Knowing that we can learn so much about our history from the foods our ancestors ate, culinarian historian Michael Twitty is on a mission to trace his family history through his ancestors’ culinary experiences.
The roots of African-American cuisine can be traced back to the 1600’s, when the first African slaves came to the New World. Slaves had to establish their own cooking culture using foods that were similar to foods that were part of their African heritage. Since then African-Americans have retained a sense of their culture through the cuisine they prepare and enjoy today.
Twitty started The Cooking Gene Project and The Southern Discomfort Tour to find the hidden food history of African-Americans. They serve as vehicles to promote greater awareness of African-American contributions to the development of Southern cuisine.
“The two main things I wanted to do was challenge myself to go and find my roots and go places were things may not be the same forever. They might tear down a building that was part of my family history.”
The Southern Discomfort Tour contextualized the African-American contribution to American cuisine and gaves tribute to all enslaved African-Americans. “We need to make sure that we support African-American farmers, fishermen and food producers as well as use our collective muscle to promote better eating and health in our communities,” says Twitty.
Twitty has traveled from Maryland to Louisiana tracing his ancestry across the Southern states. “My family has been in this country since 1674, recorded that I know of. My African-American side of the family has been here since 1774. We’re talking about Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Put it this way, half of the Confederacy. If you extend the history of my family to the white part as slave holders and blood relatives, then we are talking about Florida and Texas as well. The story gets larger and larger as I trace it out,” says Twitty.
He visited more than 50 Southern locales searching for the plantations and gravesites of his enslaved ancestors.
The Washington, D.C. native learned all his cooking skills from his family. His parents were the children of migrants from the Deep South. “I do all these things because these were things that my grandmother talked about. These were skills that were handed down from several hundred years and if I don’t learn them and pass them on, then they disappear in our community.”
Our ancestors were the real cooks and gardeners to the renowned hosts and hostesses of the South. Learning about our ancestors pays respect to their contributions and accomplishments to our society and it gives one a sense of pride.
“If you look at the Food Network, The Travel Channel and The Cooking Channel, people are very proud talking about where they are from in Italy, where they are from in Greece and how it affects them in their vision of food. Well, we are stuck with this soul food brand in its contemporary modern form without really knowing the intricacy of where it comes from,” says Twitty who has given more than125 presentations about the complexities of history, identity, race and religion for the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, Colonial Williamsburg and the Symposium on Food and Cookery at St. Catherine’s College of Oxford University in England.