Southern Discomfort: a tour through early African-American foodways

Culinary historian Michael Twitty's love affair with his ancestors' cuisine sprouted early.

By age 5, the Washington, D.C., native was his family's Official Taster; as a tween, he'd become so skilled at shucking, cutting, mixing and seasoning that he was cooking dinner -- from scratch -- a couple nights a week. Not that his parents or siblings were particularly impressed by his get-up-and-go.

"Everyone in the family -- male, female -- that's the way we did it. Though we all had our specialties," recalls Mr. Twitty, 34, with a chuckle. From his father, William, for instance, he learned how to make killer barbecue; as he chats by phone from his home in Rockville, Md., he's stirring together Jamaican BBQ sauce.

"The tradition of the Deep South," Mr. Twitty says, "is one of self-reliance."

It was in his early 20s that he made the rich culinary history, traditions and flavors that he took for granted as a kid his a life mission. In 2006, he published his first culinary history "mix tape," a small book titled "Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders 1634-1864," containing recipes collected from the writings and descendents of slaves.

That publication led to his new career as a historic interpreter when His Lordship's Kindness plantation house in Clinton, Md., asked him to give a presentation on American food history. Before long, he was giving regular demonstrations on what slaves cooked and ate on plantations and blogging about it on In 2010, he started, a website exploring the culinary traditions of Africa, African-Americans and the African diaspora.

"Once you get that drive and passion to do something, it's infectious," he says.

Six months ago, his journey grew even more personal. He started thinking, What if in addition to collecting stories, he lived them, by taking the show on the road into tobacco, corn and rice fields? And what if people also could follow him into high- and low-plantation kitchens to see first-hand the skill and creativity required by slaves to put food on the table?

While he was at it, why not explore how the "Old South" figured into his own family history in slavery and segregation, and then stitch it all together into a narrative as educational as it was entertaining?

That's the goal of his upcoming Southern Discomfort Tour, a two-month journey to the counties and plantations where his ancestors were enslaved. Hoping to promote a greater awareness of African-American contributions to the development of Southern cuisine, he'll give demonstrations and workshops, record stories and collect living artifacts such as recipes and heirloom seeds.

During his 60 days on the road, he also hopes to track down and break bread with descendents of the white families who owned his family and in some cases are related to him by blood, and in the process bridge the gaps created by the racial injustices of the past.

"We don't want to get into their face and fight with them, because it's not their fault," says Mr. Twitty, who began blogging about the project at last month. "But we do want to cook with them."

The tour doesn't officially kick off in Baltimore until May 22. But Pittsburghers will get a prequel on Thursday, Feb. 16, when Mr. Twitty gives a talk at Carnegie Mellon sponsored by the school's Division of Student Affairs. "More than Slave Food: The African Roots of American Foodways" will address food's critical role in the development and definition of African-American civilization, as well as touch on the politics of consumption and cultural ownership.

Mr. Twitty also will give his audience an opportunity to taste the past by demonstrating -- with samples -- three vegetarian dishes that connect Africa with the New World: Hoppin' John, okra soup and stewed greens.

Despite his D.C. roots, Mr. Twitty is well acquainted with the 'Burgh: many of his mother's relatives moved from Alabama to the manufacturing cities of the north, including those in Western Pennsylvania, after the Civil War, and he still has cousins in Aliquippa. Even without that personal connection, Pittsburgh would figure into the story, as it was a popular stop on the Underground Railroad for freedom-seeking slaves, abolitionists and anti-slavery activists.

"We realized in constructing the tour that we would have to go North as well, to the places where the slave trade built wealth and people escaped to," says Mr. Twitty, who is on the advisory panel for the "From Slavery to Freedom: Pittsburgh and the Underground Railroad" exhibit that will open at the Heinz History Center in November.

To raise the $8,000 needed for the 4,500-mile trip from Maryland to Louisiana and back, Mr. Twitty is "crowd-funding" through May 5 on and looking for folks who will allow his team of six to work their cotton, tobacco, rice and sugarcane farms. He also hopes churches and other religious organizations will host the occasional dinner and is asking local museums to hire him for presentations. He's certainly got the cred:

Colonial Williamsburg is among the many sites that have taken advantage of his expertise and in July he'll do a cooking demonstration at the History Center on how slaves would have survived in the wilderness on their flight to freedom.

"A lot of people know about African-American foodways, and the contribution it made to Southern cuisine, but very few know how in 1837 slaves would have prepared a meal, and can connect all the dots," says Sam Black, curator of the center's African American Collections. "He brings an architectural and historical perspective to our understanding."

