At Afroculinaria, Michael W. Twitty serves up his own recipe of food blogging. The African American-Jewish culinary historian writes about African American foodways, the food culture and history of the American South, and the exploration of identity through cooking. His forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, chronicles his search for a culinary homeland, retracing the steps of his family’s journey from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom, using food as his lens.
Michael — who was named a TED2016 Fellow and is speaking this week at TED2016: Dream in Vancouver, Canada — talks about his research and balancing his efforts for both his blog and his book.
Afroculinaria is a food blog, yet it’s so much more than that. It documents your personal culinary journey, the intersections of Africa and America, and food and history. Can you expand a bit on what you blog about?
There are food blogs where the focus is on creative food ideas and mastering the techniques behind them. Those blogs are for people who view food culture as an interest or hobby, and that’s fine. My blog is not like that by design. It’s like a family scrapbook, an album. Sometimes it’s a scribbled recipe, a proud picture of a culinary creation, and other times it’s poetry, essays, protest prose, journalistic impressions, and anything I think will be important in one hundred years. It’s a digital museum and a soapbox, and it’s about inhabiting this body and mind and investigating my food heritage as an African American, a Southerner, and a human being whose identity crosses diasporas.
I think it has a lot to do with the way my heritage was passed to me. It was a toolbox, a box of memories and treasure maps — detritus and drama mixed with treats, nothing linear or very consistent about it. I think this gave me a model for how I tell our story.
It’s a digital museum and a soapbox, and it’s about inhabiting this body and mind and investigating my food heritage as an African American, a Southerner, and a human being whose identity crosses diasporas.
On your About page, you introduce the phrase “culinary justice.” Can you talk more about this in relation to your writing and research?
Culinary justice, as Michael explains in this great informative talk at the Guardian, is the idea that communities, cultures, and ethnicities have a right to the inherent value and worth of their gastronomical production.
People with histories of subjugation or oppression have a culinary heritage that is often obscured and obfuscated, and meanwhile people from other communities come in and use the platforms they’ve been given to highlight what they’ve gleaned in those communities. This isn’t a Black and white issue — rather it’s a debate about who the culinary world has traditionally empowered and privileged who it has not. It’s also about re-centering our narratives so that the creators of specific food traditions not only get credit for the past, but the same communities can confidently approach the future knowing they have a stake and sovereignty in their own food future.
You write about being Black and being Jewish under one of your brands, Kosher/Soul, in which you explore identity cooking. Can you tell us more about this?
Kosher/Soul is about making concrete an identity that for some odd reason people feel is incomprehensible . . . in a multicultural, post-post modern America! Food is one of the greatest ways that African American and Jewish American worlds combine for the good. As I cook my way through my own identity, I’m using the culinary process to understand how to educate people about cultural and spiritual bordercrossers like me.
On the other hand, it’s just a lot of fun being at the forefront of a conversation that can only result in people coming to the table and learning how to appreciate the collisions and combinations that make us uniquely American. And this food is delicious! Stuffed collard greens and kosher soul rolls, West African brisket, Morrocan style sweet potato salad, cobbler kugel, barbecue bourekas or cigars, mango challah and Matzoh meal fried chicken — give me some tea cake Hamantaschen with peaches, apple butter, and black eyed pea hummus and it’s a whole new Soul Food.
The Cooking Gene, your book to come later this year, chronicles your search for a culinary homeland in the American South. What might a typical day of research look like? With whom are you meeting?
It includes a lot of riding across large sections of the Deep South!
I’ve taken notes on everything: signs, people, advertisements, the frequency of certain words . . . It’s powerful to cross entire states and see the breadth of the land and know it’s all a part of who you are and are becoming.
I’ve spent endless hours mining the blog — it’s my timepiece. It jogs my memories. I read and read until I’m reciting the text from memory in my sleep — when you find yourself in history, that’s when the history books become real and tasty. I’ve interviewed Mennonites, Mississippi Chinese, North Carolina Latinos, Alabama rabbis, Gullah-Geechee elders, Affrilachian cooks, Lumbee professors — anybody who can help me tell this story of how Africanized the food of the South really is.
As an active blogger who has also been working on a book, is blogging a distraction? Or do the benefits outweigh any cons?
First, let me unsolicitedly say that WordPress.com has been an outrageously important platform for me. You kind of have to do your thing until people chase you down. My post “An Open Letter to Paula Deen” was the changer I needed to get people to do that. I’m very grateful to be living in a time of ideational democracy.
Writing a book is hard work, but you have to be nice to your blog — it got you here — and it has to be maintained and developed. That’s where part of your book audience will come from, so you have to keep people interested. It’s a balancing act. The prize is the finished book, but on the way you have to keep increasing your day-to-day impact.
Writing a book is hard work, but you have to be nice to your blog — it got you here — and it has to be maintained and developed.
In addition to that open letter, you’ve written other notable posts, including “Ferguson: My Thoughts on An American Flashpoint.” What other pieces do you recommend for new readers? What pieces are you most proud of?
These two you’ve mentioned were huge. People really paid attention. I guess it’s because I meant what I said and I said what I meant. The posts in which I write about picking cotton, or where I’m in Birmingham writing from the road, or my piece on being Black and Jewish on Passover are my favorites.
What’s your favorite meal to cook for others?
I love to barbecue. One of my favorite posts was done after I did my first re-creation of a colonial barbecue. I wanted to show people how delicious the food was, and how we were bringing the ancestors back to life. It was my most process-oriented piece.
When I barbecue, it’s all about the satisfaction people get from the food. I’m not hungry when I’ve sucked up fumes all day. I’m more interested in knowing that was the best plate of barbecue a person’s ever had — or close to it!