Last month, a tweet from former congressional candidate Saira Rao called attention to negative reviews of plantations based on the visitors’ dislike for historic accuracy clouding their enjoyment of a beautiful home and grounds.
One of the most pointed responses to the negative reviews came from writer and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, in a post entitled “Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down.” The intertwined issues of race, history, and collective memory are central to Twitty’s work, including his book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, in which he embarks on a “Southern Discomfort Tour” to research his family’s ancestry and African American culinary history in the South. It won both the James Beard Award for Writing, and Book of the Year in 2018.
Twitty’s book comprises so much of what I was missing when discussing slavery in school, with the heritage and connection of food between Africa and America. His suggestion that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the South’s past is not an easy one for some, but the power of food has done great things before, especially when you recognize its true history. — Jill Robinson
In your book, you work to find and honor the soul of your ancestors’ food by looking into your past and your family’s story. Did your interest begin with your first visit to Colonial Williamsburg in the 1980s?
It didn’t really click until I had a reference point. I had never seen people make something out of nothing. It made my imagination fire up in a way that it wouldn’t have had I not seen it.
I began to ask a lot of questions and read a lot. I remember one of the first books I got in the library was the Early American Cookbook: Authentic Favorites for the Modern Kitchen, which I recently bought again as an adult. I was asking questions about when certain foods came around, who used them, why did they use them, what were they used for, and what’s their story?
I want people to realize that this journey within to find the connection between Africa and America is where I’m centered. Everybody has a home country, a homeland, and I’m sort of between the two. It’s not one thing or the other, one place or the other, it’s a negotiation. It’s a call-and-response between worlds.
You use the plantation as a place of reclamation, because it’s both much of where Southern culture was born and where, by and large, Black America was born. In your book, you talk of the connection between and heritage of Southern and soul cuisines, and how it “arouses old racial stereotypes, prejudices, and cultural attitudes and intercultural misunderstandings.”
Some people don’t want to acknowledge the connection because it makes them realize how much they are beholden to a multicultural America, and things wouldn’t be the same without this country’s contributions from all its residents. I think that’s one of the most insidious parts of some of the xenophobia that we see swirling around: This idea of “we didn’t need you, anyway.” It has to be hammered into the heads of some people that enslavement wasn’t something that someone did somewhere else. It was something that happened here. The attitude that I get even from people’s negative reviews of plantations is that they want a moonlight and magnolias fantasy.
Some people don’t want to acknowledge the connection because it makes them realize how much they are beholden to a multicultural America, and things wouldn’t be the same without this country’s contributions from all its residents.
There is such a thing as “traveling while Black.” I didn’t really understand that until I was in Alabama with my uncle and saw my white ancestor’s sword in a case in an Alabama library. In a matter of seconds, it was clear by the looks on the faces of two white women that they weren’t cool with me connecting my history to that man. This was their history. I just said, very matter-of-fact, “That’s my great-great-great-granddaddy’s sword.” We asked to be able to look at it closer, but that wasn’t happening. I had never felt all the eyes in a room on me like that.
In your Afroculinaria post, “Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down,” you reply to the types of folks that Saira Rao pointed out in her tweet who prefer blissful ignorance when visiting plantations. What’s your experience encountering visitors like that in your work as an interpreter at these historical sites?
In that post, I wrote about how to act appropriately in a trauma space. People may think being a historical interpreter is some kind of weird hobby or cosplay, but it’s a job. It’s an educational job. It’s not easy. It’s not pleasant. When you cook, your eyes and ears get crusty. The smoke gets in your eyes, lungs, and nostrils, and it’s hard to remove from your skin. There are actual physical costs to demonstrating the cooking of slavery times. And then you have people whose attitudes show you they’re not ready. They’re like children. They laugh, they misbehave, they act inappropriately. This is an incredible way to gauge the average visitor’s literacy regarding race.
There was a very angry European woman in the kitchen of the enslaved quarters at Monticello last year. She was screaming toward the person she was with, saying “Enslaved. Enslaved! Why are they special?” And I tried to break it to her, “Well, you know, it’s a reference to all people who have been enslaved. Because slave is an identity and enslaved is a condition.” And she got even angrier, saying “This is propaganda. You’re not special. Everybody has problems.” She was not going to allow herself to be in a position where she needed to quiet herself and learn.
