Photo of Michael W. Twitty © Johnathan M. Lewis
“I challenge you to find anyone in the history of the world who was enslaved and who revolutionized the food, sex lives, religion, dance, music, and aesthetics of the people who enslaved them—like Africans in the Americas did. The man and woman who became enslaved enslaved the palates of those who enslaved them.”
—Michael W. Twitty, food historian
Michael Twitty is aspiring to be the first US Civil War-era Black chef in 150 years. To that end, since 2011 he has researched, written, and, amazingly, performed the day-to-day labor of an enslaved person. Why? “It’s my job, using imagination, body, archeology, ethnography, anything I can, to honor and restore dignity to my ancestors.”
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 the health and chronic illness crisis, and a way to reduce the vast food deserts that plague many of our communities. To honor the food past and provide for the food future is “culinary justice.”
—from Michael’s website, Afroculinaria
All over the world, people have lost and are losing proprietorship of their ancestral traditions. As Michael explains, “Spam colonized Oceania, Korean traditions were usurped during the Japanese occupation, there was the pseudo-history of the Columbian Exchange, Native Americans probably exchanged recipes with immigrants as they shivered under small pox blankets and dodged musket balls.” Too many people have no claim over their own heritage, no access to a field of heirloom vegetables that their ancestors brought to a country or a continent.
Maybe you have heard about Michael Twitty. I had not until I read a post by colleague Missy Gluckmann from Melibee Global this morning. Learning from Michael has occupied my entire morning, and I can’t tell you how thrilled and how moved I am by his work and who he is! Bless you, Missy and Michael!
Readers of this blog know that we often write about food (1, 2, 3, 4, 5); it is central to the soul of a culture. We also frequently write about cultural appropriation (1, 2, 3), from fashion to symbols to traditions, how to avoid it, and how to extend power and privilege, credit and honor where they belong—to origins and originators—while also continuing to be generative. Heck, bridging and blending cultures is what Cultural Detective is all about! Building on others’ work while honoring it respectfully and justly is a difficult line to maintain, however, one that requires ongoing dialogue, learning, and adjustment. Living as a gringa in Mexico, I learn more about that “thin line” on a daily basis.
Here in Latin America, where colonization and the appropriation of historic lands remain modern-day concerns, and the switching from heritage to GMO crops breaks my heart and worries many for our future, Michael’s work provides a much-needed vocabulary and conceptual framework. According to Michael, “In a world where oppressed communities worldwide are struggling with food security and economic inequalities, advancing culinary justice is essential to a better and more sustainable future for the global community.”
How does he define some of his terms?
- Culinary Injustice: “When the descendants of historically oppressed people have no sovereignty over their culinary traditions, and essentially go from a state of sustainable production and ownership to a state of dependency, mal- or under-nutrition and food injustice. It results in feelings of shame for being under history’s boot heel, and puts distance between our past, ourselves and our future. Culinary injustice places originators in a tertiary and passive rather than a primary and active role in the transformation of culinary traditions, and results in fortunes being made for others”—those who oppress, appropriate, or innovate unjustly.
- Culinary Justice: “Respect for truth and honesty in telling the stories and traditions of the oppressed. Reconciliation not blame, hope not guilt, the power of working together not avoiding one another. Ensuring that children of color have access to the land, ecosystems, clean water and legal protections to grow the heirloom crops and heritage breed animals of their ancestors. This results in a greater connection to nature, spirit, and our ancestors. Culinary justice enables the oppressed to become entrepreneurs, producers and providers by using their unique cultural heritage, and lifts communities out of poverty.”
Bridging Cultures via Culinary Traditions
Michael himself is a Blended Culture person, both African-American and Jewish, among, no doubt, many other identities. How does he bridge cultures? Again, in his words, “Food is extremely culturally connected and inherently economic and political. It is a proving ground for racial reconciliation and healing and dialogue. The responsible exploration of the Southern food heritage demands that the cooks of colonial, federal era and antebellum kitchens and enslaved people’s cabins be honored for their unique role in giving the Southland her mother cuisine.”
