Culinary historian and chef Michael W. Twitty traces his roots—and America’s—through food

Author, chef and food historian Michael W. Twitty. (Cynthia Ntinunu/Rebirth Project)

By Ethan Bakuli

Community members, faculty and students were in attendance for a talk by culinary historian and memoirist Michael W. Twitty. The talk, held Wednesday evening in the Commonwealth Honors College Events Hall, was based off of Twitty’s 2017 personal memoir, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.”

For well over a decade, Twitty has worked with living history museums to recreate the cooking practices of black people, dating back to the Transatlantic slave trade. What began as his love of culinary history and cooking grew into a desire to learn and teach others the ways enslaved people raised, harvested and cultivated their crops during the 18th and 19th century.

A copy of Twitty’s book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.” (Cynthia Ntinunu/Rebirth Project)

Twitty began his talk going through his experience growing up in Maryland along the Mason-Dixon line, the historical marker between the slave-holding states of the Confederacy and free states of the Union during the Civil War. Centuries after the war, many of those bordering and former Confederate states still recreate the “Old South” through war reenactments and the celebration of life events on “spaces built by the labor of enslaved people.”

“It’s strange to us born and raised in those areas that people want to have their wedding at a plantation,” Twitty said. “It’s not seen for what it is, which is a labor camp people were exiled to. Where sexual violations occurred. Where people were punished and had their culture ripped from them.”

Living in that kind of environment, where plantations could be repurposed as wedding venues, and the burial sites of formerly enslaved people could be found “under gas stations and roads,” made for a compex history that had long been forgotten and neglected. Twitty’s journey to unearth his past, follows in the footsteps of others who have in recent years committed to uncover their relative’s grave sites and the nation’s past crimes.

“It dawned on me a couple years ago that, we were losing those sacred spaces, and that my ability to testify to who I am and where I come from is all up in the air because of this loss of space. But also this loss of memory.”

Rather than lose those memories, Twitty began a journey to “own [his] identity” and reclaim this ignored history. In his book, Twitty takes on a personal journey to uncover his family’s history going back centuries to West and Central Africa. What ended up occurring was a genealogy project that took on a life of its own, pushing Twitty to research not only his ancestors path from slavery to freedom, but also America’s reckoning with its past.

For Twitty, it’s impossible to separate the origins of Southern food culture from the United States’ history of slavery. The “afterlife of slavery” continues in America to this day, determining not only race, but who lives longer, how much money one has in their bank account, and how high one’s stress levels are.

“Slavery is not an event that happened 250 years ago, it is a constantly renewing pain in the ass,” said Twitty. “Its’ influence never went away in this society.”

For that history to be made real required Twitty to simply look at the common foods throughout the Americas; not only in the United States, but in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those cuisines have beared witness to the history of enslavement and Jim Crow.

A sampling of food prepared by UMass Amherst Dining Services, using recipes from Twitty’s book. (Cynthia Ntinunu/Rebirth Project)

“There is no rice and beans without black folks,” Twitty said. “There are no tostones, there are no plantanos, there are no bananas, without the bananas and plantains that came on slave ships to the New World.”

Despite this revelation, Twitty remarked, the common narrative about Southern food ignores the contributions and stories of enslaved Africans, free people of color and indigenous people who co-created a distinct southern—Afro-Creole—culture and identity.

“We have to cook knowing that this is where you start. This is your American culinary genesis.”

The trouble with revealing this narrative, Twitty theorized, is that not only did black, white and indigenous southerners share food, but they also shared bloodlines. A key part of Twitty’s genetic research was tracing his lineage to ancestors both black and white; relatives born after marriage, but also relatives born out of wedlock by sexual violence.

“It’s not easy to revamp that narrative and tell it to you, because that’s not what the American Dream is suppose to be about.”

Following the talk was a reception catered by University of Massachusetts Amherst Dining Services, who had prepared some of Twitty’s recipes, from his personal take on Kung Pao chicken wings and black-eyed peas hummus to African Soul Fried Rice and hoecakes.


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