Michael Twitty was cutting up cooked racks of ribs. Chef Hugh Acheson, known for his appearances as a judge on Top Chef, was on Twittys right, slicing pork shoulders.
Chapel Hill cookbook author Nancie McDermott was on Twittys left, sorting cut ribs onto platters to take to a waiting buffet table. Meanwhile, a half dozen video cameramen and photographers circled the table, swooping in for close-ups.
Clearly, the star of the night was Twitty.
A culinary historian and living-history interpreter from Rockville, Md., the 36-year-old Twitty was virtually unknown outside a small circle of food writers, historians and academics before he composed a blog post in late June responding to revelations that Food Network star Paula Deen had previously used the n word and made other racially insensitive remarks.
In the post, Twitty didnt chastise Deen for her use of the racial epithet. Instead he took her to task, along with the food establishment, for failing to give credit to slaves for their starring role in the creation of Southern food. Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse not your past epithets are what really piss me off, Twitty wrote.
Twittys post went viral via social media. The Huffington Post reposted it. Twittys blog, Afroculinaria.com, went from a few hundred visitors to 155,000 in one day. He was soon fielding calls from book agents and film crews. One call was from internationally renowned chef Rene Redzepi, who invited Twitty to speak at the annual MAD Symposium, a food conference held in Denmark. For those who dont know Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma has been named the best in the world, thats like being invited to perform during the food worlds equivalent of the Super Bowl halftime show.
In his blog post, Twitty invited Deen to cook with him at the Stagville historic site in northern Durham County. Before the Civil War, Stagville, owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family, was one of the largest plantations in the South, with 900 slaves and 30,000 acres. Deen never responded to Twittys invitation, but Acheson, McDermott and other food writers offered to help Twitty at the event in early September.
McDermott, a longtime fan of Twitty, said, Hes got so much knowledge that we dont even know we dont know. About his recent fame, she added, Nothing could make me happier than him getting the biggest microphone in the world.
At Stagville, Twitty and several other living-history interpreters demonstrated how slaves would have cooked. They made potatoes and green beans in cast-iron pots nestled in coals, roasted meat on grills made from saplings and baked peach cobbler in Dutch ovens. The food was served as a fundraiser for the sites foundation.
The setting for this event was unlike any other. Stagville is one of the few historic sites that has original slave dwellings. Horton Grove is a collection of four houses that slaves built and then lived in for decades, four families to a house. The slaves likely cooked communally outside the row of houses, just as Twitty and others did on Sept. 7.
But a lot had changed for Twitty since his initial invitation to Stagville. He had become news, and now a media entourage was there too with or without Paula Deen.
Student of culinary history
Twitty grew up in and around Washington, D.C., surrounded by history. School trips took him to Mount Vernon, Willamsburg, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa. He was the child reading Roll, Jordan, Roll, by Eugene Genovese, and The Slave Community, by John Blassingame big books he said he had no business reading. He conducted oral history interviews with his grandparents. Instead of saving his allowance to buy a car as a teenager, he spent it on slave narratives. Beyond history, he also was drawn to food, watching the Saturday morning lineup of cooking shows on PBS, including Southern food doyenne Nathalie Dupree.
When Twitty enrolled in Afro-American studies at Howard University, a professor encouraged him to focus on a few areas and hope to do one very well. Twitty choose culinary history. He wanted to look at African-American foodways through the same lens that his mentor and cookbook author Joan Nathan looked at Jewish food. Twitty is Jewish and worked for a dozen years as a Jewish educator on weeknights and Sundays.
Along the way, he became a living history interpreter. By 2005, Twittys side job began to take off. He went from doing one or two talks a year to 20 or more. Then he started The Cooking Gene, a project documenting African-American culinary traditions through his own family history. Last year, he undertook a Southern Discomfort Tour, a 60-day trip throughout the South visiting areas where his ancestors lived, researching his familys genealogy and speaking at events.
This spring, Twitty realized it was time for a change. I could earn more in a two-day presentation at a college than a month of teaching at Jewish school, said Twitty, who quit teaching in May.
I closed that door. Then came Paula Deen.
Reaching new audiences
Asked about his lifes transformation, Twitty replied: Its too much to name.
A month ago, he ate modernist cuisine and rubbed elbows with 600 chefs in Copenhagen. The next weekend, he was doing a Colonial cooking demonstration in Wheeling, W.Va. Last weekend, he was up 20 hours straight cooking for the Stagville dinner, and almost his every move was documented. A film crew from Raleighs Trailblazer Studio was on the scene, two writers and two photographers from Garden & Gun magazine, a photographer for the Stagville foundation, two friends taking photos for Twittys website, and Triangle media and local food bloggers.
Plus, there was a cameraman from African Ancestry, a genetics company that offered to conduct free genetic testing that would determine where Twittys ancestors in Africa had lived. Twitty told them he wanted to learn the results at Stagville.
Finally, after 6 p.m., the diners were seated and the buffet was laid with pork, ribs, biscuits, rolls, corn mush, green beans and potatoes. Before anyone could eat, Gina Paige, president of African Ancestry, pulled Twitty to the front facing a bank of photographers and videographers.
Im here today to tell Michael where in Africa his maternal ancestors come from and where in Africa his paternal ancestors come from. Ready? Paige asked.
Twitty let out a big sigh, then responded, Can I say something?
He explained that he had purposely decided to open his results at a historic site, at a plantation where slaves had lived and died. Whatever knowlege there is, Twitty said, I want to reclaim here.
With that, Paige revealed that Twittys maternal ancestors came from the Mende people in Sierra Leone and his paternal ancestors were the Akan people of Ghana.
I could not have done this in my living room. I had to do this in a place like this, responded Twitty, in tears. I had to do this with my family.
And then he walked over and kissed the outside of one of the slaves homes.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl