Inside the Real History of Southern Food

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By Gillie Houston Posted October 03, 2016

Historical accounts of Southern cooking often gloss over what slaves ate.

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and collared greens: these comforting classics are what instantly come to mind at the mention of 'Southern food.' However, historian Michael Twitty is on a mission to teach people the authentic culinary history of the south and the role slaves played in that history.

As NPR reports, Twitty recently held a historic cooking demonstration at Monticello, the famed estate of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia, where many slaves worked and lived. Preparing an authentic meal of grilled rabbit, hominy, and okra soup using 18th century tools and ingredients, Twitty explained to the audience not only the proper technique for preparing the animal, but the history tied to the dishes.

"It's really been in the past few years that people come here and they say, 'Wow—what did the slaves eat? Did they grow their own produce? Did Jefferson give them food?" Monticello historian Christa Dierkshede says of the inspiration behind incorporating the informative classes. Twitty, a writer and historian who documents his culinary creations and experiences via his acclaimed blog, Afroculinaria, saw a unique opportunity to show audiences a side of the region's food that isn't white-washed.

According to Twitty, historical accounts of Southern cooking often gloss over slaves' diets—which the historian argues were the backbones of the cuisine.

"There was no sense of their personal stories, no sense of their familial ties, no sense of their personal likes or dislikes. It was just straight up a very bland, neutral version of history," he says.

While Dierkshede acknowledges that the slavery conversation can be an uncomfortable one, particularly among southerners, having that conversation over a good meal can ease that tension.

"Food is such a great equalizer. And everybody has some kind of food tradition in their family. And to talk about what that tradition or culture was among the lives of African-Americans is a way for us to try to understand the lives of enslaved people in a more holistic way," she says.

Dierkshede and Twitty alike hope that by framing slavery through the lens of Southern cooking, they can being to open up a dialogue around the impact African-Americans have had on the Southern cooking of the past and the present.


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