The wheel of creativity never stops turning for a chef, writer, food historian and culinary interpreter celebrated for his remarkable achievements. Michael Twitty’s latest work is “Rice,” released in March is part of the Savor the South little cookbook collection from the University of North Carolina Press.
“It falls heavily from some of my contemporaries, mentors, admired authors and cooks. It brings in all their classic interpretations. They are re-interpreted through me and focused on southern rice recipes,” Twitty says. The Today Show placed “Rice” on its list of 12 best cookbooks by Black chefs.
That recognition and other tributes catapulted the culinary scholar into high demand as an expert on how food connects us to our African ancestors and their journey from slavery to freedom in America. His first critically-acclaimed book, “The Cooking Gene,” won the James Beard Awards for best writing and book of the year in 2018. Spices used in the book inspired Twitty to collaborate with a California company on a spice collection that honors the historical journey of the African American foodways.
The Spice Tribe Collaboration
“It is important to remember that we collaborate with others, others who have the infrastructure. I don’t have the infrastructure to have a spice factory in my house.” As much as Twitty might like to do it all himself, the culinary historian connected with Trent Blodgett, the founder of Spice Tribe, to create The Cooking Gene Spice Collection.
“There was cultural room. He already has spices that are Haitian, Nicaraguan, Thai or Moroccan,” says Twitty. “That to me was of great appeal, the fact that he was already working with a diverse selection of spices and spice mixtures using quality ingredients.”
Partnering with someone who shared Twitty’s values and respected his authority made the collaboration enjoyable. Spice Tribe is a chef-driven company based in the San Francisco area. Chef Blodgett celebrates his global travels by producing small batches of spice blends ground fresh from whole spices purchased from small farms and farmers.
The single-origin spices and blends are advertised as clean ingredients, ethically sourced using eco-friendly and natural ingredients. The Cooking Gene chef wanted that quality for his collection. “It was a very easy process. When we were dialoguing, I made a point of talking about each mixture, the story it was telling, and why it was important without being asked a million questions,” Twitty says.
The Cooking Gene Spice Collection
Stories that combine Black history, people and culture are as much a part of The Cooking Gene Spice Collection as the ingredients chosen for each of the four blends. “I wanted something that told a story that was rooted in historical facts, dates and people’s lives,” Chef Twitty says.
Each of the spice blends in his collection reflects a period in African American history and Black men and women who contributed to our culinary journey. “I wanted to go from before the Middle Passage to the Great Migration. I wanted to tell the larger arch of The Cooking Gene from West Africa through enslavement to my grandmother’s kitchen,” says Twitty.
The four salt-free spice blends in The Cooking Gene Collection are West African Heritage Mix, Hercules and Hemings Kitchen Pepper, Wesley Jones’ Antebellum Barbecue Rub and Hazel Todd Chicken Seasoning.
Twitty uses variations of these spice blends in his own kitchen. They also come in handy when he does living-history interpretive cooking at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, antebellum plantations and history museums. “I don’t really do exact recipes. That was the hardest part because I’m very much a little bit of this and a little bit of that, which is our tradition of improvisation,” Twitty explains.
The Cooking Gene’s author describes his spice blends as “Black joy in a bottle.” They represent the flavors people of African descent brought to America and passed down in their families. Each of the four bottles honors Black men and women who overcame slavery or Jim Crow racism and contributed to their people and America’s culinary legacy. “We have a lot of personal work to do in terms of the way we related to our own history. I’m going my part by every time someone picks up one of these bottles and wants to know about that person.”
West African Heritage Mix
The lives of a Fulani Muslim prince from Senegal and a gifted baker born in Ghana are honored by the West African Heritage Mix. Ayuba Ibn Sulayman was captured in West Africa and enslaved in Maryland for two years before running away from his slaveholder.
Ayuba’s ability to write Arabic script eventually landed him in England, where he became well-known in London society. He finally was able to return home to Senegal as a free man in 1734. “He was extremely intelligent. He was multilingual and could speak Arabic, Fulani and other languages,” says Twitty.
