A lot has changed for Michael Twitty since he last passed through Asheville. During that visit in 2014, he spent two days creating a Blind Pig Supper Club dinner in which every step of the process retraced the steps his enslaved North Carolina ancestors took in preparing their meals.
At the time, the culinary historian, historical interpreter and blogger, who writes about food as it relates to his identity as a black, gay, Jewish man, had recently published an open letter to celebrity chef Paula Deen in the Huffington Post addressing the 2013 scandal over her past use of racist language. He invited her to cook a meal with him using 19th-century methods at the Stagville Plantation, a Durham County historic site that once housed over 900 enslaved people. “I want you to walk the grounds with me, go into the cabins, and most of all I want you to help me cook,” he wrote. “If you’re brave enough, let’s bake bread and break bread together at historic Stagville.”
Deen didn’t take him up on the offer. But since then, Twitty’s quest for a deeper understanding of Southern heritage through food has fully come into its own. His blog, Afroculinaria, led to a book deal for his 2017 opus, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, which documents the history of Southern cuisine through the stories of the enslaved hands that developed it.
But the book doesn’t just stop at the Mason-Dixon line. Rather, it hops the pond, following culinary and cultural roots all the way back to West Africa as Twitty traces his own genealogy and his ancestors’ various turbulent paths to America. The Cooking Gene was a finalist for the 2017 Kirkus Prize, and Twitty took home 2018 James Beard Foundation awards for best food writer and book of the year.
“For years, I was saying, ‘You’ve got to pay attention to the people,’” he says, describing his initial difficulty in finding a publisher for The Cooking Gene. “And the pushback was always, ‘No, it should be all about the food; it’s all about the food porn and the pretty shots, the taste, the taste, the taste.’ And I said, ‘No, it really is about the people.’ I’m not the only voice in this conversation, and all those voices together have a resounding shout. A cookbook is great, but I decided not to write a cookbook — they only tell you a part of the story.”
Pulling it together
Twitty has been invited to tell that story to Western North Carolina audiences at the upcoming Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and UNC Asheville’s annual Farm-to-Table Dinner on the Quad as well as in the 2018 UNC Asheville Greenfest keynote lecture at Lipinsky Hall. “Twitty’s book and blog are not just about food and recipes,” says Carolina Mountains Literary Festival organizer Kathy Weisfeld. “He is interested in exploring his genetic background, heirloom crops and the history of Southern and Jewish foods as a way to also understand himself. He dug deeply to learn his roots and connect that to his identity and American food culture.”
Weisfeld notes that Twitty’s focus on “identity cooking, or how we express our cultural and spiritual values through food,” complements the theme of this year festival, “Surface and Rise,” which invites “inspiring stories about people facing challenges and crises and the choices they make.”
UNC Asheville was also keen on featuring Twitty in its events because of his unique take on food as an element and reflection of society and culture. According to the university’s director of sustainability and Farm-to-Table Dinner coordinator, Sonia Marcus, several faculty members, teaching everything from Appalachian literature to the anthropology of social suffering to globalization of taste, expressed interest in hosting Twitty as a speaker.
“Twitty is an author who is pulling together so many different threads through time and space to make sense of the foods we now see on our plates in the South and how we have come to think and feel about those foods,” says Marcus. “His willingness to discuss the complicated nature of his intersecting identities — as an African-American, as a chef, as a Jew, as a gay man — is also a huge draw for our campus community which is also increasingly diverse and intersectional.”
In order to truly celebrate a culture, it’s important to deeply understand the history and events that forged it. For Southerners, that heritage can be sticky and mired in issues of race and class. Twitty points out that other authors have also been chipping away at revealing the true history of Southern food lately, and it has ruffled some feathers. Last year, Asheville writer Ronni Lundy won the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year award for Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes, which spotlights the hillbilly diaspora of Appalachia.
Also in 2017, Southern Foodways Alliance leader John T. Edge penned his Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, which pays homage to the countless unknown poor, rural and often enslaved cooks who developed Southern cuisine. “What really freaked me out was the fact that people came for John T. Edge in a way I’d never thought they would,” says Twitty. “I mean, they literally said to him, ‘How dare you write this book? Go back to telling us how great we are.’ But he wouldn’t back down.”
The Cooking Gene stands out among other books about Southern heritage due to its scope. It doesn’t rest on the idea of a dish being Southern because it became popular in Charleston or the Piedmont but asserts that Southern cuisine is a rich and complex stew of African, European and American history. “One of the things that really handicapped us as a people was this feeling of being cultural orphans — not truly African, not truly Western,” says Twitty. “Totally critical and central to what it is to be an American, and yet denied the full privileges and rights and sensibilities of being an American. When I talk to black chefs, do you know what they want to do? They want to reclaim. It’s not about trends, it’s not about cutesy stereotypes on a plate.”
Twitty acknowledges that the feeling of being “cultural orphans” brings with it a sense of being ill at ease and without roots. “And to anybody who says, ‘Well, you could change that if you changed your attitude,’ all I can say is, we fought wars for this country, we have died for this country, we have paid our taxes and poured resources into this country, and yet, that sense of exile is unavoidable. At the same time, you have to recognize what a home you’ve made in the South,” he says. “Going back to West Africa, people should look at it like going back down home to the country to see their family.”
Twitty has made trips to Africa, but they weren’t just research for his book — they were internal revelations. His travels have provided him glimpses into history that helped him make sense of an upbringing and life in a culture that at times feels disjointed. And those experiences brought with them a heightened sense of purpose.
He tells about a particular trip to Ghana: “We went out to the bush, and we saw a trunk on a baobab tree, one of the most important trees in Africa, and it was filled with the skulls of human beings. And those skulls were not just any skulls, they were a family line of griots, storytellers and bards that went back millennia. And the reason why they bury them in the baobab tree, it’s because they aren’t the same class as the peasants — if you work the land, you go in the land — but the storytellers are the link between the person, the heaven and the earth. They are the ones who tell us what our roots are so that our branches can grow.
“So the symbolism of burying them inside the tree, with the roots so deep but the branches pushed to heaven, ever upward, is very powerful and central to many, many West African cultures,” he continues. “So to see that this is where the people that keep the history and the religion go, into the heart of this ancient tree, it reshaped my life.”
Local events with Michael Twitty
WHAT: 13th annual Carolina Mountains Literary Festival
WHERE: Burnsville Town Center, 6 S. Main St., Burnsville
WHEN: The festival features numerous events and workshops Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 6-8, in Burnsville. Twitty will host the festival’s banquet at 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 7. $35. The banquet was sold out at press time. cmlitfest.org
WHAT: “One Southern Family” UNC Asheville Farm-to-Table Dinner on the Quad
WHERE: UNC Asheville, Main Quad, 1 University Heights
WHEN: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4. $28 general admission, $10 for UNC Asheville students. avl.mx/58u
WHAT: 2018 Greenfest keynote lecture — Culinary Justice: Defining a Theory of Gastronomic Sovereignty
WHERE: Lipinsky Auditorium, UNC Asheville, 300 Library Lane
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6. Free. Come early and participate in Sow True Seed’s free Community Seed Swap 5-6:30 p.m. in the lobby. Vegetarian soul food by Asheville chef Gene Ettison will be for sale during the swap. Copies of The Cooking Gene will be for sale, and the author will be available for autographs after the lecture. Visit avl.mx/58v for details on the lecture, avl.mx/58y for details on the seed swap.