A Culinary Journey
At the Radcliffe Institute, chef Michael Twitty traces the food legacy of enslavement.
Cooking practices “can open a window into the lives of enslaved people and help us understand slavery and its legacies,” said Radcliffe Institute dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin on Thursday, introducing a talk by chef and culinary historian Michael Twitty on the intertwined history of slavery and American foodways. The event was part of the initiative on Harvard’s ties to slavery, launched by President Lawrence Bacow in 2019 and headed by Brown-Nagin. The initiative’s faculty committee will be releasing a report of its findings and recommendations next month.
Twitty—whose 2017 book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South won a James Beard Award and whose newest volume, Koshersoul, will be published this summer—began with an example of what he called the “fakelore” surrounding a dish with African American roots: the hushpuppy. “We need to talk about this,” he said. One popular fable about the hushpuppy’s origin, which Twitty recently saw circulating on Facebook, claims enslaved people cooked hushpuppies as they fled plantations, throwing the deep-fried cornmeal-based batter to the dogs that would chase them, whispering, “Hush puppy, hush puppy.”
That story is colorful and provocative, Twitty said, but untrue. “First of all, when are you cooking these?” he asked, shaking his head. “What do you know about the enslaved person’s day that tells you that any old time they wanted to pick up and run away, that they would make something as obnoxious and noisome as onions”—most hushpuppy recipes include the strong-smelling vegetable—“[or] to make a dish that required extra fat?”—which would have been difficult to manage on the run.
Much more interesting and amazing, he argued, are the true histories, like the one about a dried-okra recipe uncovered recently at a nineteenth-century plantation in northern Mississippi. It’s an example of a “deep Africanism,” Twitty said, “being professed and practiced by white people,” and a skill carried from West Africa to the Gulf Coast and into the interior of the American South: across climates and ecosystems and centuries. “It’s literally someone remembering something and doing something that had not changed since they left West Africa,” Twitty said. There, during the dry season, when mainstays like melons, squash, eggplants, onions, and okra do not grow as well, people dried and stored them in rings; to eat them, they’d reconstitute these foods by boiling them into soups. In West Africa, that dry season is known as the harmattan, after the dry, dusty wind that blows from the Sahara; in the United States, the closest equivalent was winter.
“When I do my work, of reconstructing and piecing back together this narrative,” he said, of the connections between enslavement and the African diaspora and American food (The Cooking Gene traces Twitty’s own family history and “genetic genealogy”), “I found that there were so many elements that were just totally overlooked, because we are so interested in attaching the narrative of how enslaved people ate, cooked, and lived to a trauma narrative.” In his talk, Twitty also dispelled the myth that enslaved people’s dishes were cobbled together from “scraps” leftover from the slaveholder’s table. “Another sort of fakelore,” he said, “is that black people’s food traditions come from their lack of ownership, their lack of agency, their lack of willpower.” In fact, he said, it’s unlikely there were enough scraps to sustain anyone throughout the year, and enslaved people produced and grew their own food, often in secret, using techniques handed down through generations. “You know, resistance wasn’t always Nat Turner,” he said, referring to the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia that killed more than 50 people. “Resistance was as simple as, ‘I'm going to make sure that we eat good.’ … Resistance was speaking the names okra, bendi, gumbo, which all mean the same thing. And those words coming down to us. And resistance was the fact that wherever we went in the New World, in the African Atlantic world, we essentially did the same thing. We had this this bigger, mega brain that told us, ‘Do the same thing. Enjoy your secretized religion, enjoy your Creole languages, create your own cuisine, your own identity, create your own music, your own oratory, your own liberation and resistance strategies. And make sure that you understand that you are a nation.’”
In conversation with Brown-Nagin after his remarks, Twitty talked about watermelon and black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes, and about the importance of contemporary black chefs in preserving traditions. He talked about the Middle Passage and what he sees as the future of African diaspora foodways, and his frequently expressed idea that “Your food is your flag.”
The two also talked about Twitty’s concept of “culinary justice.” Food justice, he explained, is about equal access to healthy nutrition. Culinary justice is cultural and civilizational, about identity in marginalized communities and self-empowerment and control. “The ingenuity of our people and our culture and tradition is at stake here,” Twitty said. “Also our culinary memory….We have to teach each other about our common legacies as Cape Verdeans, as African Americans, as Northern black folks, Southern black folks, Afro Brazilians, Afro Latin folks, Garifunas. We have this brilliant diversity, and brilliant culinary diversity. And yet there are some things about us that are very much the same and held in common.”
Noting a couple of recent controversies at the intersection of food history and black history, he added, “Culinary justice, to me, isn't just about, you know, saying that Nearest Green”—an enslaved man—“came up with the recipe for Jack Daniels. Culinary justice isn't just talking about who the real Aunt Jemima was. It is about restoring to us the ability to use and benefit from our culture on our own terms, in our own way.”