For most chefs, a two-hour microburst rainstorm at 8 a.m. does not create any significant hurdles in the workday, but for Michael Twitty, it really does. When we show up to the Blind Pig’s “These Southern Things” dinner, the clouds have cleared, the sun is beaming down on Hickory Nut Gap Farm’s historic Sherill’s Inn, and Twitty, a tall, hulking figure, is looming over his outdoor pit, the smoke billowing across the field in front of the house.
“All this wood was cut down by ax yesterday afternoon, right in those woods over there,” he says pointing toward the thicket of trees just behind the Inn. The pit is a mere trench dug into the ground — it might be 8 feet by 3 feet, at most. Twitty has placed branches across part of the hole to form a makeshift grill, upon which crackle and hiss the skins of pork butts and chickens. To the right of the rustic grill, a hog leg swings from a rope tied to a wrought iron tepeelike tripod, dangling above the burning wood coals. Throughout the yard, cast iron pots and pans sit on smaller beds of fire, their contents bubbling as they simmer in the open air, which hangs heavy with the smells of spring — a mix of grilling meats, cow manure from the farm just over the hill and dampened soil from the morning’s cloudburst.
But just hours earlier, Twitty and his team — Asheville chefs Mike Moore and Elliott Moss — were frantically trying to figure out how to dry not just their wood, but the ground itself so they could begin cooking a meal that literally takes all day to prepare. You see, Twitty is not just a chef of pre-Civil War slave foods; he is a historian of that time as well as an author, and when he cooks, he does everything as it would have been done by his ancestors, who were enslaved in North Carolina.
Archaeology of slave life
“I don’t come at this from one angle,” says Twitty. “I have to learn the rudiments of the archaeology of slave life. That is a major source of evidence. So when you understand that, you can retranslate those factors to culinary stuff. … What kind of utensils did they have? Did they have the capability to pickle something? And in a lot of cases they didn’t, which makes you think about how they would eat over the course of a year. Then you have to know the ecology of each region.”
His foods are simple, as one would expect, as they came from an era long before the food processor, the sous vide machine or even the indoor stove. But the flavors are complex. Even so, the fried chicken, barbecued pork, stewed okra and catfish stew are all pretty much seasoned with the same thing. “Just about everything is made with what we call ‘kitchen pepper,'” he tells us, “and saying ‘kitchen pepper’ is like saying ‘curry,’ meaning that everyone has their own; it could be anything.”
“When we were making the sweet potatoes, I told Mike don’t put any spices in that, only put spiced rum in it,” he explains, “because if you were enslaved near the proximity to a town, only then, you might have had access to spices, but typically [the plantation mistress] kept those under lock and key. But when enslaved people wanted to develop flavors for certain foods, they were very resourceful. If they wanted allspice flavors, they used spicebush from the woods, down by the creek,” which is what Twitty and his team foraged the day before for the dinner we were eating that night. “If you wanted cinnamon, nutmeg or mace flavors in you foods, you resorted to spiced rum,” he continues.
Twitty says that at the time, slaves were often given casks of rum a few times a year in the guise of a tip or gift, but often it was merely a distraction to quiet discontent. “But of course, every time they’d get their rum, it was always watered down,” Twitty says, “so what they would do is take cinnamon, mace and nutmeg whole, throw them in with the watered-down liquor to color the water brown and give it that taste.”
You may have first heard of Twitty, a North Carolina native currently living in Washington D.C., from his open letter to Paula Dean published by the Huffington Post shortly after her very public and shame-inducing meltdown that involved racist language. Rather than berate her, Twitty invited her to cook with him at a fundraiser for Historic Stagville, a North Carolina plantation that once enslaved over 900 African-Americans.
“I want you to walk the grounds with me, go into the cabins, and most of all I want you to help me cook,” wrote Twitty, “Everything will be cooked according to 19th-century methods. … If you’re brave enough, let’s bake bread and break bread together at Historic Stagville.”
Voices from the past
When dinner is served, it is at sprawling community tables, set on the wrap-around porch of the old house. The meal is family-style — diners serve themselves from the same large platters and bowls.There is a timbre in the voices that fill the air that is ripe with respect for what is on the table before us — as if voices from the past, silenced by generations of oppression and slavery, can finally be heard through the simple foods on our plates. They may not have been able to personally tell their stories, but Twitty is here to see to it that their culinary legacy speaks for them.
For the enslaved on the plantations across America before the Civil War, eating was a matter of dignity. You may have been given the scraps from the white man’s table, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be good-quality, nourishing food. For them, it had to be good. But beyond self-respect, antebellum African-American cooking was a connection to a homeland across the ocean that many had never even seen.
“We don’t know where we come from,” says Twitty, telling of confrontations he has had with people of other ethnicities who do not understand his work, “We think that one day we went to the beach for a cruise, we ended up in America, we found ourselves in Alabama picking cotton, and the next thing you know, we’re in the ghetto playing basketball.
“Even black people think that’s black history,” he continues. “And the narrative is of this struggle for freedom and equality as opposed to becoming American just like everybody else. That narrative get’s lost. We spend so little time on the cultural transformation of people of African descent, and we get so caught up in the other part of the narrative. But being able to tell that other part of the story is important, because no one part of that story is monolithic.”
The culture-shifting aspects of the African-American story could not be any clearer in Twitty’s work. After all, what is more American than fried chicken and barbecue? But it all came from across that pond; it was all made by the hands of those who were taken from their homes to build our cities, roads, churches and homes, because we also made them cook for us. “I don’t like to use the word ‘proud,’ because we’re not proud of it all, but I feel humble and blessed,” says Twitty. “I feel touched by people who open their hearts and their minds, and that is the important story here.”
Twitty is working on a book called The Cooking Gene. Learn more at afroculinaria.com.