He walked up to the lectern in the Commonwealth Honors College Events Hall wearing a shirt that read, “I will honor the sacrifices of my ancestors” in bold letters. For the next hour, Michael W. Twitty talked about his journey pursuing culinary justice, investigating the culinary history of African American food-ways and its parent traditions in Africa, and experiencing the legacy of food culture in the American South. Throughout his talk, Twitty both moved and engaged with the crowd, shedding light on the rich food tradition that emerged in America out of the transatlantic slave trade and the ensuing conditions through which enslaved individuals and families survived and cooked.
Michael W. Twitty, food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian, historical interpreter, and author of the award-winning book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, spoke at the Commonwealth Honors College’s annual Black History Month Celebration February 13th about the importance of history, food, and culinary justice. He writes a blog called Afroculinaria and identifies with two distinct brands of cooking: the Antebellum Chef and Kosher/Soul cooking. In 2012, he embarked on a journey known as the Southern Discomfort Tour, where he used food and genealogy to "connect people of all backgrounds" by having it "serve as a vehicle for racial reconciliation and healing." He reached out to families who were related to his distant relatives and to the slaveholders who enslaved his ancestors, with the intent of promoting reconciliation and healing. As part of this project, he cooked in the same conditions that people would have under enslavement, even spending a day picking cotton.
Twitty began his talk by explaining the culinary layout and cultural landscape of the American South today, and how everyday language and traditions harken back to its past. For instance, he explained how in many states below the Mason Dixon line, it is very common to see people touring and celebrating life events at historic mansions, many of which built by the labor of enslaved people. This tourism tradition, he explained, is part of a continued romanticization of the past that manifests in the ability to look at "forced labor camps" as beautiful historical mansions.
“A friend of mine said to me: When you’re native and they find your grave, it becomes legally protected; when you’re white, your grave is sacred; when you’re black, your grave is a golf course," Twitty reflected. "So, it dawned on me a couple years ago that we were losing those sacred spaces, that also my ability to testify to who I am and where I come from is all up in the air because of this lost space, and this loss of memory, and our unwillingness to really talk about what slavery did to us and what it continues to do to us. Slavery is not an event that happened 250 years ago, it is a constantly renewing pain in the a**. It never went away. Its influence never went away in this society.”
To this point, Twitty continued later to talk about how it is possible to see this legacy in everyday life today. He discussed how certain words commonly used in Southern cuisine are not English words, but instead a part of the mixture of dialects brought to the American South through the slave trade from different parts of Africa. Examples he cited were "okra," "gumbo," "yam," "barbecue," and even "coffee."
“Whenever you go to the doctor, you’re hypertensive, why?" asked Twitty. "Why are you more diabetic? Because of that awful evil soul food? Or is it because the stress of the Middle Passage is still flowing in your veins? We don’t want to recognize that because that would mean racism is real."
"Race is an illusion," he further explained. "Race is a figment of our imagination. When I hear people say, 'I have friends of different races,' I say, 'Okay! Those Vulcans and those serpentines must be great!' There’s only one human race. Food is a reality. Racism and oppression are realities. Race is an illusion.”
This is what Twitty cites as going into his book; how one figures out who they are in light of this history. For black people in the Atlantic world, there is a similar story of how the Americas came up with a cuisine, Twitty points out, and it is not a happy one.
“I thought it was really amazing that this man was able to use food -- something that’s universally communal-- to trace back his roots and those of thousands of Black bodies who’s stories and histories have been stolen from them,” reflected Mary Mbeyu, sophomore operations and information management major.
For those interested in looking more into Michael Twitty's philosophy and work, there are numerous videos and articles on his work in addition to the personal testimony in his book. Highly recommended are PBS’s episode on their series, Curate 757, that features his residency in Williamsburg, Virginia, and his TedTalk, titled "Gastronomy and the Social Justice Reality of Food."
As he looks towards the future, Twitty continues his work promoting culinary justice. He is currently planning his third “Culinary Pilgrimage to West Africa” with Roots for Glory alongside other chefs with the objective of reclaiming culinary heritage and making connections with new family.
See event photos on our Facebook page.