Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chef Michael Twitty explores the culinary traditions of African slaves

This article first appeared in Indy Week. For information about the Sept. 7 event at Historic Stagville, call 919-620-0120 or email
Michael Twitty, a descandant
of North Carolina slaves, as he
appear swhen presenting
historic interpretations.
The Southeastern seaboard is where thousands of shackled, malnourished African slaves emerged from hellish journeys to find odd comfort in growing conditions reasonably similar to their homelands.
Historian and chef Michael Twitty has dedicated his life's work to the study of African slave foodways and how they spread from the Southeastern plantations and farms.Here, displaced Africans longing for a taste of home developed a sort of fusion fare by blending their native traditions with available resources.
Those lucky enough to be assigned work in hot kitchens understood that their job was to cover huge tables with elegantly presented foods and stay out of sight while their white mistresses became renowned hostesses. They were powerless when keepers claimed the recipes as their own, sometimes publishing popular cookbooks that now serve as roadmaps to culinary historians.
Twitty's efforts to reveal these much-discounted labors and to genetically connect contemporary citizens with their slave roots have been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello, among others. On Sept. 7, during a fundraising event he will lead at Historic Stagville in Durham, he intends to disclose findings of his own genetic testing.
Previous research confirmed Twitty's connection to Halifax County fields that once were the property of his great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Henry Bellamy. This in turn confirmed at least two direct links back to Africa.
Twitty was intentional about coming to Stagville, which comprises the remnants of one of the largest plantations of the pre-Civil War South, to learn more about his own story. In 1860, about 900 slaves worked its almost 30,000 acres of land.
"On the eve of the Civil War, a third of the population of North Carolina was enslaved. That's a critical fact," he says. "I am a descendant of enslaved North Carolina people and planters—both sides of the fence. I take it with me everywhere I go."
Twitty has traveled throughout the South on his crowd-funded research trips, including last summer's Southern Discomfort Tour, which launched in Chapel Hill with a presentation to Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina. He has been invited to present on his work, including the Stagville event, at a culinary justice conference held in August in Denmark.
Given all this, it seems like poetic justice that his labors received an unexpected boost this summer from a most unlikely source: a woman, once celebrated for her deep-fried Southern excess, who got caught using the N-word in a legal deposition about harassment of a black employee. His eloquent treatise, "An Open Letter to Paula Deen," was posted quietly on his Afroculinaria website on June 25 but quickly went viral. Twitty not only dismantles Deen's romantic notions of slave life but also invites her to start making amends by volunteering to help at the Stagville fundraiser.
"I wanted her to see the remnants of that world and walk through those cabins, which is a very different place from the magnolia plantations some people prefer to think about," he says. "I haven't heard from anyone in her camp so I can't assume that she knows about it. If she was to show up, that would be cool. But it's not going to be the basis of my day. I want to have authentic food on the table and educate people."
Acclaimed Atlanta chef Hugh Acheson, author of A New Turn in the South, has volunteered his help and will speak at the event. "His pea soup is a recipe that really speaks to all of these roots in a modern context," says Twitty, who also has established partnerships with several Triangle and Piedmont providers, including farmers of color. "It's a beautiful message about collaboration and the continuum of history."
Daytime events at Stagville, which are free and open to the public, will include demonstrations of plantation life, including rustic cooking methods. The evening fundraiser features a $75 dinner in the former Horton Grove slave quarters.
"I want people to know that menu is not fancy. It represents the narratives of enslaved people," states Twitty, who spent months researching what was grown and consumed from slave gardens. "Almost everything on the menu is from the mouth of an enslaved person in North Carolina."
Options will include slow-smoked pork and chicken barbecue, roasted sweet potatoes, savory cornmeal kush and sweet peach cobbler.
"We want people to think about the everyday reality of their lives and how food shaped their culture," he says. "We want them to get into the heads, as well as the bellies, of enslaved people."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Quick fig jam

Tim bought a bowlful of small turkey figs at the farmer's market on Saturday morning. Their sweet perfume was like a magnet, drawing anyone near to stop what they were doing and nibble a handful.

This morning, their sweetness was already yielding to some not so delicious soft fuzz. I figured I better turn them into jam quickly or risk having to throw them all away.

Since I barely had 1 1/2 lbs. of figs left, I added a firm, coarsely grated pear as an extender. Some sugar, lemon juice and zest - and a finishing splash of Cointreau - and I had seven 4-ounce jars of jam. It's good on toast and would be a welcome accompaniment to a cheese plate.

Fig and Pear Jam

1 1/2 lbs. diced fresh figs
1 large firm pear, grated (with skin)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons Cointreau (optional)

Combine first four ingredients in wide, heavy-bottom canning pot. Stir to combine and let sit at least 30 minutes.

Sterilize seven 4-ounce canning jars and prepare lids and rings.

