Unique spices, old family recipes and flavorful ingredients can offer a taste of history where written accounts fail — and they are sometimes the only link when that history has been buried beneath the shadows of oppression.
At Monticello’s 11th annual Heritage Harvest Festival on Saturday, culinary historian and author Michael Twitty sat down with Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic, on Saturday to talk about his new book, “The Cooking Gene,” and how food transmits culture across time.
“The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been,” Twitty wrote, opening his book.
Specializing in African-American culinary history in the Old South, Twitty — self-described as Jewish, Southern, black and gay — became interested in culinary history at 10 years old. Raised in a home full of books and encouraged to pursue his interests, Twitty began learning about different cultures through the food on his friends’ dinner tables.
“I wasn’t doing normal kid stuff,” Twitty said, garnering a laugh from the audience. “That’s how I got here. Kooky, nerdy kids become fabulous adults.”
Diving into the past, Twitty said, the places where people lived often determined the kind of food they had and how they cooked it. In Albemarle, Nelson and Orange counties, much of the food used indigenous and African ingredients, but the recipes were influenced by French and British cuisine, Twitty said.
Crops also had a direct impact on which foods people ate and when, he said. All across the South, people ate the same foods, but the spices and seasonings were different — creating unique pockets of cultures.
“They had different rhythms and different seasons,” Twitty said. “It was like speaking a different dialect of ‘soul food.’”
Often thought of in generic terms, such as “Southern” or “African-American food,” Twitty described “soul food” as an extension of the existence of enslaved people and the recipes they passed down through their families.
“‘Soul food’ is the memory food of the great-grandchildren of the enslaved people — it’s them looking back,” said Twitty. “Some people make ‘soul food’ and other people make ‘soulless food.’”
“‘Soulless food’ — no pepper, no hot sauce, no life or feeling; ‘soul food’ is emotion,” he said. “It’s like jazz: if you don’t know what it is by feeling, I can’t explain it to you.”
In his work as a culinary historian and living history interpreter, Twitty often thinks about how African food combined with French and English food to create Southern cuisine. On Saturday, Twitty made okra soup to demonstrate one of the meals that might have been made at this time of year on Mulberry Row at Monticello.
This late in the summer, Twitty said, cooks would probably have had okra, tomatoes and fresh herbs (such as sage, rosemary, thyme and basil) on hand. With a limited number of utensils, an enslaved cook would have made a one-pot meal — like soup or stew — and would have to find a nearby flavor source, such as hot peppers.
While both Thomas Jefferson’s family and the enslaved people at his estate would have had to use the same types of crops, their meals would have looked very different, Twitty said.
“If you want a recipe for trough mush, I got you; ash cake, I got you; herring and hominy, I got you,” said Twitty, describing some of the meals available during the 1700s and 1800s. “It’s not tasty — I know it’s not.”
“But that’s the food enslaved people and poor whites, and Native folks had to eat every single day, without any sort of variance, until someone caught a rabbit or there were berries available,” he said. “And that’s just the fact.”
Southern recipes also can have different narratives passed down, Twitty said, mostly due to the politics of power inculcated in Southern food in ways that just aren’t in other regions of the country.
“That’s what makes the story so complicated and so fuzzy and difficult,” said Twitty. “On the one side, nothing brings white and black Southerners together faster than having that common narrative.”
“But on the other side it becomes really, really weird because people will testify to me about their own growing-up experience with Southern food.”
In a past demonstration, Twitty made a dish called “cush,” which is stale cornbread crumbled up into a hash with peppers and onions. Following his presentation, Twitty said he has had white American Southerners tell him that that same recipe was passed down through their families and made for them by a black cook.
“They don’t mean any harm by it; they literally mean the woman who worked for their family,” Twitty said. “But the fact of the matter is, it got passed to them because of a system where, for years, the only acceptable job available for black women was as domestics.”
In an example that hits close to home for Monticello, Twitty said Jefferson is always credited with bringing macaroni and cheese to America. No credit is ever given to James Hemings — the enslaved cook Jefferson took to France to learn French cuisine, Twitty said.
“Jefferson got all the credit,” Twitty said. “We don’t hear about no James Hemings. It was as if this man had time to do everything: he just wrote declarations, he went down to the kitchen — and there were no women around — and he was just whipping stuff up.”
“I’m just like, ‘nuh uh,’” he said.
Both Violet King and Najwa Thomas, from Washington, D.C., attended the Heritage Festival specifically to see Twitty speak and learn more about his work.
“I’m a farmer, but I don’t necessarily think about food the same way that he does,” King said. “So, it’s just really interesting to hear the perspective from a chef.”
“I think he’s brilliant in using food as a connector for people because it’s very rare that we have these separate experiences as humans, especially in America, where we need so much understanding of each other,” Thomas added. “Food and eating are something we need to do — it’s nourishing — so to take history and connect it to that is brilliant.”