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The cook who picks cotton: reclaiming my roots
Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and Jewish educator from the Washington D.C. area.
May 1st, 2012
06:00 AM ET

The cook who picks cotton: reclaiming my roots

Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs, writers and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and Jewish educator from the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at Afroculinaria.com and thecookinggene.com. As the originator of the Cooking Gene Project, he seeks to trace his ancestry through food.

(CNN) – Edward Booker, Hattie Bellamy and Washington Twitty didn’t know what an organic farm was, but nearly everything they ate was organic. They enjoyed wild caught, sustainable fish; they were no strangers to free range chickens, and they ate with the seasons with almost nothing originating more than a mile or two away from their cabin door. They had gardens, composted, and ate no processed foods. Their food was fairly simple, often meatless; and it was a fusion cuisine, with ingredients drawn from five continents.

They were not culinary revolutionaries living out of the foodie playbook – they were three enslaved individuals living among the over 4 million held in bondage before the Civil War, and they were my ancestors.

In the upcoming months I will return to the fields, forests and waterways of the Old South in search of my culinary version of Roots, tracing my family tree through food from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom. The project is called The Cooking Gene: Southern Discomfort Tour.

Slavery is not just a practice or moment in American history; it is a metaphor for our relationships to lifestyles and food systems that many of us view as beyond our control. Most of us are enslaved to food systems that aren’t sustainable, but eat we must. And because we must eat, food is a natural vehicle for telling the kinds of stories about historical slavery and the impact of “race” on how we eat, even as we critique and question our contemporary food politics. Food is our vehicle to move beyond race and into relationships and use those relationships to promote the kind of racial reconciliation and healing, our nation desperately needs.

Read the full post on CNN's Eatocracy blog

soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. michaelwtwitty

    To respond:
    I STRONGLY value my lifelong education about American slavery and its affect on my Ancestral and personal journey. The best estimates we have are that 3.9 million-4 million enslaved Blacks were present in the American population at the time of the 1860 census. Most sources agree on this. Please take a look at this short essay on the 1860 Census...http://michael-streich.suite101.com/the-1860-census-and-slavery-in-the-united-states-a83730 One of the ways African Americans who take ownership of their history are often shot down is in what I call the Accuracy Game...and I have no problem saying "the debate centers on..." "the best estimates are" "some say this...and some say that, my personal opinion is...." or "I don't know-and I don't think many of us know...." So thanks for your comment on that.The presence of African American slaveholders must be weighed against two factors–many owned members of their own families to protect them from being sold or to prevent the separation of the family owing to very restrictive laws curtailing the free movement of Free Blacks. Others slaveholding "Blacks," were no different from many slaveholding "Native Americans," who may or may not be recognized as people of color if they walked into a room today. In other words–many people of color who owned enslaved people were on the margins of the color line and themselves identified with the larger power structure rather than with any sort of vision of unity with other people of color. William Ellison of South Carolina, a biracial man who owned a fair amount of enslaved people at the time of the Civil War is particularly illustrative of this-and his enslaved workforce wanted nothing to do with him upon emancipation.
    Race is a myth because we are not our phenotype–we are whatever human construct we identify with. However I will say that I am proudly ETHNIC.
    So thanks for your comments!

    May 2, 2012 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
  2. raceisamyth

    I remember when the black slave owners made my great great black grandfather pick cotton. Ahhh those were bad times. Im sure this will be deleted, but hopefully someone sees it first. Dont believe me, look at the US census from 1860-1865.

    May 1, 2012 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  3. raceisamyth

    And southern food is west african. Southerners know this.

    May 1, 2012 at 6:47 am | Report abuse |
  4. raceisamyth

    Wow an article about moving beyond race. Im actually proud of this article. But lets remember 18 million africans were taken into slavery and only 6% were sent to America. So your number of 4 million is WRONG!

    May 1, 2012 at 6:21 am | Report abuse |
    • SuperBejo

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      September 15, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |