Southern Discomfort & “The Cooking Gene”

Lucy Gellman PhotoOn the screen behind Michael Twitty: a white-and-red marbled cut of meat, laid bare on a pine picnic table before cooking. A palmful of shining small fruits, dimpling as they sat in the sun. In another image, Twitty, with an armful of sugarcane, leaned against the still-unadulterated stalks in a field that met the horizon line. Another: Two speckled chickens kicked up dirt in their pen.

“Our food is what connects us” he said, gesturing to the images. “We can begin to connect this story of food, of family and of faith that will make us think.” 

As part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Twitty appeared Wednesday evening at the Yale Center for British Art to present The Cooking Gene: Tracing My African-American Story Through Food, an hour-long lecture that can be described only as unapologetic food gospel, done exactly right.

For a man who has a strong tie to ancestry and memory, and an insatiable hunger for knowledge about his past – one of many places where his Jewish and African-American identities collide – it is the perfect niche.

“Humanity is such an immense idea. We think we understand it, but we really don’t. We also think we understand food, but we really don’t,” Twitty began.

Then he delved deeper, into what makes his food project, The Cooking Gene and Southern Discomfort Tour,  uniquely his: “We also think we understand the concept of race…but nothing more than 0.1 percent separates me from anybody in this room. In my exploration of how genetics and food and history all kind of collapse on each other…it’s a really powerful thing to acknowledge that we are all connected.”

That sense of connectedness spurred a journey to discover the people – and the food – woven into his DNA. Raised in Washington, D.C., which was once a major slave trading center, Twitty looked to the complicated, fraught history of the American South for an answer.

“Food is the lens,” the culinary historian, historic interpreter, and self-proclaimed “chef only in the past” explained. “Food is the lens that connects Southerners together, connects white southerners and black southerners…it connects the Vietnamese family in New Orleans, it connects the Latino family in Greensboro, N.C. We are all practitioners of southern food, each in our own different way. But we have to make sure we go beyond the South.”

“If last night was southern comfort,” he joked, referring to an A&I event featuring Regina Carter, “I’m southern discomfort.”

Enter “The Cooking Gene” (click the video to see more), Twitty’s plan to travel from Baltimore to New Orleans and back retracing – and recreating – his ancestors’ steps “from Africa to North America, from slavery to freedom.”

“Food enables us to have this dialogue that we otherwise may not have. A dialogue that, I have seen in many places in the deep South, is only possible when you put plates down and force people to have a conversation. These dishes together tell a very complicated story about how do you, as a society, believe in the inherent inferiority of a group of people?”

Leading the The Southern Discomfort Tour is his vision for “culinary justice.” Twitty aims to reclaim not only the history of African-American food, but the mores that accompanied it.

“There are certain personalities, certain chefs ... they shall remain nameless ... but there are these figureheads in Southern food who have no problem promoting the idea that they are rescuing, they’re renewing,” he explained.

“And they will say, ‘God bless those slaves for their contribution’ – you hear the same thing in every book – ‘for their okra, rice, and black eyed peas.’ And they think they’ve done their duty. They don’t tell you about what it feels like to get up at four in the morning, and what it feels like to lift cast iron pots, and what it feels like to burn all the hair off your arms. What does it feel like to get cut? What does it feel like to have all this glorious food in front of you, and not be able to take a seat because to do so would be considered death?”

But the Tour, Twitty said, was also more than a teaching experience.

“I’m not a big rah-rah American. I’m very agnostic about that,” he said. “But something amazing happened. We had white folks come up and say…you know, my great-grandfather owned slaves. It was a terrible thing. If you come to this part of the country, let me know. If you come to this part of Alabama, this part of Mississippi, Mr. Twitty, we will put you up. Don’t worry about it. We will take you around to every site you need to go to. When you have every black community, the church ... every synagogue we came across…I really found out that the family I was looking for were not the people that were necessarily related to me. That the entire country was my America, my American family.”

His time spent learning – and cooking – in the South has led him to believe that, when done right, food can pave the rocky and tumultuous road to understanding, and to healing. “If we teach a child of color in their tradition that their food can be healthy and be good, and they can…have some sort of responsibility and role in creating their food, then we can save generations the heartache of illness and disease…and of being culturally, spiritually, mentally displaced from their center.”

“If we teach a young white child from the South that their black cousins are sitting right next to them, they’ll be less likely to see that person as a stranger, and more likely to understand that we are all inextricably connected. We can begin to unravel this ancient, idiotic prejudice that we have based on phenotype.” 

He didn’t claim to have found a panacea, but called it a place to start. A really, really big place to start. “When these things happen,” he said, referring to people breaking bread together, “people discover that the notion of family is that much bigger and that much more expansive and that much more beautiful. There is a whole scripture in food.”

That’s the scripture we need to have in our body, soul and memories.”

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