Michael Twitty has dedicated his life's work to the study of African slave foodways and how they spread from the Southeastern seaboard. That's where thousands of shackled, malnourished people emerged from hellish journeys to find odd comfort in growing conditions reasonably similar to their homelands.
It was on these plantations and farms that displaced Africans longing for a taste of home developed a sort of fusion fare by blending their native traditions with available resources. Those lucky enough to be assigned work in hot kitchens understood that their job was to cover huge tables with elegantly presented foods and stay out of sight while their white mistresses became renowned hostesses. They were powerless when keepers claimed the recipes as their own, sometimes publishing popular cookbooks that now serve as roadmaps to culinary historians.
Twitty's efforts to reveal these much-discounted labors and to genetically connect contemporary citizens with their slave roots has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello, among others. On Sept. 7, during a fundraising event he will lead at Historic Stagville in Durham, he intends to disclose findings of his own genetic testing.
Previous research confirmed Twitty's connection to Halifax County fields that once were the property of his great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Henry Bellamy. This in turn confirmed at least two direct links back to Africa.
Twitty was intentional about coming to Stagville, which comprises the remnants of one of the largest plantations of the pre-Civil War South, to learn more about his own story. In 1860, about 900 slaves worked its almost 30,000 acres of land.
"On the eve of the Civil War, a third of the population of North Carolina was enslaved. That's a critical fact," he says. "I am a descendant of enslaved North Carolina people and plantersboth sides of the fence. I take it with me everywhere I go."
Twitty has traveled throughout the South on his crowd-funded research trips, including last summer's Southern Discomfort Tour, which launched in Chapel Hill with a presentation to Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina. He has been invited to present on his work, including the Stagville event, at a culinary justice conference later this month in Denmark.
Given all this, it seems like poetic justice that his labors received an unexpected boost this summer from a most unlikely source: a woman, once celebrated for her for deep-fried Southern excess, who got caught using the N-word in a legal deposition about harassment of a black employee. His eloquent treatise, "An Open Letter to Paula Deen," was posted quietly on his Afroculinaria website on June 25 but quickly went viral. Twitty not only dismantles Deen's romantic notions of slave life but also invites her to start making amends by volunteering to help at the Stagville fundraiser.
"I wanted her to see the remnants of that world and walk through those cabins, which is a very different place from the magnolia plantations some people prefer to think about," he says. "I haven't heard from anyone in her camp so I can't assume that she knows about it. If she was to show up, that would be cool. But it's not going to be the basis of my day. I want to have authentic food on the table and educate people."
Acclaimed Atlanta chef Hugh Acheson, author of A New Turn in the South, has volunteered his help and will speak at the event. "His pea soup is a recipe that really speaks to all of these roots in a modern context," says Twitty, who also has established partnerships with several Triangle and Piedmont providers, including farmers of color. "It's a beautiful message about collaboration and the continuum of history."
Daytime events at Stagville, which are free and open to the public, will include demonstrations of plantation life, including rustic cooking methods. The evening fundraiser features a $75 dinner in the former Horton Grove slave quarters.
"I want people to know that menu is not fancy. It represents the narratives of enslaved people," states Twitty, who spent months researching what was grown and consumed from slave gardens. "Almost everything on the menu is from the mouth of an enslaved person in North Carolina."
Options will include slow-smoked pork and chicken barbecue, roasted sweet potatoes, savory cornmeal kush and sweet peach cobbler.
"We want people to think about the everyday reality of their lives and how food shaped their culture," he says. "We want them to get into the heads, as well as the bellies, of enslaved people."