Discussing Race and Food with Culinary Historian Michael Twitty

Michael Twitty is a luminary on food culture and commentary. A revered chef, food writer, and culinary historian, Twitty has dedicated his life’s work to promoting the accurate origins of our food customs. He is spreading the message on how celebrating our true culinary influences eases racial tensions and promotes a more equitable food present and future.

Twitty wants enslaved African-Americans to get the credit they deserve for shaping the food culture of the American South. He channels his efforts by bolstering and preserving the African-American and Jewish foodways, or the intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history.

He follows his own ancestry using food as the common denominator between his past and present. He examines the contributions of unknown African-American cooks throughout the U.S. who were essential in creating America’s version of Creole cuisine. Twitty, who is African-American, Jewish, and a member of the LGBTQ community, also delves into the concept of “identity cooking,” or expressing our complex identities through what we eat.

His award-winning blog, Afroculinaria, and his nationally published essays all advance his work around culinary justice — or the notion that historically oppressed peoples have a right to acknowledgement and prosperity for their contributions to national and global foodways.

twittyjhu1“It is important that we not only honor the ancestors but provide a lifeline to contemporary communities and people of color looking for a better life in the new economy, a way out of health and chronic illness crisis, and a way to reduce vast food deserts that plague many of our communities,” he writes on his blog.

He explored the topics of culinary justice and food as both a divider and unifier, on Thursday, Dec. 1, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, presented in collaboration with the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities. Edible Cleveland caught up with him to discuss our responsibilities in honoring food’s past and providing for the food future.

Q: Why use food as the vehicle for wider discussions on racial reconciliation, healing and dialogue?

A: Food necessitates a certain amount of stability. When we gather around a table, we’re forced to sit down and talk with one another and come together over food. Food helps us learn more about who we are and to understand our differences. We need the honest truth about where our food comes from. Your momma and my momma can make biscuits, but the journeys our mommas and our ancestors went through to get biscuits on the table are so different. In my family, one of my ancestors was sold away because her mother stole an egg. We don’t want to forget our histories because we can move through the grief and pain, and come to an understanding. When we do that, we have the opportunity right now to do better, be better and bring about the kind of change and reparation that our ancestors never dreamed of. How do we heal? Being at the table helps. Anytime a white person from the South is willing to sit down at the table with African-American folk, we have our arms wide open and are ready and willing to have that conversation.

Q: What can people learn from your work on preparing, preserving and promoting African-American foodways?

A: It’s really about empowerment and survival. A lot of people have chosen to focus on stereotypes and negative descriptions of African-American cuisine. Our diet is actually based on some of the healthiest cuisines from western Africa. Forced assimilation denigrated some of our foods.

Q: How does the concept of culinary justice influence what we eat on a daily basis?

A: It seems to me that if folks want to talk about where chicken comes from, or the destiny of their food, they should probably be concerned about the human cost as well. I discourage folks from making excuses because ‘that was a really long time ago.’ We’ve got to have respect from where things came from and where they’re going. Look at Jack Daniel’s. That recipe came from an enslaved man, Nearis Green, who worked for that family. That’s a billion-dollar concoction.

Q: How can food unite us?

A: The best way is for everyone to tell the truth. African-Americans need to tell the truth, white people need to tell the truth, and beyond. We need to come together, find middle ground and respect each other. We need to resist going back to the ways of the past.

Q: Your upcoming book, The Cooking Gene, documents your connection between food and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom, through a journey you call “The Southern Discomfort Tour.” You experience this connection using food as your lens. What have you discovered in writing this memoir on food culture and race?

A: Well, you know, we think we know ourselves, but we really don’t know who we are or where can came from. It gets really deep when you go back through your ancestry. Slavery obliterated the personal lives and identities of African people and their descendants. One of the few ways I can know my ancestors is through the food they cooked, which I found by pouring through plantation records and cash crops. I can start to make a portrait of myself. It’s a mosaic with a lot of missing pieces, but I’m forming a clearer picture of who I really am and what family means to me.

Want to read more from Michael Twitty? Check out Afroculinaria.com.

–Kathy Ames Carr