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Michael Twitty Is Untangling the Roots of Southern Food

The chef, whose book ‘The Cooking Gene’ was released earlier this month, talks about mixing race and history in the kitchen

Chef Michael Twitty Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

Chef Michael Twitty wants me to know that okra is more versatile and storied than I could possibly imagine. The vegetable, which forms the basis of gumbos most often traced to the American South, finds its roots in Africa, most notably the Western countries of the continent—though he notes that my parents’ native Ethiopia also stakes a claim. But here, in the cultural garden Twitty tends to behind the Benjamin Powell House of Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, it’s not the vegetable’s slimy, well-known pods he says I should be examining. Here, Twitty wants me to pay special attention to—and carefully pick—its leaves.

Together with leaves from a nearby sweet potato plant, the okra leaves will form the foundation of a dish Twitty cooks later in the kitchen of Colonial Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph House, the former home of one of Virginia’s wealthiest slaveholding families. Standing in the same kitchen where the Randolphs’ enslaved cooks prepared meals for both the two-person family and for themselves, Twitty heats a cast iron skillet in an exposed, wood-burning wall stove. As the room grows warmer, he tells me—and intrigued, international visitors to Colonial Williamsburg (CW)—about the painstaking methods enslaved people took to prepare food under unthinkable conditions in kitchens including this one. In the increasingly merciless heat, Twitty adds oil, then the ingredients we picked from the Powell House cultural garden: okra leaves, shallots, sweet potato leaves, peppers, tomatoes. A dash of water and a pinch of his “kitchen pepper” (a mix of black pepper, white pepper, red pepper flakes, ground mace, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger) season the greens, which later emerge from the flame enriched by Twitty’s clear attention to the dish’s harmony. On our plates, Twitty pays tribute to both plant and predecessor.

Twitty first gained national attention when his open letter to Paula Deen went viral amid her public reckoning for a series of racist actions, most notably using the N-word, making racist jokes, and expressing her desire to attend a plantation-style wedding with an all-black wait staff. Deen’s racism may have been galling, but it was hardly surprising that a white woman whose culinary legacy is built on recipes associated with—and derived from—black Southerners would hold Deen’s views. Twitty’s letter addressed both her acts and the larger ecosystem that fuels her celebrity:

I want you to understand that I am probably more angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food. To be real, you using the word “nigger” a few times in the past does nothing to destroy my world. It may make me sigh for a few minutes in resentment and resignation, but I’m not shocked or wounded. No victim here. Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse not your past epithets are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded.

Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people—or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo … a relic of our culture that whisps away. That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling than you saying “nigger,” in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy.

Twitty’s commitment to documenting the contributions of black culinarians—including those formally trained as chefs and those whose experience is a mélange of family recipes, intercontinental muscle memory, and forced labor—began years before Deen’s controversy. His work “interpreting”—not acting or role-playing—the work of enslaved cooks serves as a literal embodiment of both the visceral and educational elements of his book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Released earlier this month, The Cooking Gene traces the story of Twitty’s family—and of black culinary contributions—across the Atlantic and back. Twitty writes with an empathetic hand, hewing close to both historical trajectories and contemporary understandings of food, geography, and identity. He connects stories of enslaved peoples—like James Hemings, the brother of Thomas Jefferson’s child mistress—to both their continental counterparts and to current trends in what constitutes “Southern food” (and who gets to determine that).

There is being American and then there is being Southern, and when you move across its face, the South feels endless. For all its familiar tropes, there are multiple Souths, not just one, just as there are multiple ways of being Southern. Differences in the landscape are subtle, and like going from lover to lover, things seem to meld until names are meaningless. Another battle eld, another burial ground. Soulscapes and foodsteps and mysteries and myths. Then, before you know it, the stories begin to pile up like particles of clay and loam and sand until you can’t breathe. We Southerners are now as Vietnamese and Mexican and transgender as we were once Muskogean, Anglo-Celtic, Gallic, and fundamentalist. Add the exile of fifty-plus nations of Africa, and this is my heritage, and for some reason, I wrestle with it endlessly—how could I not; I have nothing else. I am African American, and for the majority of us, this is the genesis we freely share with the New South as we did with the Old. —An excerpt from The Cooking Gene, used with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

After his lesson in Colonial Williamsburg last month, Twitty and I discussed Southern food, black culinary legacies, and their futures.

How did you first become invested in the story behind the food?

I just really wanted to know why we were eating certain things and why my grandfather put an emphasis on certain types of foods. I was interested in foods my mother just would not give up even if she didn’t like them.

I really wanted to know more about the stories behind the food and what we eat. That’s how you get into your culture—you can either passively be a part of it or you can actively be a part of your culture. So I wanted to be an active part of my culture.

