[INTERVIEW] Michael Twitty Searches For His Roots on “Southern Discomfort Tour”

[INTERVIEW] Michael Twitty Searches For His Roots on “Southern Discomfort Tour”

Culinary Historian Aims to Learn About His Enslaved Ancestors Through Food

[INTERVIEW] Michael Twitty Searches For His Roots on “Southern Discomfort Tour”

Michael Twitty is on a mission.  From May to July 2012, he will be touring 50 locations in the South — from Maryland to Louisiana — embarking on what he is calling a “Southern Discomfort Tour.” As a culinary historian and historic interpreter, Michael will be cooking and having dinner and dialogue with the extended family members he has been able to trace back through slavery — both White and Black.  Michael sat down with EBONY to talk about why there can’t be peace, for our ancestors or ourselves, until we get uncomfortable. 

EBONY:  How did you decide to become a culinary historian?

MICHAEL TWITTY:  Slowly! Culinary history is not bound by academia yet. There’s a lot of flexibility for independent scholars to come into this field who have a passion for history and a passion for cooking.  But I just love learning about history and the human journey through food.  You can learn so much about our history based off of the food our ancestors ate:  how they worked, how they loved, and even how they died. There are not many African American food history interpreters, I think, because digging into our past in this country is a cultural place a lot of us are not willing to go. There’s a lot of shame and politics involved in that.

EBONY: Why do you think some Blacks feel shame when looking back on our ancestry and enslavement in this country?

MT:  There are psychic dangers to doing this work. No one likes to feel inferior or weak or even angry.  We already have a culture where talking about slavery is supposed to make you angry, frustrated, or bitter, but I take a different approach.  My goal is to highlight our ancestors’ contribution to this country and to the food we all eat. 

I want people to really appreciate where we come from and what we went through.  When I do my presentations and reenactments from that time period, my clothes are never polished.  Those slaves in the field working 16 hour days weren’t clean and presentable.  They were doing hard labor, so it’s important to be true to that. 

This October, I’m going to pick cotton.  I’ve gone before with people and we pick cotton or tobacco for 16 hours so we can understand better what they went through and honor that.  If you’re out there for 5 minutes, you’re going to understand what the blues is and why the field holler came into existence.  It is mind numbing work. You have to stay bent over and the sweat gets in your eyes and by the 10th hour you’re ready to die. That’s scary for a lot of people to get into. The idea [after slavery] was to get out of the South, go North and get beyond the rural walls of our past, but at the same time, we got away from the land too. I want us to get back to the land and growing our own food and doing things for ourselves. 

Maya Angelou has a beautiful poem that says, “Because we have forgotten our ancestors, our children no longer give us honor. It’s deep and it’s real. And I know that when I do these things the ancestors have peace. I may have an idea of what it means to re-present your history, but a lot of people have not progressed to that point.

EBONY: That reminds me of the debate a lot of us were having about the book and the movie, The Help; On the one hand, many Blacks were upset by the idea of the story of Black domestic workers being old through the lens of a White woman. On the other, many were upset that in 2012, the only Oscar-worthy roles that Blacks had were still those of domestic workers.

MT:  Exactly, but the real issue is the question of agency and voice and owning our stories.  When we’re perceived as passive and receptors of history, like in The Help, it’s not a good look.

When I was giving a presentation about my Tour and The Cooking Gene at a plantation in Virginia, someone told me, “Why don’t you just cook for them? You don’t have to go on and on about history.” At a food writers’ conference in New York a couple of weeks ago, you would not believe how many times I was told, it’d be better if I didn’t do this project through the lens of my ancestors, but I should model it after The Help, or tell the stories from more of a worldview so more people could relate to it. Would anyone even consider telling Elie Wiesel that he should’ve tried telling his story, Night, from the worldview of Goebbels?!  But it happens to us all the time.  So this Tour is a way for me to fully understand, fully honor, and fully own the story of who and why I am — the good and the bad.  

EBONY: That is so interesting. I see why you’re calling it the “Southern Discomfort Tour.” It seems like even just talking about it is making some people uncomfortable.

MT:  Yes, I acknowledge that this is going to be uncomfortable for all of us.  I’m uncomfortable, too! But if you’re going to throw a confederate flag in my face when I hit the South, then guess who’s coming to dinner? Here I am. Let’s sit down and eat and talk. 