That’s not a mature thing to do when you’re visiting a space, especially one that has to do with other people’s trauma. It is your duty as a reflective, mature adult human being to go into that space with as much reverence as you can muster, as much respect as you can bring, and as much sense of responsibility when leaving that space.
I’ve seen a lot of white plantation visitors who expect loyalty from a white tour guide or docent. They want to be able to nudge the guy in the ribs and say, “See, Negroes didn’t have it that bad. They complain too much. We fed them and took care of them for several hundred years and then we’ve been giving them welfare since. If they fail to advance, that’s their own primitive issues.”
If you could ensure that plantation visitors come away knowing one thing, what is it?
Their America is impossible without the contributions and the consequence of the Black presence. Why are many of the dishes that are the most beloved in the South from African or Native origins or some combination of both? They can’t have this thing that they claim they love more than anything else without the people who are still marginalized, still otherized, still oppressed. They’ve already made these other cultures part of their lives without really realizing.
In your book, you follow ingredients from Africa to America, and illustrate their importance in dishes that we’re familiar with in Southern cuisine. That’s something little taught in schools here.
One time I was cooking in the Peyton Randolph House at Colonial Williamsburg, and a white lady (probably a little younger than me) said, “I’ve never heard this before.” And I said, “Where are you from?” She said “Savannah, Georgia.” I asked her if someone cooked for her family. She said yes. African-American lady? She said yes. I showed her some of the different ingredients — okra, rice, muskmelon, watermelon, black-eyed-peas, peanuts, hot peppers — she still said nobody ever told her about any of this.
Are American culinary schools teaching the breadth and depth of the country’s cuisine?
When I did a presentation at the Culinary Institute of America, I was told by the Black students who attended that my presentation was the most Black history they’d received in four years. In referring to the origin or history of a dish or its ingredients, schools might say something like “European, Native and African influences,” but it’s rarely more detailed than that.
As a sense of place, you mention the South might not be a place so much as it is a series of moments.
Being in Charlotte or Houston or Atlanta doesn’t mean you’ve had a Southern experience, but if you’re at a gas station, which in many places of the Deep South, functions as a fried chicken spot, the interactions in those spaces, the dialogue people have, the sounds, the colors, that’s a Southern moment. And it’s also about how one feels when one finally gets to see some of the cash crops from slavery times. That’s a very big thing for me because I don’t think people understand there’s a certain look and feeling to sugar cane or cotton or tobacco or rice. It can be beautiful, but it came at such a human cost. You have to understand what people are saying in their diaries, in their writings, how much of an event it was to clear a swamp by hand to make those rice fields happen. Or to cut down the forest to make those tobacco farms grow. The South is proud of its agricultural legacy, but much of it is tied to a terrible history.
You say your entire cooking life has been about memory.
For me, cooking is about personal memories, or someone else’s memories, or it’s in my mind’s eye thinking about other people’s past. In doing historical interpretive work in plantations, I’m taking on the tasks of countless people before me. I think those places are haunted by our regrets, our hopes, our fears, and our novelty at being exposed to something that runs to antithetical to the American Dream.
My mother and my grandmother were very pleased that I liked cornbread mashed in potlikker—the juice from cooking Southern-style greens. I hadn’t really thought until later in life that what I liked was the baby food of my enslaved ancestors. It was always part of the culture. Knowing that I’ve done something that is not radically different from the times of slavery… now we’re talking about a memory based on a very special, sacred connection to my ancestors.
Similarly, you talk about how the foods of both the Jewish and African diasporas depend on memory.
Both use food as a mnemonic device. Both use food to tell the story. We have moments during the Black year where we commemorate our traditions: Sunday dinner, funeral dinners, Kwanzaa. All often invoke the tastes of the ancestors. They use food, memory, and storytelling as a teaching device, and go back over these stories. At Passover, a celebration of freedom, you go back over the narrative again and again every year, and it’s never the same exegesis.
Cake or pie? And where would you get it?
I’d get the caramel cake at Angelica’s Bakery, a Black family-owned bakery in Chicago’s South Side. They’ve been operating for 28 years and that cake is the bakery’s signature dish.
Find more from Michael W. Twitty on Afroculinaria and buy his book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (purchasing via this link helps support Michael’s work). You can also find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
All photos courtesy of Michael W. Twitty.
What do you do when you encounter whitewashing in a travel destination? Read more in this Statesider original story from Pam Mandel.