Wow, mish­pucha. [laugh­ter] I know, the ten Jews in the room got the joke. I think René prob­a­bly brought me here because he want­ed to up the black gay Jewish pop­u­la­tion of Denmark by a new high. But hav­ing said that I want to take a minute to be very seri­ous and say thank you to René, to Mark, to Ali[?] , to every­body in MAD for bring­ing me here. First because six­ty years ago, my grand­fa­ther lived here for a cou­ple of weeks, and this was the first place on Earth he was nev­er called a nig­ger This was the first place on Earth where he sat equal to a white man on a bus or street­car. And I want to thank you from my grand­fa­ther of blessed mem­o­ry, who was born and raised in the swel­ter­ing oppres­sion of Birmingham, Alabama. Thank you for restor­ing his dignity.

And sev­en­ty years ago of course, and I taught this for twelve years in Hebrew school, about the boats of the Danish peo­ple dur­ing the Shoah, to the cred­it this nation that more peo­ple sur­vived than were killed dur­ing World War II. Toda raba, tak, as well. 

And of course the fact that you guys were the first in same-sex unions, the first in mar­riage equal­i­ty, and all the dif­fer­ent parts that make up me that I can’t real­ly bring togeth­er any­where else. This is a wild place to be, and just thank you for all of that. That makes sense here, I guess.

So, the images that you’re see­ing, that are kind of going to loop, and I’m not real­ly going to go into them—you can ask about them later—are real­ly part of what my part­ner and I call The Southern Discomfort Tour. And instead of com­fort food, dis­com­fort food. And the Cooking Gene project is about— It’s an ongo­ing thing to sort of tease out where I come from, my own per­son­al ter­roir, my own per­son­al sort of like, on the micro­cel­lu­lar lev­el who I am as a cook, as a his­toric chef, what­ev­er you want to call me, to real­ly under­stand where I come from.

I watch all the same food pro­grams you do, where peo­ple speak with beam­ing pride about where they come from. But if you come from a peo­ple who were delib­er­ate­ly orphaned, where do you real­ly come from? Who are you? What earth is yours? What real­ly belongs to you? And so this project is about my DNA. It’s about my ances­tors. It’s about young peo­ple today of all walks of life, but espe­cial­ly those liv­ing in food deserts who are chil­dren of col­or, who have no sense of where they come from, and they know that where they’re going is either one of three places: an ear­ly grave, jail, or a dead-end future. And so by using his­to­ry, I think we can trans­form their future, but not only that, we can trans­form how we look at those young peo­ple and how we look at ourselves.

A cou­ple of months ago I wrote a lit­tle let­ter to Paula Deen. And I invit­ed her to din­ner at a plan­ta­tion. No bet­ter place. And I asked her that because of all this hul­la­baloo, and cer­tain words were said, and things were alleged. And hav­ing this din­ner at this plan­ta­tion in North Carolina, where over nine hun­dred peo­ple were enslaved over two hun­dred years, using food and pro­duce from farm­ers of col­or from North Carolina, using local wild resources, in the shad­ow of slave cab­ins that were built the 1840s. And that’s where it starts. 

The great African-American play­wright August Wilson called the slave quar­ter the self-defining ground” on which he wrote. And it’s a self-defining ground on which I cook. My author­i­ty is from my blood and the land my ances­tors came from, white, black, and red. And on that basis, I invit­ed Paula Deen to din­ner to kind of work out her issues and my issues, and say that she’s a cousin. She’s not a com­bat­ant. And that’s the pow­er that this food and this from tra­di­tion can have. We can bridge pseudo-boundaries of race and bring every­one together. 

So, what is this his­to­ry? I’m aspir­ing to be the first colo­nial ante­bel­lum black chef in a hun­dred and fifty years. There’s nobody liv­ing who can teach me how to do that. I can learn from you as culi­nary pro­fes­sion­als about best prac­tices, but remem­ber I’m stuck in the 19th and 18th cen­turies. To that end, I research, I write, and I per­form the day-to-day labor of an enslaved per­son. So when you see me pick cot­ton, and work­ing tobac­co, and work­ing rice, and cut­ting cane, I do that because that’s the oth­er part the sto­ry they nev­er tell you about.