Bring mixture to a boil and cook, stirring often, for 8-10 minutes. As jam thickens, it will pull away from bottom and briefly leave a gap as you stir through. Add lemon zest in the final minute and stir to combine.

Remove from heat. Pour in Cointreau and stir. Using a wide-mouth funnel, fill jars and wipe rims with a damp cloth. Add lids and rings. Place in water bath and boil for 10 minutes. Remove and arrange on a heatproof surface to cool.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Miriam Rubin: 50 Shades of Tomatoes

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

For several months, Miriam Rubin lived a life of cruel irony. The author of Tomatoes, a volume in the Savor the South series by UNC Press, had been receiving positive feedback since its March release. As late as June, however, she was suffering tomato envy in her chilly southwestern corner of Pennsylvania while Southern friends were standing over sinks slurping juicy sandwiches.

"I have always been a tomato fiend and really missed ripe ones," says Rubin, longtime food columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and colleague of UNC culinary historian Marcie Cohen Ferris. "There's just nothing like it. It's the taste of summer. Holding a fresh-picked tomato makes me want to carry it off to the kitchen and have my way with it."

Rubin tasted countless varieties in preparation for Tomatoes, which includes nearly 50 ways to enjoy them. Recipes are organized in eight categories, ranging from starters and soups to tomato salads, main dishes (including pies and cobblers) and sides, sauces and gravies, and preserves and juices.

While she ardently urges consumers to choose locally grown tomatoes, the former chef admits a particular passion for those raised under Southern sunshine. The practice of growing tomatoes in the South began in the late 17th century, but the once dubious member of the nightshade family did not commonly appear in regional cookbooks for another 100 years. Rubin's research identified no particular variety that is original to the region but notes that Alex and Betsy Hitt, legendary growers at the Carrboro Farmers Market, favor the sturdy Cherokee Purple.

"They're especially good for growing in your area," Rubin says. "Because of the heat and humidity, tomatoes crack. There's no scientific evidence, but I believe it's true that the purple skin helps to keep them intact."
Rubin suggests that fresh tomatoes of nearly any pedigree gain instant Southern provenance, however, when tucked between soft white bread and coated with a slather of mayonnaise. The same goes for tomatoes stewed with okra and onions or, if still green, pressed into cornmeal and fried to a golden crisp in an old iron skillet.

Rubin is keen on the Zebra, which is green when ripe, and she is among the many devotees of the Sungold, the tiny orange orbs some consider tomato candy. "My newspaper editor's son loves them. He'll eat the whole plant's worth, like he's a deer," she says.

As that child has already figured out, tomatoes are best, and should be enjoyed in abundance, at peak season. Minimize handling picked tomatoes until they are ready to use to avoid bruising, which hastens rot. And for the love of all things Southern, do not refrigerate them or expose their innards to the elements unless you are ready to dine.

"They are are very sensitive—or maybe I am," Rubin says. "A chilled tomato, or one sliced hours before, is just not worth eating."

Rubin has about 30 tomato plants in her garden of 21 varieties. She is one of those people likely to leave a box of tomatoes on your doorstep without a note or clue. "But not in my own neighborhood," she says. "Everyone grows them here. I have a hard time with the idea of 'too many tomatoes,' but it does happen."

When fresh varieties are unavailable, Rubin suggests options for using those canned at peak flavor. Avoid the "bad old cardboard supermarket tomato, shipped green, gassed with ethylene so it 'pinks up.'"

While reluctant to pick a favorite among Tomatoes' recipes, Rubin says she often makes the Open-Face Tomato Pie as soon as she can harvest juicy orbs from her own garden.

"I'm always grateful to have leftovers for lunch," she says. "Problem is, it's usually gone in one sitting."

Open-Face Tomato Pie

Makes 4 main-dish servings
Pastry for a 9-inch single-crust pie (can be store-bought)
4-5 medium, firm-but-ripe tomatoes (1 1/2 pounds)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 1/4 cups shredded sharp white cheddar cheese, divided
1/2 cup plain panko crumbs
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup chopped basil
2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Fit the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate and form a high, fluted edge. Prick all over with a fork. Pit a sheet of foil inside the pastry and fill the foil with dried beans or rice. Bake until the pastry is set and white at the edges, 10-12 minutes. Remove the foil and beans or rice, return the pastry to the oven, and bake until it's brown in spots, 8-10 more minutes. If it starts to slip down, press it back in place with a spoon. Cool on a wire rack.

Halve and core the tomatoes and cut them crosswise into 1/4-inch thick half-moon slices, discarding the ends. (You should have a heaping 3 cups.) Place the tomatoes lives on a double layer of paper towels and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Let stand for about 5 minutes.

