Once a month, Michael Twitty dons a $2,500 period costume of an enslaved man and cooks over a hearth using a collection of heavy cast-iron pots. He cooks in the shadow of a slave cabin at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and at other Southern plantations to better understand and interpret the impact his ancestors had on the American table.
“Anything you can do in a modern kitchen I can do, except for a microwave — and who would do that?” he tells a group of students and faculty at Johnson County Community College during his first visit to Kansas.
Twitty is 40, African-American, an Orthodox Jew and a culinary historian. “The Cooking Gene” (Random House), his first food memoir, is due out in August.
Twitty’s living history demonstrations include period-appropriate cooking implements, detailed knowledge of fire and the use of heirloom seeds and heritage breeds.
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But don’t confuse Twitty with a re-enactor.
“Don’t get me wrong, we do learn a lot from each other, (but) re-enactors tend to be the more conservative end of the business, and interpreters tend to be on the progressive end,” he says. “We like social history and social justice and restoring honor to everyday people. They like valorizing warriors, war and often certain bigger themes. So we get along, to a point.”
Over two jugs of persimmon beer, Twitty once “made peace” with a group of Confederate re-enactors during a rendezvous in West Virginia. But Twitty’s award-winning blog, Afroculinaria, and his new book venture into the space between the “illusion of race” and the “reality of food.” He seeks “culinary justice.”
A chance encounter while a student at Howard University with award-winning playwright August Wilson — whose work was adapted for the screen by Denzel Washington for the recent Academy-Award nominated “Fences” — spurred Twitty to begin working on his own Alex Haley, “Roots”-like story.
Eventually, Twitty took a DNA test. It revealed a complicated ancestral tapestry representing Africa (Senegalese and Ghanaian) but also Indonesia and Great Britain. The DNA results explained why his hair gets straighter by the year, his eyes are almond shaped and his skin is reddish black, he says.
Twitty is also an Orthodox Jew and taught Hebrew school for 14 years. His conversion led him to uncover many parallels between kosher and soul foods.
“Food is a concept, like death, alcohol and taxes,” Twitty says. “Food is also commercial: Ideas with food have value. That’s how I make a living as a food writer. Because people have to think about food several times a day. … If you live in the peasant non-West — I won’t say Third World — my ancestral world, then food is a different conversation. But either way, food is a big part of identity. It’s how we unify and separate ourselves from other people.”
Americans have developed quaint notions of Southern food, he says, but it’s built on the back of a $1 billion industry that spreads an idea of “country cooking, comfort food and hospitality that comes out of this plantation milieu.”
Twitty shows a slide of Mammy’s Cupboard, a roadside restaurant in Natchez, Miss., shaped like a black woman’s skirts. The restaurant was built back when “Gone With the Wind” created a cultural phenomenon. Over the years, the woman’s skin tone has been lightened.
“People are afraid of losing something that is an illusion,” he says.
Downplaying the historical contributions of “servants” who were never paid for their labor — as well as the omission of important historical figures from history books — feeds the injustice.
Two prominent chefs who have been virtually hidden from public view: Hercules, George Washington’s accomplished cook who fled to obtain freedom promised but never granted, and Thomas Jefferson’s French-trained and multilingual chef James Hemings, who was responsible for introducing such foods as crème brulée, meringues, ice cream and French fries to America.
And Twitty — who once wrote a letter that went viral after he asked Paula Deen to sit down at the table after a much-publicized incident of bigotry — remains blunt about contemporary star chefs who co-opt his native and ancestral foods.
“When a white boy with a tattoo on his arm and a beard does it, he can charge $40,” Twitty says. “Culinary appropriation is not borrowing. There’s a natural mix of cultural ideas and assimilation. … Appropriation is when there is outright theft and plagiarism from another culture.”
What can bring Americans together in a time of wide divides and a history of culinary injustice?
Twitty points to the West African tradition of communal eating as a model to move the conversation forward and understand a shared history.
“The king and the peasant eat the same rice, porridge and flatbread,” he says. “If they don’t, they feel cheated.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star James Beard award-winning food editor and Chow Town blog curator. Reach her on twitter at @kcstarfood or at @chowtownkc.
Hidden food figures in books
The female African-American mathematicians of NASA featured in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures” are part of the first in a succession of hidden stories about African-Americans.
In the culinary realm, in addition to Twitty’s “The Cooking Gene,” check out “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Familes, From the Washingtons to the Obamas” (University of North Carolina Press), by Adrian Miller, aka, the Soul Food Scholar, and Skillet Diaries blogger Donna Battle Pierce’s forthcoming book about Freda DeKnight, Ebony magazine’s first food editor and a pioneer in African-American cooking.
Kosher/Soul Black-Eyed Pea Hummus
Historian and author Michael Twitty is an Orthodox Jew. He converted to Judaism when he was in college and taught Hebrew school for 14 years.
While speaking at Johnson County Community College last month, he gave a cooking demonstration that included samples of this black-eyed pea hummus, a recipe originally published at theweiserkitchen.com.
Black-eyed peas originated in West Africa and have been grown throughout the South since Colonial times. Sephardic Jews also serve black-eyed peas at Rosh Hoshanah.
Makes 8 servings
1 (15-ounce) can plain black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained, preferably organic
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/3 cup sesame seed paste (tahini)
1/2 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon of preserved lemon juice brine or 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 minced or roughly chopped cloves fresh garlic
1 teaspoon mild or smoked ground paprika (save some for garnish)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon brown sugar or raw (turbinado) sugar
1 teaspoon hot sauce
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (flat-leaf preferred), for garnish
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, for garnish
Mash or process the black-eyed peas in a food processor. Mashing makes for a chunkier hummus, while processing makes for a smoother dip. If you are using the processor, pulse for about 15 seconds at a time, until the peas are broken down. Continually scrape the processor so that everything gets mixed in. (You may choose to reserve a few black-eyed peas as a garnish or to vary the texture. A few will work for a garnish, but for texture add a half a can of whole-black eyed peas to your mashed or processed mixture.)
Mix the olive oil and tahini together with a whisk. Turn the black-eyed pea hummus into a mixing bowl, and drizzle the tahini mixture in, a bit at a time, mixing between additions until everything is incorporated. Add the lemon juice, preserved lemon juice brine or salt, garlic, paprika, cumin, coriander, chili powder, sugar and hot sauce and mix well, adding more to taste if necessary. Remember, black-eyed pea hummus swallows flavors — so you may have to adjust to your or your guests’ tastes.
Transfer the black-eyed pea hummus to a bowl. Sprinkle with a bit of paprika, the fresh parsley and sesame seeds. Drizzle with extra olive oil if you so choose.
Per serving: 176 calories (64 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 12 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 399 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.