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Food for Black Thought: Michael Twitty on culinary justice

Addie Broyles

On the first day of the Food for Black Thought Symposium last week, culinary historian and living history interpreter Michael Twitty explained why he set out on his Cooking Gene and Southern Discomfort Tour projects, which have taken him to plantations throughout the South, where he does everything from harvesting cotton and grains to cooking 19th century meals in plantations to help deconstruct the truths we think we know about what life was like for slaves.

“We resuscitate these moments to redeem ourselves,” he says. “No one is immune.”

Twitty, who will appear in an episode of Henry Louis Gates’ new PBS series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” on Oct. 22, explained that no one took culinary historians seriously until about 40 years ago because it was considered too domestic (and too feminine) to be studied academically.

To fully illustrate the blind eye that many in the media have toward African-Americans in the culinary community, he pointed to a Food & Wine magazine article that ran last week about South Carolina chef Sean Brock, who is Caucasian, going on a trip to West Africa to learn about the real roots of “his cuisine,” a phrase Twitty let hang over the audience.

Exploring the African origins of quintessentially Southern ingredients like okra, yams and rice is something that scholars, including Twitty, have been doing for years, but it takes a white chef with “everything but the burden” (and the financial resources to get to Africa in the first place) to draw that kind of national media attention.

“We’re both bringing Southern food back to its origins, but (the way the story was told) sounded like he’d discovered that connection himself.”

What Twitty and others are seeking is a culinary justice that reframes history and acknowledges culinary piracy. “But culinary justice isn’t just about giving credit where credit is due,” he says. “It’s about creating economic opportunity in things like agronomy in places like the South and Appalachia.”

He points to the revived interest in South Carolina’s golden rice, a crop that Twitty’s ancestors likely helped establish as a lucrative industry but now, like quinoa in South America, has become so chic (and expensive) that “it’s no longer affordable for the people who cultivate it and whose cultures depend on it.”

It’s not just about buying rice, though. It’s the stories behind the rice that Twitty wants to make sure get passed down to another generation.

He wants chefs like Brock to “respect the roots and realize that you’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says. It’s a message he tells anyone who will listen, no matter their age, ethnicity or geography.

“You have heritage; embrace it.”