You talk a fair amount about your family in the book. Can you tell me a little bit more about your family in general and what cooking means to them?

We had an extended-family household. My grandmother had just retired for health reasons and I did not go into that in great detail in the book because I didn’t want anybody to challenge my kinfolk. My grandmother was not obese or overweight, but she had heart issues. Those heart issues partly stemmed from the fact that she had years of untreated hypertension. She had it treated, but she was still a smoker, and other things were going on, and I didn’t want to go into that in the book …

Our table was international. Our table had things from all around the world, and little did I know that the people who were at the table were international. The fact that we grew up [in a diverse environment]—we had Italian, we had British, we had Sri Lankan food at the table, Indian food—was a testimony not to the restaurants that were around, but the people who had been in and out of my family’s life. So that was something unique that I didn’t even think about until much later. And then there was, of course, the element of and the rituals of black culture in America.

How do you define the boundaries of what constitutes the South and what constitutes Southern food?

I don’t get into all that. I gotta tell you, there are no boundaries. I don't really define Southern food by sugar or not in cornbread or what kind of barbecue you have or any of that nonsense because if you’re Southern you know you’re Southern. There’s no way around it. If you don't want to associate with it, you don't. So it gets me mad, sometimes, people who are born and raised in the typical South, but they never stay. They never stay. They’ve gotta get the hell out. Sorry, some of this is something that migrates with you. One point I tried to make in the book is that we’re a migratory people. Of course, for African Americans, this has been a forced migration; I'll even consider going North a forced migration. We had to leave a lot of things behind because we were being oppressed—and being hounded and being harassed and being killed. We had to make the painful decision to leave the home we had for a generation or two, but the fact of the matter is we kept moving. We had to keep moving. We’re a people in motion.

The book is very personal but also archival in a lot of ways. Why did it feel important to have both of those elements?

I want people to understand this is real. This really affects people’s lives. People’s stories are affected by their past. And then our current lives will affect history to come.

When did you first start writing for an audience?

I think when my blog started it was 2006 to 2011.

And how did the process of going from being public in that way to writing this book come together?

My letter to Paula Deen moved me beyond what I was gonna do, which was write more culinary history. But I learned that it didn’t really make a lot of money. It was really valuable information, and everybody would steal your stuff … When I wrote my letter to Paula Deen, that got a lot of agents’ attention. Agents started contacting me. And then I decided after some hemming and hawing that cooking was gonna be a book project. I didn't plan it that way, but I didn't know how I was gonna do it. I didn’t have an answer for anybody.

What surprised you as you were working on the book?

What surprised me is how infinitesimal human beings are. How unbelievably infinitesimal our relationships to other human beings are. Especially when they're mixed up. … We become family with millions of people who don't look like you and never will and that is so unbelievably hard to conceive of. When most people think of family they think of people who look like them. And I don’t know if that's an advantage or disadvantage in my story. All I know is it’s a fact.

Can you tell me a little bit about the name and where it came from?

You know that phrase, “Some people have the cooking gene. Some people don’t”? I thought about that, the word genes in this refers to genealogy, refers to pedigree. And then the gene to us means something else. So I wanted to play on [that]. ... And also gene means in Greek and Latin “race” or “kind.” So it’s a triple play there: the idea of race, ethnicity; the idea about genealogy; and the idea about DNA.

Closeup of chef Michael Twitty’s hands, which are tossing greens Getty Images

How does your book relate to your work interpreting in Colonial Williamsburg?

People mostly don’t understand what being a black interpreter means, and how hard it can be. Honestly, I want this book to open up doors so we can actually write about these things, talk about these things, have them be their own conversation. We’ll see if it happens. There are so many different stories to tell, and so many narratives. Not just about the people who have passed on—the ancestors—but the people who are living today.

Do you think about food as an arena for possible racial restoration or an educational space?

I’m still trying to develop a thing where we have chefs come to CW and cook with African Americans’ contributions and actually get into the ground, go into the water, learn to butcher, learn different heritage [and] learn about the whole process. I want not just chefs but foodies, bloggers, anybody who is interested [enough] in food to spend a week there and get immersed. … I just want people to have hands-on knowledge and be able to really get into it and not just read it from a book. I want them to learn from black people. It's one thing to kind of admire us from afar, another thing to be stamped and certified by folks of color, which rarely happens.

Have you seen a shift in a way that black food or black chefs or traditions associated with black people have been reported on or discussed in the time since your letter to Paula Deen?

Oh yeah. Because it can’t be ignored. I think a lot of us were kind of like, “I just want a job. I can't make waves.” That’s why it’s important for us to be able to make those waves and not have to answer to anybody. And that's what I do. I’ve enabled ... hopefully given black culinarians a means of being able to change things and being able to speak up for themselves.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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