Duchess Quamino also gained her freedom after being sold to a prominent family in Rhode Island and working as a slave. She became famous for her baking skills and operated her own bakery and catering business. “They both left this world as free Africans. That was very important to me. I want people to know these stories and be inspired by them,” Twitty adds. In his mind, the spice blend named after Ayuba and Quamino represents resistance and cultural persistence.
The inspiration for the West African Heritage Mix came from Twitty’s travels to eight different countries before the pandemic. “There were certain things that kept on popping out to me as being part of this Western Africa flavor palate. The spice mixture has tamarind in it and lemongrass. These are things that we usually associate with Southeast Asia. But they have been in West Africa for thousands of years.”
Twitty recommends making the West African Heritage Mix the first purchase from his collection. The spicy and earthy flavors make it a versatile blend to use for frying, braising or grilling. “West African food is not easy for the American palate. It has a lot of smoky, funky umami in it. I wanted to give that entire profile, instead of a generic gloss, so that people can reach for the bottle and put a little bit on some roasted vegetables, meat or fish. Or marinade something and really sort of get a sense of all those flavors.”
Hercules and Hemings Kitchen Pepper
The kitchen pepper Chef Twitty created for his collection is a tribute to two men born as slaves in Virginia. Hercules (Washington) and James Hemings were famous for the meals they prepared for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both men were master chefs who died free men.
“They were not just the help. They were creative geniuses. They were chefs who brought in many of the innovations that we talk about as American food. They also introduced elements of West Africa to the American palate,” Twitty says.
The food historian can trace the use of a kitchen pepper spice mixture to medieval times when the flavors of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia were combined to flavor food. Hercules and Hemings would have used a similar mixture of sweet and pungent spices. “The kitchen pepper was very common, although people had different mixtures based on what people had. It was prevalent in the colonial, antebellum period, and it surfaces a lot in these old southern cookbooks,” says the chef and author.
Twitty has different versions of kitchen pepper in his books, “The Cooking Gene” and “Rice.” The Hercules and Hemings Kitchen Pepper in his spice collection contains black pepper, ginger and cinnamon. He suggests using it to brighten broths, sauces and soups. “I’ve often called it the seasoning salt without the salt for that period. You could throw a bunch of spices into one mixture that would have been rather expensive on their own and use that to give breadth to a lot of dishes.”
Wesley Jones’ Antebellum Barbecue Rub
The pitmasters of today might not recognize the simple combination of ingredients a former South Carolina slave used to barbecue in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Wesley Jones died a free man during the depression. “Before he dies, he has a conversation with one of the Works Project Administration steelworkers about the fact that during slavery, he was a cook and a barbecue man,” says Twitty.
The Antebellum barbecue spice blend created for The Cooking Gene Collection honors the ingredients Jones described in the Works Project interview when he was 97 years old. “He talks in great detail about how he used to mop the meat with all these ingredients. There are coriander and basil. Who knew there were coriander and basil in the southern palate?”
Jones mopped or basted whole animals with a seasoned marinade as they cooked over wood fires. Twitty incorporated most of the herbs and spices Jones used into a more functional barbecue rub containing garlic, onion, red pepper, butter and salt. “I wanted to bring all that, and of course, apple cider vinegar and a little bit of sugar. I really wanted to honor the version he put out in the WP narrative and just tell people that everything is not dead.”
The barbecue methods Jones mastered were rooted in Native American and West African traditions. The techniques existed decades before regional barbecue varieties became popular in the U.S. The former slave was the barbecue man sought after by whites to cook for political parties and other gatherings.
Wesley Jones’ Antebellum Barbecue Rub lets today’s barbecue lovers know his story. “We have so much rich culture from our ancestors. We just need to promote it and profligate it instead of considering it buried. Somebody has to be the griot. Somebody has to be the scholar,” Twitty says.