There’s all this brag­ging about how beau­ti­ful and how boun­ti­ful the South was, and how won­der­ful it was, and should­n’t we just skip on back to the past. Without ever rec­og­niz­ing those cooks were forced into the field them­selves, and they had to per­form that labor plus the 247 labor of tak­ing care of a white fam­i­ly. And what did that mean? What did that look like? How did that feel? So, when mas­ter­ing these his­toric recipes, I’m hop­ing to restore the most impor­tant ingre­di­ent in the food that I think is there, the emo­tion­al and eth­i­cal tone of what goes into the pot and what you create.

We’re talk­ing about mil­lions of enslaved Africans brought to all areas of the Americas. And I chal­lenge you to find any­body in the his­to­ry of the world who was enslaved who rev­o­lu­tion­ized, the sex lives, the reli­gion, the dance, the music, the aes­thet­ics, of the peo­ple who enslaved them, like Africans in the Americas. The man and the woman who became enslaved enslaved the palate of those who enslaved them. From fei­joa­da, to jam­bal­aya, we flipped it on em. And we keep flip­ping it on em.

So, I want to give you a crash course. Okay, so enslaved peo­ple […] come to the Americas, they have no rights, but they have a flex­i­ble, adapt­able culi­nary tra­di­tion. They’re cho­sen for their skills and abil­i­ties. You know, when I was a kid we were always taught in American schools that the black man and woman were unskilled labor. Do you real­ly bring unskilled labor to build your coun­try? They grew the rice, the cot­ton; they knew all that stuff from West Africa. They brought that here. And the cook­ing abil­i­ty, they brought that here.

And then, even leav­ing slav­ery, they became the first gen­er­a­tion of culi­nary aris­toc­ra­cy. The were the best cater­ers in America, were free peo­ple of col­or. We were at the top. Not the bot­tom. We cooked for the White House, for embassies. We cooked for the high­est soci­ety. And our chil­dren don’t know that.

And we did­n’t car­ry seeds in our hair, like some peo­ple remem­ber. But that has a deep­er mean­ing. Because there’s a cerebrally-transported cui­sine brought from across the Atlantic. Not only did we bring over twen­ty dif­fer­ent African crops and ani­mals with us on those slave ships, but we were at the cen­ter of a cor­nu­copia unknown any­where else in the world, where food from Eurasia met food from the Americas met food from the Middle East and met food from Southeast Asia. There was no place in the world like pre-colonial Africa on the eve the slave trade. 

So let’s put it into con­text. In 1720, let’s say a woman comes from Senegal; a Wolof woman; a Serer woman. She’s just enter­ing mar­riage, and she becomes a renowned cook and mar­ket woman when a war ensues and she is cap­tured and sold into slav­ery at the island of Gorée. She’s shipped to Maryland, where she is forced to cook on her two and a half-month jour­ney. And then she’s sold to a tobac­co plan­ta­tion, where she becomes a cook and she learns to adapt the botan­i­cal cog­nates around her from a new envi­ron­ment, and adapts her­self to Anglo-American food­ways in her own way.

She meets women from what is now Ghana and Nigeria and Angola, and they exchange recipes in their own new Afro-Creole pid­gin English. They work out the dif­fer­ences between them, and what results is not like any­thing they cooked before but is the essen­tial truth of all the parts. She will go on to teach her white charges in the big house how to eat her Wolof food. And when they’re young, she will tap on the table, encour­age them to eat, and she’ll use a Wolof word and she’ll go, Nyam nyam.” And that lit­tle white child’s going to hear that word over time, and he’s going to go, Yum… yum… yum­my.” You see, when you look in the dic­tio­nary and it says ori­gin unknown,” they’re talk­ing about black people. 

