepper with the butter, lard or canola oil. Rub the chicken with the mix under and on the outside of its skin, being certain to cover the entire bird.
5. Put cabbage leaves at the bottom of the Dutch oven. Cover the chicken in the washed cabbage leaves and tie into a loose bundle, layering as many leaves as it takes to cover the bird. Add a little water or chicken stock to the pot, cover tightly, and put into the oven. Roast for 70 to 90 minutes. When the wings pull away from the twine and the juices run clear, the chicken should be done.
“The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” is out today, August 1. Below, watch the full NewsHour interview with Twitty from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, where he is a historian-in-residence.