Meet Michael Twitty

Michael Twitty talks Southern Food with Dr. Henry Louis Gates.

Michael Twitty is a teacher, culinary historian, and historical interpreter based in the Washington, D.C. area. We caught up with him about his recent work, including the Cooking Gene Project, the Southern Discomfort Tour, and his quest to study and promote the foodways of the African diaspora in the American South.

SFA: Your Twitter handle, @koshersoul, suggests a blended heritage that we don’t hear about every day. Could you tell us a little more about your background and how it has influenced your interest in culinary history?

Michael Twitty: “Koshersoul,” is my way of articulating one aspect of my food voice. The Jewish and African Diasporas have a global presence—and sometimes those presences have culturally and socially merged, especially in the South. I’m an African American convert to Judaism with Jewish ancestry, and I’ve learned to blend my heritages by looking at the emotional tone and historical contours of the food.

Fifteen years ago when I started reading Jewish cookbooks and culinary histories like John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied, it made me hungry for the kind of parallel culinary history on the African American side that would expose people to a more complex account of the development, arrival and dynamism that was/is West and Central African cuisine in North America.

SFA: Tell us about this past summer’s Southern Discomfort Tour. What were your goals, and what did you learn along the way?

MT: The Southern Discomfort Tour is just one part of the Cooking Gene Project, which uses food as a way to talk about and mitigate the scars of Southern history. Mainly, I’m looking at American slavery and its long-term effects, including issues of social justice and food culture; the debt to African civilizations for their influence on American cuisine; and how we can own our scars and still come to a place of healing and reconciliation.

My definition of “South” includes the so-called border states—including Maryland, where I live—as well as the historic Confederacy, where my enslaved ancestors lived—in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. My colleagues and I have met and talked to amazing people—from the great-granddaughter of the last black man brought to this country on a slave ship; to a tenth-generation Creole chef from Mobile; to the grande dame of kosher Southern/Creole/Cajun cuisine in New Orleans; to an organic, Afrocentric food movement in Atlanta that is creating its own food system for the inner city; to Southern vegetarian, Venezuelan, and Kenyan chefs.

We re-created an 18th century enslaved community barbecue at Colonial Williamsburg, and there was something very spiritual about that.

I enjoyed tasting sweet potato cupcakes, white chocolate bread pudding, raw soul food wraps, and collard green ice cream in Atlanta; duck gumbo in Lafayette; and the pepper sauce I bought in Montgomery, packed into Snapple bottles. The South is more than its iconic dishes and its meat-and-threes—and that’s an exciting example of how this heritage is coming into the 21st century.

For the time being, as my colleagues and I conduct further expeditions and sort through the vast notes and 40,000 images we have so far, this project will continue to be the centerpiece of my work. I now feel I have ownership in this story because I am closer to the foodways of my ancestors.

SFA: You’ve cooked and/or eaten a lot of foods that are rarely seen or prepared in this century. What’s your favorite “extinct” dish? What methods or ingredients would you advocate for bringing back to the table?

MT: First you have to start with the tools. I’m all about bringing back the standing mortar and pestle for making pottages from tubers, the porridge paddle for grains, and the mano and metate—better known to African communities as a grinding stone for herbs and spices. These were parts of a food system with a distinct food knowledge brought out of West and Central Africa.

I’ve always been obsessed with recreating those homegrown heirloom tastes because I think our foreparents took pride in being incredibly self-sufficient and sustaining. Take a dish like kush, for example…it’s a scramble of white cornbread baked golden, and you crush it and fry it with wild onion and hot pepper and grease of your choice, and you throw wild and cultivated herbs in there and these flavors jump out. It’s a dish that comes from Senegambia, (think: kush/kusha/coush-coush/couscous), and it was the delight of enslaved children.

For me, guinea fowl roasted in cabbage leaves, persimmon beer, cushaw or sweet potato pumpkin, choupique/longnose gar, palmetto wine, tomato, soy, spicebush tea, black nightshade pie, and cala au congri—a type of black-eyed pea fritter eaten in Louisiana—are the kinds of foods we should consider resurrecting just because they illustrate the diverse food palette of a far more resourceful era.