Think about this a minute. Here’s a culinary historian who has dedicated his life to reclaiming the Black culinary heritage of the Americas, especially in the US South. How do you think he might feel about someone, like, say, Paula Deen, celebrity chef and doyenne of Southern comfort food, who, when you think about it, has made a fortune off adapting (or appropriating) African-American recipes and traditions? In fact, Michael named one of his projects “The Southern Discomfort Tour,” to help us redefine how we think about what is commonly referred to as “Southern comfort food.”
Again, in Michael’s words, “I invited Paula Deen to dinner, at a plantation, to engage her as a cousin, not a combatant. The Cooking Gene seeks to connect the whole of the Southern food family—with cousins near and far—by drawing all of us into the story of how we got here and where we are going. There is power in food traditions for bridging the pseudo-boundaries of race.”
Michael talks about “identity cooking,” which relates directly to the Blended Culture that we as Cultural Detectives talk about. He tells us, “Identity cooking isn’t about fusion; rather it’s how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat. Very few people in the modern West eat one cuisine or live within one culinary construct. Being Kosher/Soul is about melding the histories, tastes, flavors, and diasporic wisdom of being Black and being Jewish. Both cultures express many of their cultural and spiritual values through the plate, and Kosher/Soul is about that ongoing journey.”
He talks about the Americas as “a culinary cornucopia unknown anywhere else in the world, where foods from Africa, the Americas, Eurasia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia met. Cooks from modern-day Ghana, Angola and Nigeria perhaps exchanged recipes with each other in their new Afro-Creole pidgeon English,” and here, paraphrasing him, sharing with one another how they adapt their ingredient list to the plants and herbs available in the Americas, as well as the palates of their new owners. “What results is not like anything they have cooked before, but is the essential truth of all of the parts.”
Remember when I told you that modern science is proving that memory is biological, that it crosses generations? Michael Twitty, with his one-man mission to reclaim African-American culinary heritage, recently found out through DNA testing that he his paternal ancestors were the Akan of modern-day Ghana. The Akan language, called Twi, has a word and an Adinkra symbol called sankofa. Sankofa means that we must go back and reclaim our past in order to move forward! You tell me Michael isn’t doing what his ancestors, and his genes, tell him needs to be done! Inside each of us, indeed, is a piece of the puzzle, an answer to the challenges facing our world!
The Akindra symbol for sankofa
Akindra bird symbol for sankofa
Personal Learning (or Reframing) Points
What are some of the key points I learned, or reframed, from Michael Twitty this morning? Most of the below is verbatim from Michael via his videos on the internet.
- African slaves were not unskilled labor. They were brought to the Americas for their skills, to help build nations. They knew how to grow rice and cotton from West Africa, and brought it to the USA. We brought over 20 different African crops and animals to the Americas on slave ships. They brought their ability to cook. Post-slavery, they were the first generation of caterers in America, culinary aristocracy, cooking for the White House, embassies, highest society. Yet our children don’t know that!
- “Yam yam” is a Wolof word, the word enslaved women used when caring for white children in the big house, encouraging them to eat her food. Look in the dictionary under “yummy”: “origin unknown”? Black people!
- As new generations were born in the USA, kids’ palates changed. They don’t like guts, which of course contained the spirit, the soul, the essence of the animal that was sacrificed to feed us. We began to lose the mystical, the mythological, the metaphysical, and the magical… Those chitlins (small intestine): they contain the soul, that’s why it’s called soul food!
- Enslaved cooks from Central West Africa used spirituals to time their cooking; there were no clocks. To roast the meat, bake the bread… they’d reference the number of times they could sing the song before the food would be done.
- Rice in South Carolina made 10 out of the first 12 millionaires, all of whom were involved in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It took only two seasons to make the rice planters of Charleston millionaires. Charleston Gold Rice sells for $14/bag today, yet not one black person owns a rice field in Charleston. That’s food injustice.
- It’s important to respect and revive the culinary knowledge of the oppressed. It takes guts to insist that the chef act as a keeper of tradition, an advocate of memory, of ecological integrity, of ethnographic and historical respect, with contemporary awareness and a sense of urgency to acknowledge debt. Culinary reconciliation will lead to healing and a better life.
I’m sure you’d love to see Michael in action. Below is a video of an 18-minute presentation he gave to MAD, a Danish non-profit.
If you have heard Michael speak or, better yet, eaten some of his food, please let me know about your experience. Bless you, Michael Twitty! Thank you for helping make our world more respectful, equitable and just!