Food & Drink

Culinary historian Michael Twitty’s journey to discover his roots proves illuminating

Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty writes about his history, the African diaspora and the ways that food traditions evolved in his upcoming book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.” He will be in Raleigh Friday for the Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend Sustainable Supper.
Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty writes about his history, the African diaspora and the ways that food traditions evolved in his upcoming book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.” He will be in Raleigh Friday for the Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend Sustainable Supper.

It’s been said that we are what we eat. Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes that idea a step further.

He observes that what you choose to eat, and how you support those who grow or produce your food, can be a barometer of where you stand on social justice issues.

“Food is at the center of all the sociopolitical issues that we face today,” says Twitty, who will be in Raleigh Friday to deliver the keynote message at the 10th anniversary Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend Sustainable Supper.

The three-day event celebrates the connections between local farmers, chefs and artisan producers, and also includes the Farm to Fork Picnic on Sunday.

“Growing and sharing food is at the root of who we are as ethical people. It defines us as human,” he says in an interview. “The revolution begins in the ground. Having food leads us to be well, and to want justice for our neighbors. Not having it leads us to become desperate, and to act with illogical extremism.”

Twitty says to look no further than the scandal of school lunch shaming – in which poor children unable to pay for meals have had to watch their lunches thrown away in front of more affluent classmates, or be forced to clean up after them – to see how humiliation can fester into dangerous aggression.

Carolina connections

Twitty, 40, has been considering the implications of this conundrum for many years, first as a Judaic scholar and later as a food writer and culinary historian. His upcoming book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” will be released in August and will be the referenced in his talk at Friday’s dinner.

In 2012, he stepped up his research by launching his now renowned Southern Discomfort Tour in Chapel Hill. Twitty traveled throughout the South looking for traces of enslaved ancestors and others who struggled to find solace in bondage by growing familiar foods – and sustenance by substituting others with regionally available alternatives. He documented his findings on his blog, Afroculinaria, and through his robust Twitter presence as @KosherSoul.

Along the way, he identified unexpected kin, including his great-great-great-grandfather, Confederate Capt. Richard Henry Bellamy, a slave owner born in 1829 in Halifax County. He also participated in DNA testing that traced his genetic code back to Ghana, Senegal and other coastal countries from which thousands of west Africans were shipped into bondage.

Richard Bellamy
Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty traveled the South in 2012 looking for traces of enslaved ancestors who used food to find solace. Along the way, he identified unexpected kin, including his great-great-great-grandfather, Confederate Capt. Richard Henry Bellamy, a slave owner born in 1829 in Halifax County. Provided

The results of his DNA test were announced during a daylong event Twitty presented in September 2013 at Stagville State Historic Site in Durham. It occurred just weeks after he penned an open letter to former Food Network TV host Paula Deen, who made headlines for using the n-word and other racially charged language. The blog post, which went viral after being shared by the Huffington Post, introduced him to countless new fans who admired both his scholarship and chutzpah.

In the post, he invited Deen to “bake bread and break bread together” at a fundraiser dinner at Stagville, which once held 900 slaves to work its 30,000 acres, and to help him cook food according to 19th century methods. While Deen didn’t follow through on Twitty’s challenge to make amends, influential Southern chef Hugh Acheson joined Twitty in tending an open pit barbecue and preparing a rustic feast that might have been served at Stagville when it was one of the largest plantations in the South.

‘The Cooking Gene’

What Twitty learned about himself, the African diaspora and the ways that food traditions evolved as enslaved people found themselves forced to adapt to life in the American South can be read in “The Cooking Gene.” While the book is still months away from its Aug. 1 publication, it already is garnering critical acclaim.

Kirkus Reviews praised it as “an exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.” In a blurb printed on the book jacket, Matt Lee and Ted Lee, known as The Lee Brothers, credit “Twitty’s agency here – the way his journey through the South’s cultural history tackles race, gender, faith, morality and sexual orientation in a way earlier historians ignored – that makes this volume essential reading for all Americans.”

Twitty Book
“The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” by Michael W. Twitty, will be released Aug. 1.

The book also features a handful of recipes, including Twitty’s adaptation of Mr. Wesley Jones’s Barbecue Mop, which can be used as a sauce or glaze during barbecuing and as a dip for cooked meat.

“It’s one of the oldest barbecue recipes we have from a black cook,” Twitty says of Jones, a barbecue master who toiled on a South Carolina plantation during antebellum slavery.

Jones’ story was preserved for the record by the Works Progress Administration, which interviewed him at age 97 in 1937.

Twitty is hopeful that lessons of the unjust treatment of enslaved people who grew and cooked food can help drive positive change for contemporary farmers and chefs through events like Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend. The event’s goal is to increase access to healthy food as well as to raise funds to support farmer training programs.

“There are so many lost opportunities to dialogue among people using food and farming in a country as multiracial as ours,” he says. “Maybe that’s what we need to break these gaps.

“We can increase our ability to thwart extremism in our politics, measures that take us backward in social justice – and increase our ability to feed ourselves,” he says.

He says that means everyone in the food community has a role to play: Chefs can take their scraps and feed the poor. Farmers can let people glean, and artisan producers can welcome youth and teach them to cook.

“I have a really big heart for bringing people together to make the world a better place,” Twitty says. “It’s ‘tikkun olam,’ my responsibility as a Jew. These little things are so simple, but they work.”

Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at 3lucases@gmail.com or on Twitter @jwlucasnc.

Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend

The three-day event is June 2 to 4. The Five Chefs in Five Courses dinner on June 3 is sold out. Proceeds will go to farmer training programs at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the W.C. Breeze Family Farm Extension and Research Center. For information and tickets, go to farmtoforknc.com.

▪ Friday, June 2: The Sustainable Supper is 6 to 9 p.m. in Market Hall at Raleigh’s City Market. Chefs from Dashi, Pizzeria Toro, Littler, Piedmont, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, The Eddy Pub, 18 Seaboard, Garland and Royale will prepare dinner. Beer and spirits, as well as dessert, will come from local breweries. Twitty will discuss his book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.” There will be family friendly entertainment. Tickets are $35 for adults, $15 for ages 8-12 and free for those 7 and under.

▪ Sunday, June 4: The Farm to Fork Picnic from 4 to 7 p.m. will feature food from more than 70 farms and restaurants, two dozen food artisans and breweries, as well as local wine, coffee and tea companies. The event is at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro. Tickets are $100 per adult, $50 for ages 12 to 20 (no alcohol) and free for 12 and under. Live music is by Big Fat Gap and The Holland Brothers.

Mr. Wesley Jones’s Barbecue Mop

1/2 stick butter, unsalted

1 large yellow or white onion, well chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon coarse black pepper

1 pod long red cayenne pepper, or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage

1 teaspoon dried basil leaves, or 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil

1/2 teaspoon crushed coriander seed

1/4 cup dark brown sugar or 4 tablespoons molasses (not blackstrap)

Melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onion and garlic and saute on medium heat until transparent. Turn heat down slightly and add vinegar, water and the salt and spices. Allow to cook gently for about 30 minutes to an hour.

To be used as a light mop sauce or glaze during the last 15 to 30 minutes of barbecuing and as a dip for cooked meat.

Shared by permission of Michael W. Twitty from “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South” (HarperCollins/Amistad, August 2017).

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