Michael Twitty is a southerner, a Jew, a cook, a gay black man, a TED fellow, a historian, and an all around cool dude.
I first discovered him in a Washington Post article about his work uncovering and illuminating the African-American origins of southern cooking.
He’s a man who spends his time trying to deeply understand, uncover, and then share the roots of the food he loves. And he goes to great lengths to do it — he once spent 16 hours picking cotton to get the experience of his ancestors.
Another time, he met with the white descendants of the family that once OWNED his descendants to compare recipes of their families!
He writes about these experiences and more on his hugely popular blog, Afroculinaria.
Through food, Twitty sees a way to heal old American wounds.
Twitty is on a mission to bring attention and appreciation to the true roots of our favorite Southern dishes.
He calls it “culinary justice.”
As he wrote in an open letter to Paula Deen (that later went viral):
“In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people — or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo… a relic of our culture that whisps away. “
As a semi-Southern white person, I’ve often looked at Southern food, culture, history and been like, “There’s a lot more here that I don’t know about.”
Well, turns out there is!
Here are some of Twitty’s favorite authentic dishes, all of which went on to have a huge influence on Southern soul food.
I dug through Twitty’s Twitter account to find these gems. And now I am hungry. Join me.
1. Fried chicken and sweet potatoes
A true classic!
Many people see these dishes as classic Southern fare, but there’s a LOT more to Southern culinary traditions, as you’ll see below.
Here’s a nod to the so-called classic, with a very authentic twist — prepared over open coals! #impressive.
2. Kush, aka the original cornbread stuffing
Twitty’s recipe was featured in Vice magazine’s Munchies:
“Kush was a cornbread scramble made from the basic elements of the antebellum ration system, which spread from the enslaved person’s quarters outward to the Big House and the kitchens of whites high and low.”
3. West African stew
Any Southern person has a special relationship with okra. Trust me.
Twitty (and this stew below) is no different. He prepares an authentic West African stew featuring the mythical okra, a tropical plant native to Africa.
Here’s the recipe (with links to the tweets!):
- Heat the palm oil.
- Add the sweet potatoes.
Add the onions and okra and fry over high heat.
- Add soaked salt fish and a few chopped tomatoes, maybe garlic.
- Add fresh greens and stir gently; salt to taste.
- Add red pepper and stew until vegetables are done and salt fish is flaked and hot.
- Watch out for bones. Eat stew with your favorite starch.
And if you’re wondering what that fluffy mashed-potato-like substance is, it’s…
Twitty recently collaborated with Colonial Williamsburg to illuminate the culinary traditions of slaves during that time period. The dishes are nothing if not period appropriate at Colonial Williamsburg, and this highlight is just one of many that serves to bring the stories of American slaves into the light.
Oh, and high-five for Colonial Williamsburg not shying away from acknowledging America’s legacy of slavery!
Akara are black-eyed pea fritters!
Black-eyed peas, or Vigna unguiculata, are actually native to Asia and the Mediterranean, and they were first domesticated in West Africa.
6. Gullah Geechee winter greens and rice
The dish is essentially collard greens simmered in a homemade ginger-peanut butter-coconut milk. This recipe is vegan and gluten free, just FYI.
Feast your eyes.
And as for the plain and simple rice? Let’s remember its origins.
7. Guinea yam fried in palm oil
The Igbo people are an ethnic group of Africans that still exist today. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, though, many Igbo people were brought to the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland colonies, making that particular ethnic group the largest in the region.
So naturally it follows that these folks would’ve had a huge influence on the way food was prepared — bringing their own traditions and methods with them. Including dishes like this one.
To find the origins of these dishes, Michael Twitty sought out recipes not just from his family, but from the descendants of the family that once enslaved his descendants.
And yes, he’s related by blood to some of those descendants of slave owners, too. It’s a whole mix of history and food, shame and love.
It’s crazy to think about … but so is America.
It’s about time we recognized that the folks who profit off Southern food — like Paula Deen and Colonel Sanders — aren’t necessarily the only ones who made it what it is today.
Michael Twitty’s job isn’t just to whip up fantastic looking dishes. It’s to make sure everyone knows that Southern food has deeper roots in black American culture than we ever realized.