It has been said that the best way to reach someone's heart is through their stomach. Author and TED Talk fellow Michael W. Twitty tests this theory at Founders Hall this week, when he combines a hearty menu of Southern fare including okra soup, Mary Randolph's yeast rolls, fried chicken, Madeira ham, cornbread kush, sauteed greens and peach cobbler with a heavy dose of food for thought. Up for discussion: the true heritage of Southern cooking.
For Twitty, it's a discussion that's years in the making. It all began with The Cooking Gene, a blog project aiming to retrace his family's "food-steps" throughout the South and make connections new and old around the dinner table.
"Many of my ancestors were enslaved in North Carolina," he says. "I come from enslaved Africans and white slave holders with roots in this state going back to the 17th and 18th centuries."
He documents his findings in his memoir The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History In The Old South, due to hit shelves in December. In the meantime, he invites Charlotteans to join him around the dinner table for an honest discussion on southern culture and cuisine of the past, present and future.
"The best way to open a dialogue is to cook it...together. We have to talk about techniques, cultures, their values and spiritual heritage, because that all goes in the pot. For me this dinner is an edible love letter to our ancestors."
Creative Loafing: The Cooking Gene project was born a few years ago as a journey tracing your roots through the south using food as a medium. What was the personal significance of using food as the medium for conversation?
Michael W. Twitty: Food is a major vehicle for redemption and reconciliation. The story of the South and of the journey of African-American families is complex — sometimes painful — but food gives us the power to embrace that complexity and use it to move towards a better understanding of one another.
What were some of the conversations that you had on your journey, and how were they similar or different than what you expected?
I think white southerners across the map and of all backgrounds really wanted to have this conversation about food, power and identity. They testified heavily to the story of black people influenced their family recipes and how much they shared with African-Americans as devotees of Southern food. We also recognized each other as kinfolk. That's serious, it's not just about being American, which is important, but it's about recognizing your place in global history and the power of acknowledging the real and fictive ways we are each other's kin.
You have cited Nearis Green [an enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to distill whiskey] as an example of how we're finally beginning to uncover and acknowledge true culinary history and the role of African-Americans on what we have branded 'traditional Southern comfort food.' What role does rewriting history to acknowledge people like Green play in culinary justice? And what's the next step?
The next step is recognizing just how much it's important to have diversity in the food scene now. We have the opportunity to support individuals and businesses that can address systemic poverty; neighborhood safety and integrity; health and dietary issues; sustainable agriculture; and teach history with every plate. We need to make sure that loaning and lending practices, preservation of historical black neighborhoods and educational opportunities all agree with the idea that this is a proud and useful heritage that should flourish in the future.
With regards to culinary justice and culinary appropriation, where do we go from here? What should the future of southern culture — both in and out of the kitchen — look like?
People need to get this straight ... cultural and culinary appropriation are not what happens when you borrow from another culture. It's what happens when you disrespect, exploit and abuse any powers or privileges you have in relation to another culture or remix it or claim it as your own without citation or reference. Respecting the source, acknowledging the connections and sharing the power are the antidotes.
You have said that food is " a way to bring people together across long-held boundaries that have divided them." Part of that is accepting or embracing what you've called the "discomfort of the Southern past." How can we use the stories of division from our past to become more unified?
We often hear the phrase, "move on," that's deceptive. You don't really move on, rather you move up. Dialogue, discussion, action get elevated rather than left behind in the rubble of the past. Cooking and eating are ways to break down walls that we create having to to the daily work of moving up.
In our current climate of tension and division, what conversations do we need to be having about our history and our cultural identity?
We need dinners like this to remind us of how much we have in common and how we have always led interdependent lives. Also, people have been taught precious little about enslaved people of color and free people of color in colonial and antebellum America, educating the masses is important.
What did you learn about yourself, your family, and the roots of your culinary identity?
I'm everything — Viking, Italian, Native American, Southeast Asian! However, I was especially proud to learn my African ethnic affinities via DNA. In fact, five of my countries of ancestral origin on the African side — Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mali and The Gambia — have some of the overall healthiest diets in the world. That's an opportunity to learn and grow from that wisdom.
How would you encourage readers to have a similar journey, or learn about their roots? What elements of Southern culture or cuisine can people of all races, origins, or nationalities celebrate and use as building blocks for a better future?
I often get accused of only focusing on the African and African-American sides of Southern food. I don't only focus on them, I mainly focus on them because for so long African cultures have been denied as a source of the distinctiveness of Southern culture and southern food. To be American, to be southern, should be an opportunity to see oneself in the family tree of African peoples, because without the ingredients, the dishes, the values and culture our ancestors brought with them, we wouldn't be the South we know today. I want people coming to this dinner to know they are my cousins, no matter where they come from.
For more information, visit Michael W. Twitty's blog, afroculinaria.com.