The Godfather of Soul Food

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Michael Twitty’s groundbreaking new book explores the dark roots of American cuisine

As a precocious kid growing up in a multi-culti DC neighborhood, the writer and historian Michael Twitty announced at age seven that he wanted to be a Jew like his neighbors, which lead his mother to threaten him with a bris. (“I felt an early connection. I converted at 22.”) When he fell madly in love with his Fisher Price oven range, his father worried Twitty would also fall in love with men. (“I came out at 16 in in my school newspaper,” he says.)  And when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up he replied: “A chef, a teacher, a writer and a preacher.” (Which is exactly what he turned out to be).  

Now he’s bringing the truth about the roots of Southern Cuisine out of the closet, too, with his haunting and thought-provoking book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, which arrives in August.

A combination travelogue, slave testament, cookbook, family memoir and cultural, culinary and geneological history (Twitty received the results of a DNA test connecting him to his Sierra Leone and Ghana roots before a crowd at Stagville Plantation in Durham NC ), The Cooking Gene is a continuation of Twitty’s lifelong quest to answer the universal question—where did I come from?— in a way that can be a template for other African-Americans. 

In fact, it can teach most Americans a thing or two.

Like Twitty, the book refuses to take the expected straightforward route but it does do exactly what he intends. Which is to refract the circuitous and often tortured path of Southern cuisine—from Africa to the plantation to modern kitchens—through his own personal history.  And on the way, the book fights the good fight for what Twitty refers to as “culinary justice.”

By which he means: giving African-Americans a proper seat at the table built by their slave ancestors, whose genealogical lineage was foreshortened by the slave ships then scattered to the wind, as families were separated and sold according to their desirable skill sets in the fields and kitchens. The bounty associated with plantation life couldn’t have existed without them, yet their huge role in creating the South’s distinctive (and now fashionable) cuisine is often completely overlooked.

And Twitty sees the blame for this as a shared one. “The bottom line,” Twitty adds, “is black people shied away from the Africa and slavery stuff for so long that a group of white people came in and appropriated the best parts of their culture.”

Where does The Cooking Gene come in?

“I see it as the culinary answer to Roots,” Twitty says, referring to the Alex Haley slave saga that was turned into a groundbreaking 1970s TV miniseries. “Haley’s Comet,” as he calls it, created new ownership of the American slave story, after decades in which African-Americans had been encouraged to forget not just the horror and inhumanity of slavery but also their exotic origins that preceded it.

Twitty has spent more than half his life studying the recipes, cooking techniques, and gardening traditions of his slave ancestors; teaching (including Hebrew and Judaica) and lecturing (at various universities, the Smithsonian, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery); and staging historical reenactments in Colonial Williamsburg and at dozens of plantations throughout the South (including picking cotton for 16 hours in the hot sun in “full slave drag,” as he puts it, cutting tobacco, working the rice fields). But he credits his conversion to Judiasm, with its strong culinary-historical traditions, for giving him his unique voice and ability to look at the food of the oppressed.

“It gave me a window outside of my own birth milieu to explore and think through what I was seeing. And it gave me permission to say things—in a sharper, more pointed way—that I couldn’t when looking through the traditional black lens. I’m in a movement that talks about Plantations as concentration camps. It’s not that they’re parallel—it’s just being able to go there. If we’re talking about the Holocaust and the need to remember: we must also be able to remember slavery.”

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All the same, it was his inner preacher that finally earned Twitty and his work a much larger audience. In 2013, when the kitschy queen of Southern cooking Paula Deen was embroiled in her “N Word” scandal down in Savannah, Twitty wrote her an open letter (on his now well know blog, Afroculinaria.com) that deftly downplayed the disgusting insult in favor of pointing out a major omission in the creation of her persona. “Don’t forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks, some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor’s Georgia plantation.”

Deen never responded. But his letter went viral, and soon the Danish chef Rene Redzepi, of the internationally worshipped restaurant Noma, invited Twitty to Copenhagen to speak at the 2013 MAD Symposium, known as “the Food World’s G-20.”

“I was nervous as hell,” says Twitty. “These are the gods of food.” But Redzepi himself introduced Twitty as “the voice of his generation,” and his talk received a standing ovation. From there it was a Ted fellowship, more invitations to speak, awards, and life in the bright culinary-literati spotlight.

It was an important turning point. But for Twitty, the biggest moment of his life was much more personal, and darker: “It was the powerful realization of how little I knew—but also that the more I knew the more I was not going to be able to be cavalier.” In other words, he felt the weight of his responsibility.

“My great great great grandfather was a freedom seeker and he got caught. And when I learned this and that a man named Frazier was paid $5 for his return, and that he tried to run away again, was caught, severely punished and returned to the fields? It was very different than just: my ancestors endured. He tried to fight this shit and then lost.”

Here in the 21st Century, Twitty appreciates how good his life is in comparison. He lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC; his sign-language interpreter boyfriend, who, he notes, is 12 years younger, often travels with Twitty. “We have a lot of differences—color, religion, occupation—but we fit well,” he says.

But in his book, rather than celebrate the faux-memory foods that characterize the rather rich Southern cookery of today—the fried chicken, pulled pork, biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits—Twitty wants to remind the world of how the enslaved and oppressed (both African-American and Jewish) have actually eaten through the centuries—the ash cakes (cornmeal patties cooked in the ashes of a fire), the scraps served to children from troughs on the slave kitchen floor. His appreciation for all he has achieved, all he has, is even reflected in his two favorite African-American and Jewish “peasant” dishes that he serves at home, to guests. “I make kasha varnishkes and kush,” he says, meaning the traditional Ashkenazi dish of buckwheat groats, onion, and noodles cooked in fat and the lard-enriched cornbread that incorporated ham or turkey and whatever other scraps black slaves were allowed. “If you can make people eat a whole plate of cheap, plebian, but tasty ingredients—and ask for more—you’ve assured those ‘soul foods’ will live on.”

It’s important to Twitty: always to remember, never to forget. “I had a mentor who said: When you feel bad, remember that one minute, one second of your great great great grandfather’s life was worse than all the pain in your entire life.”

So Twitty’s quest continues.

Freelance writer Emily Nunn’s book, The Comfort Food Diaries, is being published by Simon and Schuster in September. Formerly she was an arts and dining editor at the New Yorker Magazine and a features and food reporter at the Chicago Tribune. She lives in rural North Carolina. 

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  • Michelle Kirkwood

    Good and interesting article—I liked it, since I have Southern roots,too.

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