Toss 1/2 cup of the cheddar with the panko crumbs in a small bowl. Sprinkle half of this evenly over the bottom of the cooled crust. Arrange half of the tomato in an overlapping circle on top of the crumbs, filling the center with more slices. Sprinkle with half of the red onion and 1/4 cup of the cheddar. Arrange the remaining tomatoes in the same manner of top; sprinkle with the remaining red onion.

Mix the mayonnaise, basil, chives, remaining 1/2 cup cheddar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Spread of tomatoes with a rubber spatula, cover them completely, using your fingers to help since the mixture is thick. Sprinkle with the remaining crumb-cheese mixture.

Bake the pie until the top is browned and the filling has started to bubble at the edges, 45-50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let stand for at least 30 minutes for easiest cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Reprinted with permission of Miriam Rubin from Tomatoes, UNC Press (© 2013).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Coming out of the closet and into the garden

In early March, Joe Yonan felt a need for confession. The season was turning from winter to spring. He wanted to face the greening season with a clean conscience.

He had something to say and he knew it wouldn’t be easy. The long-time food editor of The Washington Post had a reputation to uphold – a brand, even – that might be at risk if he were to be entirely honest.
After all, what would people think if one of the nation’s top food writers was to step out of the closet and admit that he had wholeheartedly embraced a vegetarian lifestyle?

“For a variety of reasons, I felt the pull to change the way I eat, and to tell people about it,” says Yonan, who declared his vegetarianism in a much-lauded column. “There was so much going on. We were going through some budget cuts at the Post. Then my dog died very suddenly. And the community garden I had been growing food in was closing down. All three things drove me to want a change of scenery and pace.”

Yonan took leave from the Post and spent a year living with his sister and brother-in-law at their Maine homestead. The term is not quaint code for a fashionable farm house. They worked the land and ate almost exclusively from it. The result was Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook. The book is the featured topic for this month's posting from #LetsLunch, a global food community of which Yonan is a member.
“After all the nose-to-tail, bacon-stuffed foie gras I’d been eating, I found that I was being more drawn to the vegetable dishes in restaurants,” he says. “The more I learned about growing vegetables, the more I became enamored of them. And I felt better, too.”

Like those before him, who not only managed to eat beets and Brussel sprouts but happily admitted they like them, Yonan wanted to share his message. Eat Your Vegetables became his second book patterned after his popular Cooking for One column, which he retired this year. The first was Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One (2011).
Yonan was amused when told of Twitter chatter that mocked the concept as sad or depressing. While a new study finds that most solo restaurant diners bring their social network-loaded smartphone along for company, Yonan says that the single cook – whether alone by choice or circumstance – need not feel that they are not worth the pleasure of a great meal.

“I get tired of people saying, why should I got to all that trouble if it’s just me? Because you’re worth it,” he says. “Your standards should not change if you’re not cooking for a crowd. The idea that it’s sad or depressing reflects our society’s insistence that the only way to be happy is to be in a relationship.”
Yonan says the Cooking for One column originally was planned to feature different voices each month. The first post was written in 2008 by food editor Judith Jones, who was learning to cook for one again after the death of her husband. She published The Pleasures of Cooking for One in 2009.

“She wrote about setting a proper place setting, lighting a candle, having a glass of wine,” says Yonan, who replaced Cooking for One with the weekly Weeknight Vegetarian. “That’s the way to look at this. I think it you can think of nothing sadder than being along and cooking yourself a nice dinner, you have deeper problems than what’s in your fridge.”
Yonan says he often demonstrates his recipe for Fusilli with Corn Sauce at book events to prove how quick and simple it can be to prepare a delicious meal for one. It scales well, too. I actually made it as a side dish for three.

Fusilli with Corn Sauce
Reprinted by permission of Joe Yonan from “Eat Your Vegetables” (© Ten Speed Press, 2013).
3 ounces whole wheat fusilli, farfalle, or other curly pasta
2 ears fresh corn
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ large onion, chopped (about ¾ cup)
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 fresh basil leaves, stacked, rolled and thinly sliced

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until it is al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, shuck the corn and rinse it under running water, removing as many of the silks as you can with your hands. Rub one of the ears of corn over a coarse grater set over a bowl to catch the milk and pulp. Cut the kernels off the other cob with a knife; keep the whole kernels separate from the milk and pulp.
Pour the oil into a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion and garlic and sauté until tender. And the corn kernels and sauté for just a few minutes, until the corn softens slightly and brightens in color. Stir in the corn milk and pulp and turn off the heat. Cover to keep warm.
When the pasta is al dente, drain it (reserving ½ cup of the pasta water) and add it to the skillet with the corn sauce. Toss to combine, adding a little pasta water if the sauce needs loosening. Stir in the cheese, then taste and add salt as needed and grind in plenty of fresh black pepper. Stir in the basil, scoop everything into a bowl, and eat.


Joe Yonan's Fusilli with Corn Sauce
from "Eat Your Vegetables"