Michael Twitty is documenting his family history through his ancestors’ culinary experiences. This spring he began his “Southern Discomfort Tour”, named because it will address the hardships that Michael’s enslaved ancestors endured to put food on the table.
Below is an interview with Michael, conducted by SFA grad student Susie Penman:
Can you tell me a bit about where your family comes from?
I was born in Washington D.C. and have lived in the DC area my whole life. My father and mother were the children of migrants from the Deep South--in my father's case south-central Virginia and upcountry South Carolina and my mother's parents were from Alabama.
Can you explain to me a little bit about how you learned about cooking traditions?
My mother and father and grandparents knew I liked stories --so I got to hear all about the calls that hawkers would yell as they peddled sugarcane and crowder peas. Every recipe seemed to have a narrative or the memories of people who ate them.
How did your interest in the history of food develop over the years?
It was kind of intuitive. I really thought that knowing about what food people ate throughout history was just an incredibly more intimate and interesting way to understand the context of their world.
Your plan is to visit the counties and plantations where your ancestors were enslaved. How much do you know about that history, and how have you gone about finding out some of that information?
Thanks to my uncle's work on my Mother's side and thanks to my Grandfather and Father's memories we can go back pretty far on both sides. I know the counties, I am ferreting out historical societies and hoping we get some volunteer genealogists and local historians who can take us to the land.
What other places will you visit, assuming you will sometimes venture away from your family's history?
Places of culinary memory where slavery meets food are crucial. We are going to be doing some dynamic historical cooking presentations at Colonial Williamsburg's Great Hopes Plantation site, Somerset Place plantation in North Carolina, the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, and sites in Mississippi and Louisiana. Also we want to visit African American farmers and farming and food producing efforts across the Deep South.
Your team will be working in some of these cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane fields. Can you tell me more about the purpose of doing that work?
We have a serious disconnect of understanding between what it really meant to be enslaved and what it meant to eat enslaved. You can't understand what that meant unless you get down in the clay, the sand, the silt, and endure a brutal day of labor. Blogging and writing about it will, I hope, give people of many different backgrounds gratitude for what our Ancestors endured to get us here.
Can you tell me how some of this money will go back into the communities you visit?
Eighty percent of our food budget is devoted to local restaurants, food producers, growers, fisheries, etc. We want to promote and profile those places and people that open their arms to us and give us a clue into the historical journey. We are looking for projects along the route that have a food justice angle that specifically involve young people and intergenerational learning.
Why do you think it is important to Americans (of all races) to know about a project like yours, and to understand the links between food and history?
I think that we are using food to tell a story that everybody thinks they know--but don't really “get.” We think food history, culinary history can be a vehicle for racial reconciliation and healing--a way to foment dialogue where there was none to be found before.
What can readers to do help you out?
Spread the word---- Facebook, blog, and Twitter @Koshersoul
Have us over--If you have a farm or a restaurant and want want to dialogue and cook together--great!
Tell your story--We encourage you to share memories on The Cooking Gene Blog
Suggest places we could present or give talks: We are looking for small gigs and places to present as we go on our way.
Picture above: Michael picking cotton, September 2007 Surry County, Virginia