"The guy's incredible," agrees Kate Livie, director of education of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. "Watching him cook over an open fire in 100 degree heat in bare feet ... he wants to get as close as possible to the experience of the enslaved person."

On the flip side, he'll pump at least 80 percent of his budget back into the local black communities he'll be visiting, and the team will do at least seven community service projects, such as setting up or rebuilding community gardens.

"There are a lot of African-American farmers, fishermen and food producers who need our help and exposure," he says.

Raised in a nominally Christian household, Mr. Twitty studied anthropology and African studies at Howard University. Drawn in part by the strong relationship between food and spirit in the Jewish faith, he converted to Judaism when he was 24, and today teaches at Temple Beth Ami and Temple Shalom religious schools in suburban Maryland.

Twitty readily admits he's still perfecting his interpretive cooking skills. The few cookbooks from the early 19th century were meant for the middle class and gentry (slaves couldn't read or write), and ingredients would have been particular to the season and land. He's learned largely by trial-and-error and by accident.

It's just the start to recreate recipes gleaned from slave narratives and interviews, and then figure out how to cook up to 25 of them at one time on an open fire, with water you've carried on site. (He's burned many a hair off his arms and eyebrows.) He's also had to interpret the correct utensils and clothes and learn how to fish, forage, raise chicken, butcher hogs and grow his own heritage vegetables.

He says, "Much as you'd love to go to the local grocery store to capture the past, you can't."

Nor should modern-day soul food be mistaken with what slaves would have eaten. Those who worked the plantations lived in a kind of "sumptuous peasantry," with occasional seasonal bounty sandwiched between long periods of want.

"There wasn't this weekly pile of greens, or mac 'n' cheese and ham on the table," he says. As for their owners, food was a tool of power and control, he says.

Once he's in parts of the country where some people still fly Confederate flags, Mr. Twitty knows he's bound to raise some hackles, and that not everyone he meets will be open to starting a dialogue.

"We have our work cut out of us. This is not a pleasure cruise," he says. But he's nevertheless "on fire."

His ultimate goal is to not only help teach people about the legacy of slavery in the world of Southern food, but also give humanity and dignity to his ancestors.

"I was so tired of people talking about 'the slaves,' " he says. "It wasn't just a job description: it was people being separated from humanity. These are real people who had real names and ate real food.

"I'm not crazy," he adds. "I'm doing this for them so they can hold their heads up with pride."

You can read his blog at or follow him on twitter @koshersoul.

Michael Twitty's talk, "More than Slave Food," is at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, at Carnegie Mellon's Rangos Ballroom No. 3, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland. It is free and open to the public. More info: 412-268-2084 or

Heritage Black-Eyed Peas

Black-eyed peas, which actually are beans, are thought to have migrated from West Africa to the Southern states in the 1700s with the slave trade.

"The Manding people call them 'soso,' and the Wolof call them 'niebe,' " writes culinary historian Michael Twitty. "A millenia-old staple of the diet in Senegambia and its hinterlands, the black-eyed pea grows well in hot, drought-conducive conditions and is a symbol of resilience, mercy, and kindness. Niebe are the kind of cooked food one gives as sadaka -- righteously given charity -- to beggars on the streets of Senegal. They continue to be seen as a sign of blessing and are paired with greens as good luck food on New Year's Day."

  • 1 pound dried black eyed peas or any cowpea

  • 1 ham hock, a small piece of salt pork or slices of bacon, or smoked turkey (vegan alternative -- 1/2 teaspoon of liquid smoke and 5 cups of non-meat chicken stock)

  • 1 cup chopped onion

  • Kosher salt, to taste

  • 1 small crushed dried fish or cayenne pepper

  • A few teaspoons of sorghum molasses (optional)

  • 1/4 cup of fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

  • A few sprigs of fresh or dried thyme (optional)

Sort your peas, making sure you check for pebbles or bad peas. Soak the peas for several hours or overnight, or if in a rush, soak them in boiling hot water in a covered pot for an hour before cooking.

Prepare a stock of salt meat and onion and season with salt and a hot pepper. Boil these together for 15 minutes and add the soaked black-eyed peas. Add enough water to just cover. If you like you can add some molasses for more flavor, or the fresh herbs.

Gently cook for an hour and a half. Pair it with corn pone or serve with cooked long-grain or basmati rice.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- Michael Twitty

Gretchen McKay: or 412-263-1419. First Published February 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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