The cook who picks cotton: reclaiming my roots
April 30th, 2012
07:45 PM ET
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Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs, writers and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and Jewish educator from the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at Afroculinaria.com and thecookinggene.com. As the originator of the Cooking Gene Project, he seeks to trace his ancestry through food.

Edward Booker, Hattie Bellamy and Washington Twitty didn’t know what an organic farm was, but nearly everything they ate was organic. They enjoyed wild caught, sustainable fish; they were no strangers to free range chickens, and they ate with the seasons with almost nothing originating more than a mile or two away from their cabin door. They had gardens, composted, and ate no processed foods. Their food was fairly simple, often meatless; and it was a fusion cuisine, with ingredients drawn from five continents.

They were not culinary revolutionaries living out of the foodie playbook - they were three enslaved individuals living among the over 4 million held in bondage before the Civil War, and they were my ancestors.

In the upcoming months I will return to the fields, forests and waterways of the Old South in search of my culinary version of Roots, tracing my family tree through food from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom. The project is called The Cooking Gene: Southern Discomfort Tour.

Slavery is not just a practice or moment in American history; it is a metaphor for our relationships to lifestyles and food systems that many of us view as beyond our control. Most of us are enslaved to food systems that aren’t sustainable, but eat we must. And because we must eat, food is a natural vehicle for telling the kinds of stories about historical slavery and the impact of “race” on how we eat, even as we critique and question our contemporary food politics. Food is our vehicle to move beyond race and into relationships and use those relationships to promote the kind of racial reconciliation and healing, our nation desperately needs.

Food is not an afterthought in the story of race, class and power. It is the founding element in our American story. In human no enslaved people have transformed the food habits, tastes and relationship with the table of those who enslaved them, as Africans did in the Americas. We are - all of us Southerners - the products of a strange and painful, joyous and regret-free cuisine that is the confluence of mothers and men speaking over 100 languages struggling over the means to express a common culinary love in the middle of a heartbreaking and irrevocable exile. This is the heritage I am thrilled to carry in my DNA but like many of us, terrified to reclaim and own.

Why now? In the words of one my faith’s greatest sages, “If not now, when?” We need this conversation because we have tired of our ancestors being referred to anonymous “slaves” lingering in the background of Southern culinary and cultural history even as children of color could be actively engaged in growing the heirloom crops of their ancestors in urban community gardens.

We feel locked out of the epic story of barbecue, revised to erase its African/Diaspora ancestry. Our farmers are struggling to hold onto land purchased after the Civil War, when they could be producing quality organic food. Many of us are crying for a culinary voice that respects and embraces the best of our contributions rather than devaluing them with buzzwords centering on contemporary food practices which aren’t as healthy or wholesome as classic early African American cuisine actually was.

As my team and I wind our way from Maryland to Louisiana and back we hope to find ourselves using this story to remedy these ills of historical and cultural obfuscation and overall lack of access to the contemporary food scene. Most of all I am hoping to sit down with the descendants of the families who owned my ancestors,and in some cases are my blood relatives. If nothing else, our names, the land, shared histories and Southern food bond us and connect us in ways other Americans are not. I’ve caught the DNA bug, and want to trace these tree lines back to West and Central Africa, Europe and Native America to understand where it all comes from so that we know where we’re going.

American food culture today is an inquisitive and contested landscape in search of values, directions, and its own indigenous sense of rightness and self-worth. It is a culture looking towards American ecology, seasons and opportunities for new ways to invigorate and color the national palette. It is concerned with health, sustainability, local economies, environmental integrity and social justice.

We could not ask for a better season to harvest the fruits of our common food Ancestors: the cooks of kitchens high and low in the Old and Deep South. It is these men and women who I hope to champion and elevate not just because the past needs us, but because we need the past; and the future needs us now.

Follow Michael on his journey at thecookinggene.com and learn more about the fundraising effort at indiegogo.com.

More on Southern Food:

Old world ingredients you should know and use from the South
Why it's different in the South
Why diversity matters in a restaurant kitchen
Hugh Acheson: Southern food, beyond the butter
Why eating grits doesn't automatically make you a Southerner
5@5 – Overlooked Southern ingredients
Mehepyewpleez? A love letter to K&W Cafeteria
Boiled peanuts
She-crab soup, shrimp and grits, benne seed wafers and the lowdown on Lowcountry cuisine
5@5 – Virginia Willis – Southern is a state of mind
Talk with your mouth full – what is Southern food?
Reclaiming the soul of Southern food
Southern food: more voices from the field



soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Private personal training

    Reclaiming my roots! Very cool! I wish you the best with the DNA hunt. Enjoy all the great food!

