Maryland culinary historian and writer Michael Twitty held the rapt attention of a crowd of 30 Wednesday at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. He talked about how food and culinary traditions from Africa made their way into American culture and how entwined African and American traditions have shaped our diet today.
Twitty prepared some of the foods that his enslaved ancestors ate, over an open fire on the hot and sunny afternoon. Wrapping sweet potatoes in cabbage leaves and placing them deep inside the ground fire, Twitty reminded the crowd that his ancestors didn’t have glass, cast iron stoves, or general stores. “How do you start sweet potato slips if you don’t have access to glass jars?” he asked the crowd. A gardener with a serious interest in preserving heirloom varieties, Twitty’s expertise reaches wide into broad reaches of food and history.
With a building interest and well-known expertise in African and American food and history, Twitty tells tales of enslaved people and the ways they used resources and adapted to feed their communities. He reminded the crowd that enslaved people crafted their own experinece in slavery. He also shared stories of people eating everything, including the shoots of maple trees in early spring, as they were fresh and green.
Not one to mince words, Twitty shared his search for his own ancestors, white and black, whose histories are as mingled and twisted as any African Americans today. Making contact with some relatives of people who owned his ancestors, Twitty brings a sense of comfort in his own skin to his search for his ancestry.
Few others are doing this work, and Twitty has been recognized and employed by museums and institutions to tell the tales of American history through foodways. He recently participated in a conference about the history and culture of cookbooks. A video of his talk “Cookbooks and the African American Experience” can be seen here – scroll down on Day One to “Cookbooks and the African American Experience”.
“People have an image of southern food as comfort food”, he says. “But it’s not like everyone ate that well. A lot of this stuff tasted awful, but it kept enslaved people alive. The goal was not taste, the goal was just – fill me up.” From dried salt herring mixed with lard, hoecakes and ashcakes (“these taste really bad” he says), Twitty shared real stories about people and the foods that kept them alive, as well as the traditions passed on to modern culture.
His stories included how enslaved people would weed the purslane, poke weed, lamb’s quarters, and dandelion from the tobacco fields, saving those nutritious greens to mix with vinegars and peppers for a relish to put on top of the ashcakes that were a staple in their diet. From gardens hidden far out in the woods, to spiritual practices surrounding food and superstition, Twitty’s knowledge is deep.
Everyone lined up to taste the potatoes and delicious okra and crab soup. Few were willing to try the ashcake.
Twitty is embarking soon on a tour of all of the plantations that his ancestors were enslaved on, where culinary memory and slavery combined to create new ways to use food. His tour is expected to include MD, VA, GA, the Carolinas, AL, TN and LA – all of the major areas of slavery in the Southeast, and will combine community service projects, lectures, demonstrations and cooking.
Twitty is soliciting donations to help cover the costs of this trip, in which he will research, teach, share and discover along with people that he meets along the way. He will return to offer another food demonstration at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum on May 5th for Frederick Douglass Day. Until then, you can learn more about Mr. Twitty and donate to support his continued educational work at his website and blog.