“I didn’t have the intention of writing a book,” said Maryland-based culinary historian Michael Twitty in a phone interview. “I was just looking for food and family roots.”
But that search did result in his first book: The Cooking Gene, a memoir, being published Aug. 1.
Mr. Twitty’s blog, afroculinaria.com, was the first one devoted specifically to African-American food history. Deeply respected in his field, he has a quote posted on the wall of the Sweet Home Café at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture: “Our food is our flag ... it sits at the intersection of the South, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.”
And he is noted for an open letter written to former former Food Network star Paula Deen that went viral in 2013 in which he admitted to being less upset by her admitted use of a racial epithet than by “the near universal erasure of the black presence from American culinary memory” — the cultural appropriation that she and others have engaged in and profited from. “Don’t forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks,” he wrote. (He has yet to receive a reply.)
Mr. Twitty has researched the stories of those enslaved cooks and the ingredients they worked with and dishes they prepared, combining that with his family’s oral history and DNA testing to fill in his genealogy through the South and back to West Africa.
He has traced his family tree to an Akan-Ewe man on his father’s side who was born in Ghana at some point between 1760 and 1765 and a Mende woman in his maternal lineage who was born in Sierra Leone in approximately 1750 or 1760, as shown on a family tree at the very beginning of the book. This work is notoriously difficult for African-Americans, whose past generations’ documentation often includes bills of sale rather than birth certificates or baptismal records. Additionally, paperwork might offer given names without surnames, and freed men and women would have been recorded in the census of 1870 but not in previous counts.
In an effort to empathize with his American ancestors’ experiences and to learn more about their food, in 2012 Mr. Twitty embarked upon the Southern Discomfort Tour, during which he has given talks and engaged in research along a route that harbors a “deep history with slavery,” he said. He also participates in immersive historical representations.
“I’m in the clothes that call to mind what the enslaved wore, making food like the enslaved made for themselves and their slaveholders,” he writes in his book. “I am in plantation kitchens that are haunted to the rafters in places that few African Americans dare to tread. I watch ghosts walk by, and among them is me .... I am stirring the pot wondering, How exactly did I get here?”
This is the story that The Cooking Gene tells.
“I didn’t want it to be a cookbook. I think sometimes people hunger for that cookbook,” Mr. Twitty said, though the book does contain some recipes. “I didn’t want people to focus on just the food,” because “for me, the human stories are so critical.”
In June, Mr. Twitty made his first trip to Senegal with Roots to Glory (rootstoglory.com), which offers opportunities for DNA-tested African-Americans to visit their homelands. He was able to view for himself the Door of No Return on Gorée Island, off the coast, through which his ancestors were taken when enslaved.
“Any time an African-American goes to West Africa and makes that pilgrimage, it is intense,” Mr. Twitty said.
He has learned that his familial name is Serer, meaning “the lion clan.” This was very powerful, he said, because “I know what my name was before it was Twitty.” Reuniting with an extended group of relatives — “My grandfather’s sixth cousin removed, his family has been there for centuries,” he said — “[restored] a history that was taken from us.”
He wants people to recognize their African culinary history, too.
“Black-eyed peas and okras and rice,” Mr. Twitty said, were familiar and yet presented in a manner that almost made them seem new with their freshness. Upon seeing these foods in Senegal, as well as hibiscus and kola, “I completely understood where we came from.”
He said: “We can get hibiscus tea at Starbuck’s,” showing how it has lost its history and its context. But “hibiscus tea and kola both come from Africa.”
In Senegal, “they valued fresh fruits and fresh vegetables,” Mr. Twitty said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of dessert over there,” either.
Even more important than the diet, though, was the social construct of the meals. “You eat with your family,” which could include as many as 15 people. “That is so important.”
Gathering together for the evening meal offers opportunities to “learn the ways of the people,” and gave him a chance to witness a “highly developed personal code of ethics” that is shared from one generation to the next. Hospitality. Kindness. Courage. Peace. These are all nurtured, Mr. Twitty said, emphasizing each tenet as he spoke.
“I don’t like being [one of] a handful of people who do this,” he said of working in these specific areas of expertise and passions. “Who will take up the reins?” he asked.
“For African-American folks who are living in Toledo” and elsewhere, Mr. Twitty wants The Cooking Gene to be a guide “for where they came from and where they’re going,” as well as “a vehicle for them to break down heritage.”
“I’ve done it,” he said. “And this is how you do it.”
Macaroni and Cheese the Way My Mother Made It
“The grave is not an unusual place to have a conversation about food in our culture,” writes Michael Twitty. His late mother “spoke of graveside picnics on Memorial Day and trips on Mother’s Day. There was a time when the grave was full of food offered to the dead in our culture in the rural South.”
Spice and sugar mixture:
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 sticks butter, unsalted, cut into small pieces
8 ounces cream cheese
1 cup whole milk
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 pound cooked elbow macaroni
2 cups sour cream
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
8 ounces cubed mild cheddar cheese
4 ounces shredded mild cheddar cheese
Paprika, to taste
Make the spice and sugar mixture: Combine the ingredients and blend well.
Make the macaroni: Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a 9 by 13-inch baking dish or casserole dish with nonstick vegetable oil spray and place it on a rimmed baking sheet.
In a mixing bowl, using a sturdy spoon or a handheld mixer (or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment), combine the butter and cream cheese, and mix well until completely combined and softened. Add the milks and eggs, and mix until the ingredients are fully incorporated and the mixture is smooth.
In another large mixing bowl, combine the cooked macaroni, sour cream, shredded sharp cheddar and cubed mild cheddar, and mix to combine. Pour the egg mixture over the pasta mixture. Add the spice mixture and gently stir to incorporate and coat the pasta with sauce. Pour or scoop into the prepared baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned.
Remove the dish from the oven and turn the oven off. Sprinkle the shredded mild cheddar and paprika on top, and return to the oven (which will still be warm but will cool down) for another 10 to 15 minutes, to allow the cheese to melt and create a crust on top.
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Source: Adapted from Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene
African Soul Fried Rice
“Sweet potatoes and collard greens, turnip greens and fresh seafood, lean meats and healing spices have always been part of our tradition,” Michael Twitty writes. “Everything in our tradition is not fried. Some of soul food’s glories come from the freshness in the ground.”
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 scallions with their greens, cleaned, trimmed and sliced thin on the bias
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
Red pepper flakes, to taste
½ cup fresh thinly sliced okra
1 cup of diced bell peppers – red, yellow, and green
1 cup of thinly sliced (think ribbons!) washed, trimmed, stemmed collard greens
4 cups cooked rice
1 cup of cooked black eyed peas, not mushy (just cooked till done and tender)
1 teaspoon of soumbala or netetou powder (see note)
Optional items: 1 cup of scrambled eggs, cooked shrimp, or leftover poultry or meat or tofu
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or large skillet until very hot. Add the garlic, scallions, and ginger and cook, stirring, until they are soft and release their scent, or about three minutes.
Add the other tablespoon of oil and add the salt and red pepper flakes. Quickly sauté the okra, bell peppers, and collard greens in the oil for another three minutes. Add the rice, black eyed peas, and soumbala and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir repeatedly to keep it all from burning and monitor the heat. If you choose to add eggs, cooked shrimp or leftover meat, add at this point and heat through another three minutes. Send to table hot.
Note: “From Chad to Senegal [soumbala] is the traditional umami ingredient ... you will get the smoky, savory taste that is uniquely West African,” writes Michael Twitty on afroculinaria.com. It is available at the Toledo International Market/African Market, 2636 Central Ave., or online at poukouhalalfood.com.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Source: Adapted from Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene
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