About 250 people showed up Thursday evening at Founders Hall to sample historically Southern foods and to hear culinary historian Michael Twitty expound on the origin of the meals we sometimes take for granted.
The event, Feast on Culture, was hosted by the Harvey B. Gantt Center and sponsored by Duke Energy. Among the items featured were okra soup, fried chicken, yeast rolls and something called cornbread kush, a dish that Twitter said later was identical in composition to what enslaved Africans ate centuries ago.
A Gantt Center official said the food was prepared under Twitty’s supervision and supplied by a Black farmer in Florence, S.C.
Twitty, who grew up in Washington, D.C., is an independent scholar of African American food, folk culture and culinary traditions. He describes himself as an African American, openly gay Jew who has traced his maternal ancestry back to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. Twitty said he recently visited the west African country and, using DNA, was able to meet some of his ancestral relatives.
He talked briefly with Qcitmetro after the Thursday event. Here are some highlights:
Q. How did you become interested in culinary history?
My father made the decision to take me to museums and living history sites when I was very little. It was so cool seeing Black interpreters… It was just inspiring to see that, so I said, ‘I want to do that one day; I want to be that kind of person.’ So that’s what I aspired to do, and cooking became one route into telling that story.
Q. What has surprised you most in your discovery?
How deep this food thing is and how many things people of African descent and the African Diaspora have in common with each other. The fact that you can go to a Black person from Texas or Brooklyn or Watts and have the same conversation about food. We’re not monolithic, but we’re telling a story that creates a bond with all of us… It makes you feel connected, and makes you feel like you are a family with a lot of other people.
Q. Aside from sustenance, what role did food play in the lives of enslaved Africans.
“It enabled them to resist the erasure of their culture. African culture was so repressed, so reviled, but through their food, they were able to maintain those connections with their ancestors. And food wasn’t just what they ate; it was an offering to their dead… It was more than something they had for comfort; it was something they did not only to remember but to create a legacy for those to come after them.”
Q. What is cornbread kush?
Cornbread Kush is basically the forerunner to cornbread dressing. The word comes from Senegambia; the word comes from couscous. So basically the idea is eating these little pellets of grain that have been flavored. That came down from century to century to century. Somebody had to preserve that word in their mind – We’re going to cross over the ocean on a boat and keep telling our story. What you ate is the same thing you could have eaten in this state 200 years ago.
Q. You have a book coming out next summer. What’s it about?
“The Cooking Gene” is me telling my family’s history though food. I wanted to be able to tell black history through a medium that other people have taken for granted. Other people can point to Tuscany or a part of China or somewhere they come from. But where do we come from? So I wanted to tell the story of the old South, tracing it back to the African continent and being able to show how our roots got passed down through dishes, through recipes, through ideas about food and though the community that food produces.
Learn more about Twitty on his popular blog Afroculinaria.com.