“I describe myself as a Roots baby,” famed culinary historian Michael W. Twitty tells EBONY by Zoom while promoting his new MasterClass. “I came into the world with Alex Haley's comet.”
Born in the District of Columbia the same year Haley’s minisiries, Roots premiered, Twitty links his passion for food history to the movement that stemmed from the show’s debut. “Virtually every Black American household has a copy of Roots on a shelf and that series not only inspired a national movement across all ethnic groups for genealogy, but at a time when African American folks were trying to figure out who we were, where we were, and where we were going, knowing our past, knowing how that impacted our present and our future became a very critical part of our identity.”
For Twitty, that identity has guided his career. It has forced him to think about the role food plays as a part of our health, how we foster community, and how we think of ourselves—mentally, spiritually and physically. That knowledge is what he shares with the world through books, lectures, and now, an 18-part series produced by MasterClass. The subscription platform tapped Twitty to guide users on a culinary journey to tracing their roots.
“With this class it’s all about giving people that direct, fact base knowledge. It's not trivia. It's the DNA of who we are as Americans,” Twitty says. “And as Americans in both a national sense and in the hemispheric sense, there is something different about those of us on this side of the Atlantic and something very special about those on the side of the African Atlantic who comprise the transatlantic diaspora of Black people. That’s part of what enrolees will learn, to bridge that connection.”
Whether you know your diasporic roots to go as far back as Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, or the south, Twitty is keen on teaching the improvisation of Black people through food—their values and their aesthetic and spiritual principles. “We are all the opportunities that we take, so nailing down that spirit of the Black cook is a big part of this masterclass. Nailing down the spirit of the ancestors in the kitchen that gave us the drive and the flavor that we become renowned for all over the world is a big part of this class,” Twitty says. “I help people get that out of it and help people learn to appreciate the things in their own kitchens and experiences.”
In his MasterClass kitchen, Twitty says he was intentional about how the set was designed and what was on display. He sought input from Twitter to make it all come to life. A question: “What did your kitchen look like growing up?” posed to his nearly 70K followers, confirmed for him that a Black kitchen required a few staples.
“My heart was in the sky because everybody described the spider plant,” Twitty says. “Everybody described the string of peppers and the garlic. Everybody described the—excuse my language—big ass African wooden spoons, and everybody described growing up with the rattan chair and the cast iron pots—the dutchy pots.”
If your family is from Louisiana, Alabama, Martinique or Haiti, Twitty has made space for you in his kitchen. He says 80 percent of the items that eventually went into the making of the set were things that organically came up from different people across the diaspora. “We essentially grew up in the same kitchen,” Twitty asserts. “And I think that's extremely powerful.”