1750, her grand­chil­dren are born and they are the new major­i­ty. This is the first time that we have the real African-American food, because the major­i­ty of black chil­dren are born in America not in Africa. And they begin to lose their taste for guts. Because you know, in West-Central Africa, every­thing’s used. But they’re see­ing Master and his fam­i­ly eat a dif­fer­ent way. They don’t want what they have, they want what they have. And they for­get that those guts con­tain the spir­it, the soul, the essence, of this ani­mal that was usu­al­ly sac­ri­ficed and then eaten.

And we begin to lose these ingre­di­ents. The mys­ti­cal, the mytho­log­i­cal, the meta­phys­i­cal, the mag­i­cal. And you know what the thing is? Those chitlins (Y’all know what I mean by chitlins. The small intes­tine of the ani­mal.) they con­tain the soul. Why do you think we call it soul food? So her chil­dren and great-grandchildren, they don’t want the slave food. But at the same point in time, their food­ways are influ­enc­ing the peo­ple who own them. And they’re learn­ing to eat African, even though they’re learn­ing to eat European. 

And by 1820 she’s long gone. Her great-great-grandchildren have been sep­a­rat­ed from their fam­i­lies and sold south into the Black Belt of Alabama in the largest forced migra­tion in American his­to­ry. They’re guard­ing, they’re hunt­ing, they’re fish­ing, they’re for­ag­ing, ant tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge is still a part of their cul­ture. And they have long for­got­ten where great-great-granny came from or why she was brought here, but they know she car­ried those seeds in her hair. 

And when they cook, they use spir­i­tu­als to time the foods. You have to know this stuff. When you cook in an open hearth, you cook like enslaved peo­ple cooked, you can’t look at a clock. You use your sense of smell. You use your sense of tem­per­a­ture, by your hands on those hot pots. You devel­op very nice, sen­si­tive hands. And you time your­self by singing spir­i­tu­als. The num­ber of times it takes to sing a spir­i­tu­al is the num­ber of time it takes to bake the bread, to cook the greens, to roast the meat. And you learn to do this over and over and over again, until you get your tim­ing right. 

You have to know when the pos­sum is right to hunt. You don’t hunt pos­sum any old time of the year. You hunt it in the win­ter­time. When it’s fat­ten­ing up. You have to know when poke weed is ready to pick and it’s not poi­so­nous any­more because it does­n’t have any red in it. There’s all this folk knowl­edge, this library of ear­ly African-American folk knowl­edge, which will die if it is not remem­bered, taught, and passed on. 

And so you think about it, her great-great-great-grandchildren are born and leave slav­ery, and go into free­dom where meat, meal, and molasses con­sign them to dietary hell. And this is what was passed down to us.

So it’s my job, using imag­i­na­tion, body arche­ol­o­gy, ethnog­ra­phy, every­thing…gas­tron­o­my, and liv­ing his­to­ry, to hon­or and restore dig­ni­ty to my ances­tors. You know, if a cer­tain young man had been car­ry­ing an heir­loom toma­to and not a bag of Skittles, and had this racial ani­mus been worked out a long time ago, we’d be in a very dif­fer­ent state in my country.

Culinary injus­tice is what hap­pens when the descen­dants of his­tor­i­cal­ly oppressed peo­ple have no sov­er­eign­ty over their culi­nary tra­di­tions and essen­tial­ly go from a state of sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion and own­er­ship to a state of depen­den­cy. Mal- or under­nu­tri­tion and food injustice. 

Culinary injus­tice is the shame we often feel for being under his­to­ry’s bootheel and the dis­tance placed with­in and with­out, between our­selves and the full own­er­ship of our past in light of our feature.

Culinary injus­tice is plac­ing said peo­ple into a ter­tiary and pas­sive rather than pri­ma­ry and active role in the estab­lish­ment or trans­for­ma­tion of culi­nary tra­di­tions from which for­tunes have been made for oth­ers. Repeat that. From which for­tunes have been made for oth­ers. Rice in South Carolina made ten out of the first twelve mil­lion­aires who were involved in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It took two sea­sons and freshly-bought Africans to make the rice planters of Charleston mil­lion­aires. Not one sin­gle Gullah/Geechee per­son, who are los­ing their land, has a sin­gle damn rice field in Charleston, South Carolina today, and you can Charleston Gold rice at four­teen dol­lars a bag. That’s food injustice.

