On Friday, Jan. 22, as Snowzilla bore down on the nation’s capital, peripatetic culinary scholar Michael Twitty was in South Carolina to tape a video, and he found himself in a jam: On Monday he was to begin an important assignment at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. He’d planned to return home to Maryland and then travel to Virginia, but the threat of two feet of snow made that unfeasible.
What to do?
As the founder of the Cooking Gene, a project exploring his own African roots and the African roots of Southern cooking, and the blogger behind Afroculinaria.com, Twitty has a significant online presence. So he turned to Facebook. Were there “friends” in Virginia who could put him up for the weekend?
The ether answered yes.
A few hours later, Twitty was at the Richmond home of his actual friend and colleague Jennifer Hurst Wender, a historic preservationist, baking challah and making vegetable soup with collards for Shabbat dinner. A Jewish convert with the Twitter handle @koshersoul, Twitty is deeply engrossed in both the African American and Jewish food traditions. “Blacks and Jews are the only peoples I know who use food to talk about their past while they eat it,” says Twitty, 38.
From Richmond it was a short jaunt to Colonial Williamsburg, where Twitty spent the week lecturing, conducting training sessions and cooking in period costume at three of the living history museum’s venues. In all his talks, Twitty emphasized the impact of chefs and cooks of African descent on shaping American and Southern cuisines in colonial times and after.
At Great Hopes Plantation, Twitty prepared an elaborate meal featuring a large pork shoulder that he’d boiled for an hour and half, then cut in half and roasted with sweet potatoes and onions on the edge of a hearth in an iron vessel. He shoveled hot coals over and under the pot, hastening cooking while the vessel held in the moisture. Collard greens — similar to the greens that grow year-round in Africa — and a spicy stew of pattypan squash flavored with onions, fatback and hot African peppers rounded out the meal.
Twitty wanted the members of the Williamsburg historic foodways department to taste “real” African cuisine. On his last day, he and a dozen staff members cooked half a dozen dishes from pre-colonial Africa. Among them: African yams sliced and fried in palm oil; a spicy Ghanaian fish stew served with yams boiled and pounded into fufu; and black-eyed pea fritters.
He told stories showing how cooking from different parts of Africa merged and evolved in the New World into a hybrid cuisine. After delivering a lecture open to the public in Williamsburg, Twitty went home to Rockville. Two days later, he hit the road again.
And so it goes in the nomadic life of Michael Twitty.
Since launching the Cooking Gene Project and its concomitant Southern Discomfort Tour in 2011, Twitty has crisscrossed the South from Maryland to Texas and back again, visiting dozens of restored plantations where he has cooked and lectured, immersed himself in old records and met with other culinary professionals, black, white and Native American. In the interest of comprehending his ancestors’ experience, he has also picked cotton (for 16 hours) and cultivated sugar cane and Carolina rice (an African variety that turned white South Carolina planters into millionaires).
In Asheville, N.C., in September 2014, Twitty joined chefs Mike Moore and Elliot Moss (chef-owner of Buxton Hall Barbecue) in cooking a “concept dinner” at Moore’s Blind Pig Supper Club. The meal highlighted the Afrocentric origins of Southern cooking, including barbecue, and it aimed for authenticity: To that end, the three cooks dug their barbecue pit by hand and felled saplings that Twitty used to build a wooden grill.
“It was the most impactful dinner we have ever had,” Moore recalls. “The guests loved his cooking, and they loved the talk he delivered. As far as I am concerned, Michael is the most unique character in Southern cooking today.”
Twitty has taught and lectured at scores of universities, from Yale to Elon to Eastern Michigan. In all, he has appeared at more than 200 historical and academic venues, written articles for a dozen publications and shared the results of his scholarship in long, cogent posts on Afroculinaria.com. In 2013, the website First We Feast named him one of the 20 greatest food bloggers of all time.
Twitty’s reputation has grown slowly. In 2013, René Redzepi, the celebrated chef-owner of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, invited him to address one of his MAD food conferences. Redzepi called him “the voice of our generation” who is leading the world “to a much more serious scholarship around African American foodways.”
