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.
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