[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"

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

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