    January 28, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
  2. Adrienne Sudolsky

    Hello Micheal, My father's book "African Americans Southerners in Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction" may be of interest to you. The first chapter covers "Cabins and Quarters; Food and Clothing".
    I grew up eating "Hoe Cake", made with flour and baked in the oven in a cast iron skillet. My mother would make a special, Sunday morning version that had a crunchy, sweet, buttery coating. I see you will be in Austin this weekend and hope to attend your program.
    Adrienne Nolen Sudolsky

    October 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  3. sonya

    Most slaves had a poor diet that led to disease. read: Medical Apartheid.

    May 1, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • DAVE

      I NEED A DRINK

      May 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • michaelwtwitty

      The diet of enslaved people was relatively poor overall–but we have to remember that slavery was colloquial and discretionary. You're right, Medical Apartheid is good, Todd Savitt's book about health and medicine in slavery talks about the base diet being monotonous and poor but there are very few generalizations we can make about food and slavery. Someone in the Carolina Lowcountry or Sea Islands in 1859 probably had a more varied diet than someone in Arkansas at the same time–or someone in a city like Savannah and New Orleans vs. someone in Mississippi's Black Belt. A lot of it has to do with access and control–and who had the power over the food system. I recommend Larry McKee's work on ration systems in Antebellum Virginia where he explores caloric intake, nutrition, etc. If we did have a diet based on fresh fish, cowpeas and other legumes, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, chicken and other lean protein, nuts, and occasional fruits as is our base tradition from West and Central Africa through the Diaspora–perhaps many of our health issues might not be as damning. I trust you've seen the African American food pyramid designed by culinary historians and registered dietitians–its the ideal that we never completely had during slavery-even though the elements of the pyramid were fairly common. Thank you for your comment!

      May 2, 2012 at 2:36 am |
  4. gatecrasher1

    Leaving my desk right now to go hang out at the steel mill.

    May 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  5. DebbieN

    What an awesome concept. I can't wait to follow the tour.

    May 1, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • michaelwtwitty

      Debbie–Please do follow us–and remember you can keep a hold of us on http://www.cookinggene.com :)

      May 2, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  6. Wastrel

    I'm not sure what to make of this. The diet of the slaves, with respect to local vegetables, free-range chickens, locally caught fish, non-processed foods, etc. was no different than the diet of other people at that time. There was no canned food, even, until the first half of the 19th century, and it was expensive. Sustainability wasn't an issue. The slaves' diet was probably different because it was poorer in nutrition unless supplemented by the proceeds of hunting and fishing (and sometimes, to be sure, theft) - and the foods were prepared using creative culinary techniques. Mr. Twitty's covering a lot of ground here and maybe he will find a narrower focus as he goes farther.

    May 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • michaelwtwitty

      Hi–Great comments. Ummm what I've found is that enslaved communities ate what was local to them and discretionary to the plantation food system (read rations...) and community and individual preferences. We can certainly discern an ETHNIC bent to early African American foodways. Tannier root, Congo Snake (a large Amphiuma), pawpaw, varieties of eggplant and certain herbs like violet ("wild okra") and sorghums and "yams," like cocoyam/eddo were at one point or another referred to as "Negro food," "Guinea," "Angola," "Negro," "Congo," "Affreccan" and "African" were used to describe the origins of things because they were associated with the African/American community even when they may not have originated in Africa...My essay here opens with a tongue in cheek comment expressed by many people of color-hey we had a lifestyle that is considered "trendy" now–but because we HAD to. And while many people lived that way I would point out that an unfortunate stereotype exists where its assumed that communities of color are ignorant of the basics of the DIY food movement–and we clearly have a long tradition of creating our own food systems out of necessity. I would argue that enslaved people certainly had a higher preference for leafy greens, certain types of game and different cooking methods. However–when you get down to it–all peasant people living in the 17th-19th centuries essentially lived on a diet of gruel, quick breads of some sort, and "relishes," made from whatever at hand. Its what each group brought to that matrix-that is very exciting to me. If you'd like to read more about my approach to the study of early African American food, I recommend my essay, "The Unbearable Taste," which was favorably reviewed by my peers–here's a link: http://www.common-place.org/vol-11/no-03/twitty/ Great Dialogue!

      May 2, 2012 at 2:30 am |
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