Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Can a people's story be told through a plate of food?
Meet Michael Twitty, an African-American, Jewish and gay antebellum chef, and recipient of the James Beard Award for Book of The Year and Best Food Writing for The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. Given the many aspects of this gastronomist and culinary historian, "The Cooking Gene" is the first of three food memoirs he plans to write that traces his family history through food and explores his many identities.
Foodways: Where History, Food, Race and Culture Meet
In order to trace his ancestry through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom, he needed to first learn the cooking traditions of enslaved African-Americans during the Antebellum South, roughly between 1790 and 1861. He embarked upon a journey that took him to a teaching residency in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, where he would spend the next several years as a historical interpreter of early African-American foodways. Twitty's vision was to cook a delicious, colonial style soul food meal and invite a diverse group of people to enjoy it while respectively discussing the connection between food, race, culture, and history.
I believe the culinary knowledge of African-American slaves has the power to save lives, empower the oppressed, and restore financial and cultural capital to people of color living today.
As a passionate historian, he's also quick to educate visitors, and anyone listening, that while sustainable food and farm-to-table practices may have come into vogue in the U.S. over the last several years, enslaved African-Americans pioneered them and used it as a form of empowerment.
"Our ancestors were local, organic, and sustainable farmers who practiced permaculture and composting. It was an issue of people being in exile adapting to where they are and making it work, [it's how we survived]" says Twitty.
In addition to its roots in sustainable agriculture, the flavor of American soul food is world renowned and sought after by people from all over the world. The diversity of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and spices indigenous to this land and brought to the 13 colonies from Europe, Asia, Middle East, and West Africa during this period revolutionized American cuisine, and made soul food a unique and powerful American commodity.
According to Twitty, after slavery ended, the relationship between African-Americans and soul food continued to thrive and evolve as we became the first generation of culinary aristocracy. Black men and women were known (and still are today) as being some of the best caterers and chefs for the White House, embassies, restaurants, and affluent families.
Africa has been weaved throughout America's food history since the first enslaved people arrived on this continent in 1619, and African-Americans cultivation of soul food is part of this country's foundation.