In East Charleston, and St John’s Island, you have black chil­dren who have no idea that they can go to Sullivan’s island—the Ellis Island of black America—where one out of every four enslaved per­sons was brought to the United States. They have no claim over their her­itage. They have not a sin­gle field of heir­loom veg­eta­bles that they brought here. But if you are American, and well off, you can sell that bag of rice, and talk all about your glo­ri­ous her­itage, from the good old days of slav­ery in Charleston. That’s culi­nary injustice. 

Culinary injus­tice means rob­bing those of us with the least of ease of our pro­pri­etor­ship over our ances­tral tra­di­tions, their main­te­nance, and their guid­ance and stew­ard­ship. It’s not a black/white prob­lem. It’s all over the world. It’s Spam col­o­niz­ing Oceania. It’s the Korean tra­di­tions being usurped dur­ing the Japanese occu­pa­tion. It’s the pseudo-history of the Columbian Exchange. Let’s sup­pose that American abo­rig­i­nals exchanged recipes with set­tlers as they shiv­ered under small­pox blan­kets and dodged mus­ket balls. But yet they gave them the first Thanksgiving. That’s culi­nary injustice.

Culinary jus­tice, how­ev­er, is a respect for truth and hon­esty, and telling the sto­ries and tra­di­tions that came to the expe­ri­ence of the oppressed. Culinary jus­tice is rec­on­cil­i­a­tion not blame; it is hope not guilt. Culinary jus­tice is the pow­er of work­ing togeth­er, not avoid­ing one anoth­er because of past griev­ances and per­pet­u­at­ing the sta­tus quo. Culinary jus­tice is when chil­dren of col­or have access to the land, tra­di­tion­al ecosys­tems, resources, clean water, and legal pro­tec­tions by which they can grow the heir­looms and her­itage breed ani­mals of their ances­tors, and do so in a way that they will come back to a greater con­nec­tion with nature, with spir­it, with their ances­tors, and can learn to eat and live bet­ter. It means they will become entre­pre­neurs, pro­duc­ers, and providers of prod­ucts unique to their cul­tur­al her­itage, and there­by lift com­mu­ni­ties out of pover­ty, from want, and from lack of oppor­tu­ni­ty. It’s about giv­ing our chil­dren a tra­di­tion, not a trend. Food sov­er­eign­ty, food jus­tice, culi­nary justice.

My job is to inte­grate the brands of exclu­sion cre­at­ing a world of south­ern American food, by rein­tro­duc­ing peo­ple to the African ances­tors of American cook­ing, and by exten­sion restor­ing respect and dig­ni­ty for what they gave. In a world where oppressed com­mu­ni­ties inside and out­side the States are strug­gling with food secu­ri­ty and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ties, advanc­ing culi­nary jus­tice is essen­tial to a bet­ter and more sus­tain­able future for the glob­al community.

Culinary jus­tice begins by respect­ing and reviv­ing the culi­nary knowl­edge of the oppressed, and hav­ing the guts to insist that the chef must act as a keep­er of those tra­di­tions and an advo­cate for the ter­roir of mem­o­ry. The chef must not only act with eco­log­i­cal integri­ty, but with ethno­graph­ic and his­tor­i­cal respect, cou­pled with con­tem­po­rary aware­ness and a sense of urgency. 

Equipped with a dia­logue based in our respect for truth, acknowl­edged debt, and a com­mit­ment to renew­ing our culi­nary her­itage, we can move for­ward from the past in our search for culi­nary rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, and heal­ing, and a bet­ter life. Thank you.

Further Reference

Collected posts about The Cooking Gene at Afroculinaria.

A People’s History of Carolina Rice” by Michael Twitty at the MAD site.

Overview page for the MAD 3 / Guts event, and this pre­sen­ta­tion