Tuesday, June 5, 2012

‘Foodsteps’ from slavery to the rise of Southern cuisine

There are those who say that talk of politics and equality have no place at the table. But for culinary historian Michael Twitty, that’s where the conversation begins.

Culinary historian Michael Twitty will present
"Them Old Slavery Foods: Liberating a Cuisine in
Chains in Antebellum North Carolina"
6:30 p.m. Thursday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.
“The table definitely is the starting point to be more honest with each other and express how we feel about our location and our past,” said Twitty, who will launch his Southern Discomfort Tour with a free talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. His topic, Them Old Slavery Foods: Liberating a Cuisine in Chains in Antebellum North Carolina, is co-presented by Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) and the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill.

“Whether we like it or not, those of us who study African American foodways face a social-political landscape every day,” he said. “Food helps us define our identity and sense of direction. It preserves a shared timelessness. “

An outcome of slavery, he added, “is that Africans and African Americans, who were marginalized groups, made important and often overlooked contributions to Southern and American cuisine. These are important economic and cultural facts.”

Twitty will document his travels to places where his ancestors were enslaved, “as well as places of cultural memory related to slavery and the development and history of Southern cuisine,” on his blog, The Cooking Gene.  He also tweets at @koshersoul.

As stated on The Cooking Gene website: “We are attempting to dialogue with the white families who owned my family - some of whom I am related to by blood - using food as the medium of communication and discourse. We are looking at the development of African American foodways from Africa to America and from the colonial South to the antebellum and postbellum South using my family tree and family geography if you will as a guide. We’re calling that connection ‘foodsteps’ instead of footsteps to describe those edible connections to the landscape and time.”
Twitty will experience that landscape in a very personal way later this week when he ventures east to walk the Halifax County fields that once were the property of his great-great-great-grandfather Richard Henry Bellamy, a slave owner.

Twitty's great-great-great-grandfather,
Capt. Richard Henry Bellamy,
was born in 1829 in Halifax County.
Born in 1829 as the son of European immigrants, Bellamy was raised to enjoy privileges unfamiliar to the mixed-race offspring he and other well-to-do landowners sired and left behind to be raised, often malnourished, in surrounding communities. Here and in other places where the rambling roots of his family tree survive, Twitty believes he will find living blood relatives.

“I’ve reached out to people who say I can walk the land to see what he saw,” Twitty said. “He led a remarkable life, especially for the time. He was a decorated Confederate captain. He was a graduate of law school from the University of Georgia. He got to be a legislator in Texas.”

Bellamy’s biracial children, by contrast, never travelled further than they could walk. “They didn’t go to school. They weren’t special,” Twitty said. “It wasn’t until they had grandchildren that anyone thought to leave the blinding poverty of the South to go north. It’s a reality that’s part of so many stories.”
Twitty is eager to track kin and find clues to their lives through culinary records, but not all of his living relations and friends entirely understand his quest.

“Some people think this whole project is very strange,” he admitted with a laugh. “People expect me to go to the slave quarters and eat what they ate to learn who I am. By studying Southern-African foodways, my goal is to better understand where I come from. It brings a whole new meaning to ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’.”

Twitty’s travels will take him on a circuitous route from his base in Washington, D.C., to big and small Southern towns that cousins many times removed once called home. To make that possible, a diverse group of sponsors from across the country, but especially in the South, united to support his online fundraising effort. It came down to the wire, but Twitty eventually surpassed his $8,000 goal.

“I am emotionally and spiritually moved by the fact that so many people who do not know me personally gave their money and their time to get the word out,” he said. “It was awkward for me to ask, but it’s all about goodwill and love and vision.”

While Twitty, a devout Jew, is not likely to indulge in all that Eastern North Carolina may heap on a dinner plate, he is eager to experience foods and traditions that with were known to his forebears or are common to his surviving relatives.

“One of my fantasies is to find as receipt book, a sort of recipe collection, from my great-great-great grandfather’s line – maybe a cousin who had a copy of The Virginia House-Wife,” he said, referring to the 1825 guide that became the most influential cookbook of its time. “It would be a sort of Who Do You Think You Are moment, a connection I do not have to any of my black ancestors.”

Twitty has discussed DNA testing with a few family contacts and hopes to broach the subject with others.

“It is a lot to ask, but with their help I hope to peel back the layers to reveal truth,” he said. “For a lot of African Americans, knowing if you came from West or Central Africa, or the Caribbean, is powerful. When they realize that we can help each other by doing this, and that so many supporters have donated money to make it happen, they see how important it is.”

Speaking just hours from the start of his great odyssey, Twitty expressed deep appreciation for his advocates and excitement about how the next few weeks will change his life.

“I have extreme roller coaster emotions,” he said. “There’s one thing in particular that comes to me. One of my grandmother’s brothers died when he was very young. The only thing I know about this young man is that his favorite breakfast was fried baloney, cinnamon toast and orange juice.

“I guarantee you I am the only person who ever thinks about this particular person, but that is part of his immortality,” he said. “By writing down what I learn about my family and our foodways, I hope to preserve it in my own small way.”

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