For more than a decade, Michael Twitty has traced one of the most extraordinary journeys in American food and memory.
In some ways, the Washington-based food writer is the culinary equivalent of a forensic detective. His West African heritage may have been severed in the hold of a slave ship. But he devoted his 2017 Beard Award-winning book “The Cooking Gene” to unearthing those vestiges of identity that have been preserved like the imprint of a fossil in limestone.
Sometimes, it comes down to the barst of gestures.
Did his mother taste her sauce by sampling it always from the back of her hand, never the spoon? This habit, he learned, had passed from mother to mother all the way back to West Africa, where the custom endures today.
He finds his heritage in the rice brought over with enslaved Africans, the peppers and garlic that season a pot of collard greens, or even buried in the language itself. In several West African dialects the word for okra is “ki ngombo,” better recognized by Americans as “gumbo.”
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In late February, Twitty joined food luminaries such as Thomas Keller and Mashama Bailey on the online learning platform MasterClass, with a course on “Tracing Your Roots Through Food.”
The course devotes some of its 18 sections to interpreting DNA results, soliciting family food stories from elders (“Do not stick a smartphone in their face!”) and tracing the ingredients that mark any family’s often personal culinary heritage; Twitty lays claim to both Black and Jewish identities.
But the course is also a trip through Africa’s vast and often willfully overlooked influence on our continent, from barbecue and Southern food to Caribbean and Cajun.
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“African Atlantic Black identity defines… the majority of cuisines of the Americas to this day,” Twitty says in an early episode.
We talked to Twitty about what made America so African, and why that’s important. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
So how did African culture give rise to so much of the food that’s uniquely American?
Michael Twitty: Before 1820, more people of African descent crossed the Atlantic than Europeans. We don’t all survive — because, you know, enslavement is hell.
But at the same point in time, we’re literally birthing the cuisines of the American South and beyond. This touches the largest American cultural regions of Brazil, the Caribbean, Cuba.
We’re not tertiary: We’re actually kind of primary in this. Because these are who did the cooking, did the mixing, did the transformation from things out of the Old World — for lack of a better term — into the New World.
How did those African roots get so obscured? I won’t name names, but how did the face of Cajun and Creole cooking end up being portly white men above the age of 50?
Well, did you know one of those “anonymous” people had Black roots? One of the main ones, too—I have it on good authority. He was Black, and that’s part of it: the obfuscation and the hiddenness.
Right after slavery, during Jim Crow, white people in the South in particular made a point of identifying the good food with the Black servant, or enslaved Black person. The connotation that they put upon this was “that’s all you were gonna be.”
In Cajun and Creole cooking, they have shame. Up until TV, if you went to New Orleans, you knew exactly who was doing the cooking. Pralines and other foods were sold with the images of the Mammy or the butler.
Learn:Black chefs stirred the pots for New Orleans’ cuisine. But today, they are hard to find.
So you have to ask yourself: How does that translate into something somebody would claim? It’s done in caricature. Other people get to come in and say, “Look at our heritage,” cook up the food (on TV), and put in a few buzzwords… catchphrases.
It’s taken a long time for (African Americans) to be able to reclaim the things that sometimes were done in the name of humbling us or humiliating us. It’s taken until the 21st century. This wasn’t put into books until very recently.
You mention specific West African dishes with direct links to Cajun and Creole food.
Yes, jollof rice and jambalaya and red rice are the same family. Jambalaya congri, an old Creole dish, is basically a form of cowpeas and rice. We can talk about waakye (beans and rice) in Ghana, we can talk about Hoppin’ John in South Carolina or peas and rice in the Caribbean.
We can talk about gumbo — supakanja, okra soup in Gambia. Even red beans and rice is actually Haitian by way of the same kind of cultures, and ended up in South Louisiana. So we have a whole family of dishes that speaks to those deeper connections.
So what does a person gain by learning their culinary roots?
I think people are constantly trying to reconnect with their origin story. And they know that that origin story is larger than themselves. We all have elements of micro-intersectionality, right? We’re a global economy, a global world, even if we’re in bubbles. We’re connected to other people’s stories and cultures. And the cultures that we come from have absorbed elements from all over. And that has a story to it.
But many of us — not all of us — have a core. And that core is what I hope I addressed in the MasterClass.
You say one way to find your core is looking at “trinities” — the ingredients that were always in the cupboard when you grew up.
One of the things that bonds the Atlantic African diaspora — and when I say that, I don’t necessarily mean Black. I mean people who are influenced by the cooking, the aesthetics, the spirituality, the liberation narrative of Africans in the New World and beyond. You know its tomatoes, onions, peppers. Or tomatoes, onions, okra, and you can keep going with that. It really does speak to a lot of worlds coming together.
A lot of cultures have scallion as part of their trinity. That’s true for Creole cuisines in Louisiana. Is it garlic? Garlic is one of the building blocks in West Africa. It’s also ginger, turmeric, and so on and so forth. It’s almost like you can build a family tree based on those little trinities and how they impact cooking.
I should also ask about your upcoming book, “Koshersoul” — coming out this August — exploring the food of Jewish people of African descent.
A lot of times Black Jews get put under the microscope. (Twitty himself was detained for interrogation at an Israeli airport after officials refused to believe he was Jewish.) Which is funny to me, because long before white Jews we had Zipporah and Moshe (Moses). These were not white people, these were Afro-Asian Jews — that’s where they lived, southwest Asia and northeastern Africa. Doesn’t get much clearer than that!
I dropped feeling the need to verify and justify our existence, and go back to my original thing, which is: We are here. We do us. … Our food can speak for ourselves.
Any favorite recipes?
The Kosher Soul Roll. Ever since I did a stint on the Andrew Zimmern show, everyone asks for that recipe. I’ve never given it out. I felt like I wanted to hold on to it… and now it feels more special than ever. I made him pastrami and collard greens spring rolls.
Yeah, man. That’s very American, too — to use that vehicle of an Asian and Asian American food that was part of the Silk Road. You know, it’s portable. You can eat that spring roll walking down Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn.
Funny — that’s what Israeli chef Michael Solomonov says differentiates a lot of Israeli food from Arab. It’s portable. They want to eat it in their car.
That’s been true since Hillel (the ancient rabbi who made what may be the world’s first recorded sandwich, with lamb and greens between matzo slices.) Forget the Earl of Sandwich. We know Hillel invented the sandwich.
You’re going to upset the British and the French!
Oh well. The Jews gave the French foie gras. And the Jews gave the British fish and chips…. They should be happy.
Matthew Korfhage is a food and culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @matthewkorfhage