Hazel Todd Chicken Seasoning
Much of the culinary and cultural history The Cooking Gene author learned as a child growing up in Maryland came from the time he spent cooking with his parents and grandmothers. His maternal grandmother, Hazel C. Todd, was his best teacher. “The chicken seasoning is right out of me and my grandmother cooking together. She was from Birmingham, Alabama, and made the Great Migration to save herself and her children.”
The Hazel Todd Chicken Seasoning pays homage to Twitty’s grandmother and the generations of Black women who overcame slavery, racism, poverty and so much more. They taught their families to value their African heritage.
“She represents the tradition of many Black women, in particular, who were from the South. Oh, Lord, this is emotional,” says Twitty. “One of the ways they imparted their culture to their children was through the food. That was one of the ways they made sure their children knew their ancestors.”
The blend of spices and herbs Todd used in her kitchen made poultry’s flavors come out and sing. The chicken seasoning can also perk up fish, seafood, vegetables or hush puppies. Twitty’s grandmother taught him to use her versatile spice blend on chicken before it is fried, never in the flour. “Like most folks who know how to cook, you will let that chicken sit with the spices, salt and buttermilk or whatever you use. Don’t forget that the spices will burn in the flour or the coating,” he says.
Twitty hopes his chicken seasoning will remind people to cherish the memories they make in the kitchen. He urges others to take time to document the knowledge passed from one generation to another. “That is so special and important. I want to encourage people to interview the elders, not only in their families but in their communities. These are libraries that burn to the ground every day. We need every single bit of wisdom and words they have to share.”
Pandemic and Future Projects
Twitty sees his four spice blends as ambassadors. “They are here to be ambassadors for our ancestors. They are here to teach people about not just the past but the way forward.”
The way forward for African Americans and other Blacks in the African Diaspora has always meant embracing imagination and improvisation
That was certainly true in 2020 and early 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic devastated families and businesses with deaths and financial setbacks. The food historian in Twitty recognizes the adaptability learned through centuries of inequality and injustice. “Guess what we did? We went and relied on all the different methods and modes of survival we always had. We still had our barbecue on the corner. We had our backdoor takeout. We had our pop-up in the field.”
During the same time frame, the Black Lives Matter movement gave Black culinary creators the impetus to demand fairness, equity and respect. Although the pandemic has shut down many Black-owned restaurateurs and caterers permanently, others are making it through the crisis. “So many people I know, love and trust not only are staying afloat, but they are thriving despite all the setbacks from the pandemic. That’s because we’ve been forced to learn how to survive on different terms,” Twitty says.
The Cooking Gene’s author plans to continue speaking about the need for equality and self-preservation for Black culinary professionals. Twitty advises them to pay more attention to supporting Black-owned publications that promote their achievements. “Support Cuisine Noir Magazine,” he says. “We have Black publications that have waxed and waned because we simply need to start with charity at home. Don’t ever think drinking at somebody else’s water fountain is as important as owning a water company.”
Twitty plans to seize the moment of increased attention on African American culinary creatives by completing several projects. He is working on his second memoir, “Kosher Soul,” a multifaceted story of his journey as a Black, Jewish and gay chef.
The food scholar also has more cookbooks, lectures and podcasts in mind to keep the conversation going about the historical significance of African American culinary contributions. “We know our ancestors were resisters. They were creative and proud of their work. They wanted to be free human beings of equal status like everybody else. They knew they came from an important ancient heritage,” he says.
For now, Twitty would like to see other chefs and cooks carry on the food traditions of African Americans by using The Cooking Gene Spice Collection to enhance their creativity. The four individual spices can be purchased for $9.99 each or get all four for $32.99.
Go to SpiceTribe.com to buy Chef Twitty’s spice blends or get more information. You can also follow him on The Cooking Gene website or his blog at Afroculinaria.com. Follow him @MichaelWTwitty on Facebook, @KosherSoul on Twitter and @thecookinggene on Instagram.