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 24⁄7 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.
“A People’s History of Carolina Rice” by Michael Twitty at the MAD site.