Last year, praising the Cooking Gene Project for combining history, genealogy, politics and economics, the TED organization chose Twitty as one of its Class of 2016 international fellows. This week, Twitty and the other TED fellows are in Vancouver, conferring and delivering lectures describing their work. Twitty is the only fellow whose work relates to food. Other fellows include technologists, visual artists, scientists, medical researchers and media and policy experts.
So how did this self-trained historical cook and unaffiliated scholar — a man who majored in Afro-American studies and anthropology at Howard University but did not have the money to complete the coursework for his degree; who describes himself as outside the mainstream and “four time blessed” (“large of body, gay, African American and Jewish”); who for years supported himself (meagerly) as a Hebrew teacher; who underwrites the cost of his professional travel by crowdsourcing — come to be recognized as an important figure in the world of culinary scholarship?
The easy answer is Paula Deen.
In June 2013, shortly after disclosure of Deen’s past use of the n-word made her the culinary world’s reigning persona non grata, Twitty posted an open letter to her on Africulinaria.com in which he addressed Deen as a fellow Southerner, “a cousin if you will and not a combatant.” Twitty told Deen that far more repugnant to him than her use of the n-word was “the near universal erasure of the black presence from American culinary memory.” He described that phenomenon as a form of “culinary injustice that robbed blacks of a vital form of their history and identity.”
“Your barbecue,” he wrote, “is my West African babbake, your fried chicken, your red rice, your hoecake, your watermelon, your black-eyed peas, your crowder peas, your muskmelon, your tomatoes, your peanuts, your hot peppers, your Brunswick stew and okra soup, benne, jambalaya, hoppin’ john, gumbo, stewed greens and fat meat — have inextricable ties . . . to West and Central Africa.”
Twitty concluded his letter with an invitation to Deen to help him cook a meal of reconciliation at Stagville Plantation, a 30,000-acre spread near Durham, N.C., where 900 slaves once cultivated tobacco.
Deen never answered him, but the letter went viral. Among other results: Twitty’s description of the Cooking Gene Project caught the eye of 12 literary agents. (Harper Collins will publish his book, “The Cooking Gene,” later this year.)
An overnight success? Hardly. Twitty had been preparing for his Paula Deen moment since childhood.
Born in the District and raised in Wheaton (he now lives in Rockville), Twitty as a child was in love with food and was an obsessive asker of questions, the kind of 3-year-old who reads the dictionary and has the photo to prove it.
Some of that ran in his family. His maternal grandfather was a book lover and book collector. His maternal grandmother was a cook and storyteller born in Alabama; while teaching Michael how to cook traditional Southern fare, making sure he knew how to “fold, stir and knead by feel and smell,” she filled his head with stories of the Jim Crow South. His mother, a child of the Great Migration, grew up in Cincinnati: Her “Southern” cooking was different from her mother’s, as was her version of his family’s story. Twitty’s father, born and raised in the District, shared yet another perspective on African American history.
Judaism was another source of inspiration. Wheaton was a melting pot. As a child, Twitty was in and out of his Jewish neighbors’ houses, where he ate Jewish food and learned about the holidays. Though he had been born a Christian, Judaism spoke to him. “In my family, children weren’t allowed to question what adults did or said,” he says. “In the Jewish tradition, argumentation is holy, and children are encouraged to question.” At 22 he converted, joining Rockville’s “modern orthodox” Magen David Sephardic Congregation.
Twitty’s Sephardic affiliation is telling. Although he also cooks Jewish food from the Eastern European Ashkenazi tradition, the African-influenced Sephardic cuisine from the Iberian Peninsula with its hot peppers, okra and black-eyed peas resonates most strongly. “Roots,” Alex Haley’s 1976 book and the landmark television series of the same name, also shaped Twitty’s thinking, although both appeared before he was born. As a teenager, Twitty decided to emulate Haley by discovering the African American “roots” of Southern cooking.
