Newsmaker: Michael W. Twitty

Culinary historian and author uncovers African-American food traditions

April 27, 2018

Michael W. Twitty
Michael W. Twitty

Michael W. Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene and the African-American food history blog Afroculinaria, has devoted his life to researching African-American culinary traditions and how they affect our understanding of the past and present. He has been honored by as one of the 20 greatest food bloggers of all time and was named in 2015 one of “Fifty People Who Are Changing the South” by Southern Living.

Twitty serves as honorary chair of Preservation Week, held April 22–28, which focuses this year on cooking and community archiving. American Libraries spoke with him about what can be learned about the past through food and about his work with Preservation Week.

What drew you to food and its history?

Going to living-history sites like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia at an early age was a big draw. The whole idea of creating something meaningful from nothing; of creating one’s dinner, not from the supermarket, but from the earth and wild was really powerful to me. Then the obvious leap is that your parents and grandparents tell you, “Well guess what? That’s how we used to do it.” It then became self-reflective. From the time I was 6 or 7 years old, I’ve had this interest in how people in the past ate, and how that translates into a window into their lives.

Why is it important to preserve recipes and cooking histories, particularly those of the African-American South?

One of the most important things to understand is that we know precious little about these amazing human beings who were denied their basic humanity because of slavery. We teach American history to generations as [though] the beginning of America was the beginning of freedom for millions of people. And yet, for most of my ancestors, it was not the beginning of freedom. It was exile—from their culture, religion, families, and identities—at the cost of losing so much and not really being able to fully embrace the promise of this country until another century and a half had passed.

So for me, the food—recipes is pushing it because they were preliterate people—but the ideas; formulas for creating food; ideas about food, taste, preferences, and aesthetics, all that culinary knowledge is critical because it provides a lens through which to view the inner lives of our ancestors, who were often so brutally dehumanized and diluted of their identities. For me, this is a way of having a glimpse into who they were and how they constructed their culture.

Your work is not just about looking to the past; there’s a forward-looking scope, part of what you call “culinary justice.” There’s a health and socioeconomic side to it.

“Culinary justice” means that people who have been oppressed have a right to their sovereign culinary knowledge; to use it as a means of empowerment, cultural renewal, and growth; and to protect their culinary ideas from theft and appropriation. Culinary justice does engage parts of food justice, which is about having access to quality food; healthy food. But it’s also about being able to take pride and ownership and give credit for those ideas upon which a culture can be built.

It’s critical that people understand, culinary justice is not just a black thing or an African-American thing: Anyone in the world whose culture has been underfoot can benefit from the idea that culinary justice needs to be enacted so that communities can build on their heritage.

The greatest form of cultural capital that an oppressed people has is how it survives its oppression. So, for us, culinary justice means taking the ashes and ruins left behind by slavery and rising like a phoenix from them. And using food as a means to teach ourselves about where we come from, to improve our health and living standard, to build opportunities to create wealth and employment, and transform knowledge from generation to generation as we look to the future.

How are you uncovering these traditions and recipes? What’s your research process like?

I think the biggest part is one has to know there’s no electronic sign going, “Look here.” There’s not. If it was that easy, I wouldn’t even bother. It’s not that easy. It has to do with your lens, your eyes. You have to know Africa and extend outside of Western culture homogeneity. For me, the process begins with idea maps, brainstorming, and thinking about what is seen and what is not seen. What can I know? What can I not know? And part of it is engaging things you see around you every day. While there are certain things that have remained the same—in America, the Caribbean, Latin America, and West Africa, obviously—without there being a need for a paper trail, those deeper elements are there for a reason. So we work backwards: How far can we trace these things? What are the missing pieces? Is something in an archive or library that’s been overlooked that I can reapproach and find these answers.

I will leave this earth never knowing all the pieces that we still have left, even though a considerable amount has been destroyed or lost. These agriculturalists’ journals, receipt books and commonplace books left by former slaveholders, narratives African Americans were told—they’re little bits and pieces of the common narrative about the contributions of Africans and African Americans to the Southern culinary diet. And also how they fought, and how they felt. And about the processes they had to go through to develop, acquire, grow, hunt, fish, and gather foods, process them, and turn them into a meal. And what those meals meant in terms of their social, cultural, spiritual culture.

It’s critical that we understand that this is a lens into the minds of enslaved and free people of color. That’s something you don’t get from a textbook. Because you work from what muscles did, not what their minds did. So my process is about discovering: What did their minds conceive, and how did their muscles achieve it?

Has there been any particular recipe or something that you’ve uncovered in your research that has surprised you?

I was talking to a student at the University of Mississippi. She was working with her archeology professor and uncovered this dried okra recipe. She sent it to me, and I gasped: The person writing down the recipe—well, I should say it’s a formula, not a recipe—she’s doing it the way they did in Africa. With the little okra circlets drying in the sun, and when it’s time, you reconstitute them in water during the winter. You dry them in rings. There’s a certain way of doing it. That woman is drying okra in an African context, where it’s the dry season versus the rainy season. Okra tends to grow more in the rainy season; the dry functions almost as a dead zone. But in America, it gets relegated to winter and autumn. It was important that people understood shifts in ecosystem, environment, climate, and knowledge of the land. It means they were engaging with their environment in an intellectual manner. I was floored because you don’t see things like that in a lot of the books that purport to be encyclopedic about our heritage. There’s so much more to uncover.

You’re the honorary chair of Preservation Week. How do you hope to use your chairmanship?

I really want people to understand something: I’m going to use this time to advocate for African-American research, particularly researching slavery. I was humiliated in a library in South Carolina because I was looking up information regarding my enslaved ancestors. I was reprimanded for using digital cameras. I was told, “No, you’ve got to go. You have to order the copies and pay us.” I said, “I’m here, I spent all this money, I’m contributing to the economy of your library in South Carolina. Some of these documents are not going to hold up with copies, I really need this.” They said no, and then proceeded to really profile us as researchers. That really hurt.

It hurt because, would that happen in Germany with Jewish folks? I happen to be Jewish, so I know about these things. If you don’t want to give us our reparations, at least let us be able to go to any archive in the American South or the East Coast where slavery was practiced and have a special accommodation as a definitive enslaved people.

And I’m going to say it, I’m going to say it as often as I can, because I want people to understand that reading while black is a different experience. You know, going to Starbucks while black is now nationally known as a different experience. So just imagine going into an incredibly white space like a library. We’re part of the American library’s history. Part of its history is as a Jim Crow institution, de facto or de jure. And now we have people going into those spaces, post–Alex Haley to find our roots, and we’re not always finding people practicing the kind of compassion and policies that welcome the African-American researcher. I hope to change that.

Update, May 15: Michael W. Twitty will appear at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans on June 25 as part of the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services President’s Program: Dining from a Haunted Plate.


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