By Harriet P. Gross
Meet Michael Twitty, descendent from African slaves of the American South.
He’s 34 years old, a native of Washington D.C. who now lives in nearby Rockville, Md. and a man who’s loved food since he was a child. In young adulthood, he began to think of it as a serious career path — not the preparation of food, but interpreting it.
Now he’s called a “culinary historian,” a specialist in what was cooked and eaten on old plantations by folks like his forebears, who were conscripted into hard field work, had to make do with whatever raw edibles were at hand and managed to turn those bits and pieces into dishes of beans and greens that have since made their way onto virtually all Southern tables — and beyond.
The kicker is that Twitty is Jewish. At Howard University, that most famed of all African-American colleges, where he was studying anthropology with an emphasis on Africa, he discovered an affinity for Judaism based largely on the fact that its adherents have as necessary and meaningful a relationship with food, as did his own ancestors. And a lot of that same spunky ability to survive almost anything. He converted a decade ago, and today teaches in two suburban synagogues.
I first learned about this man from relatives in Western Pennsylvania, an area that some of Twitty’s mother’s relatives moved to after the Civil War. He particularly likes Pittsburgh — so do I; it’s my hometown — because it was a prime stop on the Underground Railroad that helped slaves find freedom. Some of his cousins live nearby. So he picked this place for a preview of the two-month trek he’ll be starting out on next Tuesday, which he calls his “Southern Discomfort Tour.”
I’m grateful to Post-Gazette newspaperwoman Gretchen McKay for some quotes she garnered while interviewing Twitty as he introduced his plans with a recent talk at Carnegie Mellon University. He called his presentation “More Than Slave Food: The African Roots of American Foodways.”
“I was so tired of people talking about ‘the slaves,’” is how he puts it. “That wasn’t a job description. It was people being separated from humanity. Those were real people who had real names. And ate real food.”
The touring idea actually started almost six years ago, when Twitty published a little book of his own family recipes and those he collected from other descendants of slaves. Pretty soon, he was asked to give cooking demonstrations, and in 2010 he started a website, afroculinaria.com. Then, just last year, he decided to take everything on the road, visit the plantation areas once populated by slaves, and give workshops highlighting their real but largely undervalued contributions to the development of what is today considered American Southern cuisine.
His two-month tour will be round-trip: Maryland to Louisiana and back. He’s counting on people to let him and his six-man team work their farms and watch him cook, and betting that a few churches and other organizations will offer them a meal once in a while. He’ll raise money through donations and presentations, and will leave most of it behind in the black communities he visits, doing service projects that will mainly involve community gardening.
In Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg’s History Center has already signed on for a cooking demonstration in July that will show how runaway slaves survived as they fled to freedom.
Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has had an exhibition that got an incredibly high rating from Kate Livie, its education director: “He wants to get as close as possible to the experience of the enslaved person. Just watch him cook over an open fire in 100- degree heat — in bare feet…”
Throughout the tour, he’ll collect stories, heirloom seeds and more recipes while doing the hard work of returning human dignity to those who had little or none. This he’ll accomplish by teaching people about a legacy: the slaves’ important role in the world of Southern food.
“I’m not crazy,” he says, as he talks of them in the present tense. “I’m doing this for them, so they can hold their heads up with pride.”
You can read Twitty’s blog, thecookinggene.com or, better yet, follow him on his wonderfully named Twitter, @koshersoul. Not all his recipes can be kosher, of course, but he uses kosher salt in all of them and teaches how to substitute smoked turkey for those poor-folk staples, ham hocks and salt pork.
A fascinating foray into Tikkun Olam with this repairer of a world that no longer exists.