The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival provided his first entree to the culinary world. In 1995, he jawboned his way into a Smithsonian internship. His mode of operation, then and now: Talk to people and get rejected as many times as it takes until you finally find your way inside. He stayed on at the Smithsonian off and on for six summers as an intern and later as a historical interpreter.
He has had a way of meeting people who encouraged him. At the Folklife Festival he met Joan Nathan, the Washington-based cookbook writer and Jewish food scholar, who taught him how to bake challah. He met Cara De Silva, author of “In Memory’s Kitchen,” a book of Holocaust victims’ recipes, who taught him that the dead speak to the living through food. At a conference he met the scholar Robert Farris Thompson, author of “Flash of the Spirit,” a book about the influence of African religions on African American art that helped him see that “soul food” was, among other things, a spiritual term describing a mystical connection between humans and the animals and plants they eat.
In 1995, as a freshman, Twitty met famed playwright August Wilson at Howard University. The two talked, and their conversation helped Twitty understand that his deep commitment to research was the only credential he required. Wilson’s testament became his own. As Wilson wrote, “I stand myself squarely on the self defining ground of the slave quarter.” Like Wilson, Twitty insists on his right to define his own history.
While supporting himself by teaching Hebrew, he immersed himself in Southern antebellum cookbooks, looking for references to black cooks and African-based techniques. He traveled and went to conferences. On his own time. On his own dime.
He studied old recipes, including those for hominy and kush (the corn-based dish that later morphed into corn bread dressing) with Talmudic zeal. Recipes, he said, were texts from which he sought “to eke out every bit of their meaning.”
He cooked and he gardened. He studied heirloom seed varieties, some that had been brought from Africa and some that had been carried from the New World to Africa and then, on slave ships, back to North America, among them okra, black-eyed peas, kidney and lima beans, Scotch bonnet peppers, peanuts, millet, sorghum, watermelon, yams and sesame. He called those seeds “the repositories of our history” and wrote about them in a monograph published by Landreth Seed in its 2009 catalogue.
Learning about the derivation of plant varieties through generations of crossbreeding accentuated his longstanding fascination with his own genetic origins. He had a sense that if he overlapped a map showing where Afrocentric Southern foodstuffs and famous Southern recipes first appeared with a map showing where his slave ancestors had landed — where they and their offspring met, married and procreated and where his white ancestors forcibly mingled with his black ones — the two maps would overlap, together telling the story of the African American culinary diaspora.
Thus the quest for his genetic roots began. The point, he said, “was to tease out my own personal terroir, find out who I am as a cook, and as a historic chef.” He began with a swab of the cheek, extracting a DNA sample for genetic study. He has since had 13 more DNA tests, progressively more sophisticated. Turns out his origins are 69 percent African (his ancestors came from Ghana, Senegal, Congo, Nigeria and elsewhere) and 28 percent European (his white ancestors include Scandinavians and people from the Iberian Peninsula).
Working with genealogist Toni Carrier of Lowcountry Africana, he has thus far been able to identify and name at least a dozen new ancestors, black and white, going back two centuries.
Twitty’s embrace of all the various parts of himself — African, African American, European, black, white, gay, Jewish — sometimes raises hackles, as does his habit of speaking his mind. An article he wrote in the Guardian on July 4, 2015, suggesting that American barbecue “is as African as it is Native American and European, though enslaved Africans have largely been erased” from its story, elicited scorn and worse: Many commenters were outraged by his idea of barbecue as cultural appropriation.
Even scholars who appreciate Twitty’s insistence that the African and African Americans who helped create Southern cooking be recognized say he sometimes overstates his case. “What gives scholars pause is his tendency to make bold statements when more nuance is needed when writing about a time period — pre-colonial Africa — that is not well documented,” says Adrian Miller, James Beard Award-winning author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine.”
Twitty, who says he hopes to travel to Sierra Leone this spring to learn more about West African cooking, takes the criticism in stride. For him, the point is always the same: to keep learning. “You go over and over the same territory,” he says, always hoping to extract some new kernel of truth that will bring the story to life.