So, I’ve decided to take the approach of seeking out both my African and European ancestors to get the whole story of who I am.  And if the fundraising goes well for this project, I can take this Tour to England and West Africa and get right to the roots. I’m not going to deny or reject any group or community of people who may be related to me, even though their relation came about largely as the result of rape of the Black women in my ancestry.  I want to be in their face about it — not in an angry way, but just to find the common ground what we share.   The one thing that Black folks and the Ku Klux Klan have in common is the food we enjoy.

EBONY:  One of the concepts you speak about that I find fascinating is the idea that there can be racial healing through the story of the African heritage of Southern food. How so?

Martin Luther King once said that “The sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners may one day sit together at the table of brotherhood.” That’s a very nice phrase, but how many people have the stomach to do that? Food is a convenient way to avoid immediately discussing these bigger things. We can very quickly go from, “Hmm that chicken tastes good,” to, “Let’s talk about reparations!” [laughs]

As long as they’re willing to have the dialogue and sit at the table and own their ancestors’ part in this struggle, then that’s the conversation I want to have. I have to own my ancestors’ struggle every day, whether consciously or subconsciously, as a Black person in this country, you have to eat it, deal with it, suck it up.  All of these metaphors for ingestion! I told you, food is powerful.

EBONY: So, if you get some of the descendants of your White ancestors to own their ancestors’ role in slavery and acknowledge the impact that is still felt today, will that be enough? Is that the end?

MT: Not at all.  I want to build community. It’s not enough to hear a confession of sins or repentance. It’s mutual repentance. It’s not just about what we expect from White folks, it’s about what we expect from ourselves.

EBONY:  You speak about finding your “food roots” and the name of your website is even called “The Cooking Gene.” Do you believe there is something almost inherent or biological in the preparation of the food many African Americans enjoy?

MT: That’s a good question! You’re the first person to ask that question. Not even Michael Eric Dyson’s people asked that question.  I believe in blood memory.  I believe that some people have an inherent, almost genetic connection to our ancestors through the food we ingest.  I believe we vibrate to a different rhythm as a people. I honestly don’t remember learning how to dance or how to cook. Some people might deny it or not like it, but I like ethnic markers of national identity.  I like the things that say, “This is how we be,” this is how my people are. Time and time and time again, when you look at food in West Africa, you see cousin dishes [to what we fix here in America today].  It’s not because those dishes are derivative, I believe the food itself has its own family tree.  We have our own family tree and so does the food and we should trace both. 

EBONY:  But so many of the traditionally Black southern foods we enjoy are also killing us, clogging our arteries, slowing us down. Is that something we really want to pass down to our children?

MT:  The word we need to know is “veggievore.”  Our ancestors were veggievores, and salt and meat were rarities. Some of the things we still make today — black eyed peas, sweet potatoes, string beans, kidney beans, whole grain rice — that’s what they ate. If there was meat, it was fresh game or fresh fish, which were much more nutritious than what we eat today.

The problem is what happened to us when we were out of slavery.  Now we’re going to take our sharecroppers’ rations and go to the store and buy white bread, white flour, white salt, white sugar –we went from foods with color to foods without color. Isn’t that an ironic twist?  In freedom we left behind healthier foods.  It’s not just true for black people, but many of us went from simple agrarian diets [that were native to us in West Africa] to buying food at a store that isn’t healthy for you.

But the benefit that we have in 2012 is to make the better choices — in the food we eat and in our policies.  And if we fail to hold this nation accountable and we fail to hold ourselves accountable, that’s on us.

EBONY:  When the Tour is over, what do you hope to have achieved?

MT:  I want to write the culinary version of Roots. I want to show people that our culture our culinary culture is ennobling, and that it carries with us stories of our persistence, our optimism our gastronomic erudition. People sometimes eat to eat, but they don’t think about what it means. I want that to change. I want people to be able to grow their own food cook their own food have recipes pass them down reflect on histories of health and heritage. I’m making better choices for myself and I want to show people that its tough, but you can do it too.

I want more folks talking about combining genealogy with food, and not just passing down a chart of when someone was born, married and died. I want us to contextualize our family histories so that it’s rich so that future generations will possess those stories and will always have life as long as those stories are being told. 

And there is some selfishness in this project, too. A Ghanaian proverb says “the human being came to seek a good name and nothing else.”  Maybe when we find our heritage, we can live up to that.

You can support Michael on his Southern Discomfort Tour by giving a donation here

Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog, DCDistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @DCDistrictDiva.

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