SOUTHERN CUISINE — A CULTURAL COLLISION
Deborah Fagan Carpenter
Consideration of our gastronomic practices is essential to any thorough examination of the American South. We enjoy dishes that are uniquely our own, and they play a huge part in how we Southerners define ourselves. Our very origin is closely linked to our culinary history, and a careful scrutiny of our fare reveals a roadmap of our existence.
There are well-known examples of foods that are typically recognized as “Southern.” Okra, grits, black-eyed peas and cornbread are cases in point, and boiled peanuts—a simple pleasure—are enjoyed almost entirely in the South. I grew up in south Mississippi, where the cooking influences of south Louisiana were significant, and most households had modified recipes for regional dishes like gumbo, étouffée, or red beans and rice. Every southerner and every southern celebrity chef has his or her own version of the foods we grew up with, but where did dishes like gumbo and hoppin’ john originate, and how do those foods fit into our history?
Foodie and culinary historian, Michael Twitty is on a quest to answer just those questions, and to show how closely connected our current lives and the foods that represent the South are to our history and to his. He wants to bring to light the impact slaves, and other chefs and cooks of African descent had on shaping American and Southern cuisine in colonial times and since, and additionally, to show how the influences of other countries and cultures fit into the picture.
Michael Twitty is a formidable presence—literally and figuratively—who is a large man, African-American, gay, and Jewish. This description barely touches the surface of all that he embodies, however.
The Southern Discomfort Tour is the means by which Twitty is currently bringing about awareness of the history of Southern cooking. Since 2012, he’s traveled to plantations across the South, lecturing and participating in cooking demonstrations, during which he and other notable chefs prepare and serve food using authentic 18th and 19th century methods and ingredients. The participants dress in period clothing, and use locally sourced produce to present foods that are faithful to the time. In the course of his tour, he is not only collecting food history, but he is also tracing his own ancestry. One of the results of this project is his soon to be released book on the history of Southern cooking, The Cooking Gene. The Harper-Collins publication will be available in 2017.
Alex Haley’s Roots provided some of the motivation for Twitty to seek knowledge about and to document his own ancestry. He was also inspired to write about Southern food history after discovering a book of recipes that was written by imprisoned women at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, who wanted to preserve their cultural heritage for future generations. In tracing his own roots, Twitty is gathering invaluable knowledge about the history of Southern cooking.
A lifetime resident of Washington, D.C., Twitty has strong ties to Virginia, South Carolina, and Alabama through his grandparents. He converted to Judaism in 2002 at age 24, and has taught in D.C. Hebrew schools for over a decade. Part of his job is to prepare boys and girls for their bar or bat mitzvah in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues. His Judaism is not only a vital part of his story, but it is integral to understanding his passion for culinary history. Twitty is deeply engrossed in both the African American and Jewish food traditions, and how the two have melded. “Blacks and Jews are the only peoples I know who use food to talk about their past while they eat it,” says Twitty.
As a kid, Michael gravitated to the kitchens of his friend’s grandmothers in order to learn how they cooked. He instinctively knew that that is where the family stories were, and how they tied together with food. He later began interviewing Jewish grandmothers to pick their brains about how their cooking habits changed when their families moved to the South. Many Jewish homes had black cooks or black neighbors, and so they began to adapt dishes to fit their own food customs. For example: shrimp and grits might translate into herring and grits on a kosher table.
Notoriety in the food world came to Michael Twitty, when after the unfavorable publicity she received over her past use of racial language, he wrote an open letter to Paula Deen on his blog. His goal to illustrate that Southern food history and traditions have been co-created, is eloquently stated in his letter. (Of note, is the fact that at the end of the letter, Twitty invited Deen to join him at a North Carolina antebellum plantation event so that they could cook together and learn a little about each other’s shared history. Deen however, did not respond.)
In the following excerpts from his letter to Paula Deen, Twitty articulately expresses his response to her “childhood ignorance, or emotional rage, or social whimsy”:
“I speak to you as a fellow Southerner, a cousin if you will, not as a combatant. You and I are both human, we are both Americans, we are both quite “healthily” built, and yet none of these labels is more profound for me than the fact we are both Southern. Sweet tea runs in our blood, in fact is our blood. What I understand to be true — a lot of your critics don’t — is, as Southerners, our ancestors co-created the food and hospitality and manners which you were born to 66 years ago and I, thirty-six. To be real, you using the “n” word a few times in the past does nothing to destroy my world. I want you to understand that I am probably angrier about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food, and yet, the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form, and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future, are often passed up or disregarded. 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. Your barbecue 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 the plantation South and its often black majority, coming from strong roots in West and Central Africa. We are surrounded by culinary injustice, where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating.”
The heart of Twitty’s message about Southern food history is that “black foodways, white foodways, Southern foodways—they are all the same—blended, brothers and sisters.” African, African-American, Brazilian, Cuban, Scottish, Italian, German, French. Southern cuisine is a collision of cultures that unite us, and through his own journey, Michael Twitty is emphasizing the vital role it plays in our collective history.
All too many cookbooks touting Southern foods disregard the origin of the recipes the authors call their own. Seeking culinary justice for those slaves, some of whom were his ancestors who actually developed some of those recipes, is Michael Twitty’s goal. Food has played an enormous role in shaping our culture, and he wants to show us why you can’t talk about the South without mentioning the many contributions to it.
Twitty Blogs & References:
Okra photo: Deborah Fagan Carpenter
Book photo: Harper Collins, via Michael Twitty on Pinterest
Serving authentic food at plantation event photo: Michael Twitty on Pinterest linked to hecatedemeter blog
Lecture photo is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.vimeo.com (video)