Cover image: Michael Twitty at MOFAD © WhereNYC
Review: It was already my third serving of Ghanaian okra stew as I greedily lapped up the remains. It had been an amazing lecture with Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene, at the Museum of Food and Drink, and all this talk of food made me ravenous. Spicy is hardly the word to describe the fierce and unforgiving heat of the Ghanaian stew. Like an abusive girlfriend, I just wanted more. The second okra dish inspired by the South told a different, nuanced story of layers of sour, salty, spicy and sweet flavors. It had a certain heartiness made by someone who wants to feed you. Both dishes had humble ingredients but carried elements of different heritages, capturing the essence of what the evening is about. In the South, “we are a related through culture and food,” according to Twitty whose name derives from a former slave owner and fifth generation great-grandfather. Proudly African-American, Jewish and gay, he is anything but typical.
But he is a “Southerner first and American second.” For many of us in the audience who knew little of the South, it was an eye-opening experience. Far from a backwater, the South is a mosaic of micro-regions. “It is a mother of millions, and people who left the South still hold roots,” Twitty explained. Its cuisine comes from different backgrounds. Grits are among the oldest in America’s culinary repertoire from indigenous tribes. Then of course, there are the darker historical episodes: slavery, the Civil War and subsequent Segregation that often come to mind when outsiders think of the South.
But even as Twitty calls enslavement “the ultimate sin” he reminds us that the interaction between different communities should not be ignored. Pre-Civil War Southern life wasn’t always as segregated. As Guardian correspondent Gary Younge once said, black nannies had often raised the white children of the Southern plantation. As per Twitty, these slaves put an African stamp on the cuisine of the mansions. Through them came Southern staples such as rice, creole and cajun style cuisine. Yet, their contribution to Southern culture went beyond food as even their hymns and melodies became the sound of the South.
In visiting the South, Twitty found that food creates bridges between different people. “When you have dialogue, people’s defenses breakdown,” he remarked. It reminded me of a talk with blues musician and writer Daryl Davis who met (and ended up befriending some) members of the Ku Klux Klan for his book Klan-Destine Relations. “People start to talk and find commonality.” Twitty also had his own share of awkward experiences during a breakfast with Confederate soldier reenactors and their proud display of controversial Confederate battle flags.
White or black, many in the South share common ancestry and even greet each other with, “Who are you kin to?” Twitty said. “We are related in the South” through culture, food and even blood. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina and elsewhere, he discovered he had both white and black relatives including farmers, reporters and even actor Samuel Jackson. In one instance, standing in front of the former plantation of his fifth great-grandfather, he learned that a distantly related white family had also visited the mansion just weeks prior.
When he stayed at the former plantation, harvesting just as slave ancestors had done, he became both connected and haunted by the visions he had in his sleep. They eventually took a mental toll on him. Rather than stop, he heeded the advice of August Wilson who had told him, “Don’t leave it. Wrestle with it.”
Today, the memory of the pre-Civil War Southern life has almost completely faded. There are newer communities of immigrants. Regardless of heritage, the South has integrated them. “I had to get passed the ‘salt n’ pepper’ frame of mind,” he said. There are Vietnamese, Mexicans and among others who are further shaping Southern identity.
Meanwhile, golf courses, parking lots and shopping malls have replaced the old mansions of a bygone era. Changing agriculture and mechanization mean that farms are run by just a few large corporations. For those descended from slaves, the remaining plantations are both symbolic of oppression and a guiding beacon to locate their lineage. “Most African-Americans can’t trace their roots beyond 1870,” he explained. The rest comes from oral history and knowing “who owned your family.” Surviving plantation owners’ records are often rare but invaluable resources to the descendents. For white-Americans like actor Ben Affleck who may have descended from slave owners, rather than bury any mention of it, Twitty believes they have access to records that could help “a black family retrace its heritage.”
Twitty’s personal journey reconnecting with his ancestral roots made him equally embrace both the good and bad. Not all publishers, however, warmed at first to his book, The Cooking Gene.
Yet, his research of food and family heritage paints an intimate portrait of the sometimes misunderstood Southern states. Like his eclectic okra stew we had tasted, the South is an overlapping, collage of identities and generations of beautifully woven layers of flavor.
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