Local library hosts speaker on American identity in food

On Sunday, Jan. 28, author and culinary historian Michael Twitty spoke about his book “The Cooking Gene” at Poughkeepsie’s Boardman Road Branch Library./ Photo courtesy of Clark Xu.

Cooking and eating together are key activities for the formation of community identity. At the Boardman Road Branch Library on Sunday, Jan. 28, writer, culinary historian and food interpreter of African-American cuisine Michael Twitty presented from his book “The Cooking Gene” to local audiences.

Speaking to the goals of this project, Twitty summarized, “Part of the reason why I wrote this book is that I wanted white Southerners to know how African they are.” He believes that racial divides in America may be bridged by clearing up historical misconceptions. Director of the Poughkeepsie Public Library District Tom Lawrence added, “For Black History Month, this is good timing for us … You can see we had a pretty decent turnout today.” Throughout the year, Poughkeepsie libraries host a variety of events such as book talks addressing archaeological mysteries, computer classes and conversational Spanish lessons.

Twitty spends most of his time on historical sites and at museums of the Antebellum South preparing reenactments of the way his ancestors cooked in the 1850s. He describes himself as a Black, gay and Jewish man who is keenly aware of his African-American ethnic identity and its historical memory. Many of his meticulous reenactments involve explanations of the culture surrounding food production, preparation and presentation. Twitty suggested that his understanding of food production comes from harvesting crops such as cotton, rice, tobacco and sugarcane during each summer since his youth, noting, “When I’m talking about picking cotton, I’m not talking from an armchair, because I did it. And every time I’m doing it I’m crying because I’m thankful—I’m thankful that my ancestors did it so that I could have the life that I have today.”

Twitty often enters into disputes with museum curators about historical memory. While some historians claim that Southerners eat black-eyed peas because the Confederate Army foraged them in the fields during periods of starvation in the Civil War, Twitty asserts that black-eyed peas, first transplanted from Africa with ships bearing enslaved captives, were used to keep people alive on the Middle Passage. Twitty explained of other southern staples, pokeweed and hot sauce, “The number one condition among enslaved people was the need to have vermifuge [antiparasitic] plants. It dewormed you; everybody back then had worms of every class, but it most affected the enslaved.” High parasite infection rates were linked to close proximity to animals and human waste.

Lawrence said of Twitty, “He was very passionate about what he had to say, and that’s important, you know, he’s got a missionary zeal.”

Three Arts Bookstore owner Walter Effron, who sold copies of the book at the event agreed, saying, “Sometimes you have a good author and not a good speaker and that’s too bad, that’s bad luck. [Twitty] did pretty well.”

Effron added that while tabling for events does not necessarily meet labor and shipping costs for books, especially for events hosted at Vassar College and on other college campuses, he finds that the sales are worthwhile because they provide positive bookstore publicity, good service for the author and an opportunity to meet other community members outside of the store. Local interest in Twitty’s talk and book was robust.

Attendee Tamika Whitenack ’21 reflected, “I particularly appreciated the ideas he brought up related to the identity of Southern food, and the relationship between our current concept of Southern food and the historical roots of Southern food and enslavement of African people. I think Twitty had an interesting perspective on how food can be connected to identity on a historical level.”

Nicole Yaw ’18 agreed, “I liked the way he emphasized the need for America to understand how much of their food originates from Africa or other countries, and to really dig deep into their roots and give credit to the different cultures and people that contribute to American history and food.”

In the South, just as culinary influences from France developed into the Cajun style of Louisiana, so too did cuisine from West Africa contribute to the Lowcountry style of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Former plantations that have become historical sites and museums are located as far north as Maryland and Virginia. During reenactments of the 1850s across these regions, Twitty has prepared dishes such as okra soup, gumbo, chicken and dumplings, sweet potato, rice, collard greens, cornbread, fried potatoes, fried apples and peach cobbler. Considering the heavy influence of African cuisine in Southern cooking, Twitty reported parallels in Mary Randolph’s Southern cookbook “Virginia Housewife” to African culinary practices of the 18th and 19th centuries. He asked, “What’s going on? The people she learned to cook from were Black and from West Africa.”

Whitenack and Yaw suggested that Twitty could have further emphasized possible change to recurring political and socioeconomic problems of food distribution, exchange and consumption. Yaw elaborated, “There was no next-step solution to addressing these issues. I’d hoped that he would offer some alternatives to try and make more of these connections between America and Africa and food on an individual and collective level.”

Whitenack added, “I wish he had talked more about the reasons behind his work as an interpreter and the specific significance of recreating food scenes from the historical South for understanding history and connecting it to today’s culture.”

Whitenack and Yaw lead the student group Vassar Food Rescue, recently renamed Vassar Food Community, which aims to develop the critical discourse on food at Vassar and will invite to campus more speakers on culinary topics.

To some extent, Twitty’s talk did confront critical issues raised by food production. The historical memory of African-American communities in the South is a complex mixture of intimate proximity to and violent exploitation by the plantation and slaveholding class. Twitty reported that interracial children were most often conceived in the kitchen between white male plantation holders and Black enslaved women, and that he sometimes finds ruts in dining rooms made by years of Black servants standing in place while providing meal service to their owners. Keeping this history in mind, Twitty argued, “I definitely have righteous anger, don’t get me wrong, how could I not? But that means Southern people, however dysfunctional we are, we’re family.”

Emphasizing unity in Southern identity, Twitty concluded, “So all of us, white or Black, rich or poor, gay or straight, religious or not religious, all of us Southern, all of us built in the same region for 500 years. We haven’t gone anywhere, we’re the same people.” Twitty sees historical evidence of intercultural community in Antebellum America. He continued, “It seems odd because we think of segregation. No, these people slept in the same room. Poor white people and poor Black people didn’t live on two sides of the street, you know, in 1850. When I went to the census in Maryland, how many Irish people did I see living in the same house as Black folks? They’re living in the same house, they’re not in two separate houses, no, we’re a part of each other, that’s what America is. And our food tells that story, every single time, everything we are.”

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