Meet the Man Who's Changing the Conversation Surrounding Southern Food
"Meals aren’t casual," says chef and writer Michael Twitty. "They’re fraught with meaning for me."
Everyone’s got an opinion about the South at the moment, thanks in no small measure to the surprise outcome of the contentious Alabama Senate race, which set off a round of thinkpieces about what the historic Democratic win might reveal about the mood of the electorate.
Michael Twitty is one of those people talking a lot about the South these days. He used his high-profile social media presence to insert his own political two cents into the slipstream of discourse on Election Night a few days ago, but then again he’s been doing a version of that same thing for years. A culinary historian, chef and writer, Twitty has spent years thinking about and exploring this part of the country—its promise, its people, its original sin—for his new book, The Cooking Gene.
Twitty got critics and “best of” book list writers buzzing about The Cooking Gene partly because of the expansiveness of the task he out for himself. Black, gay and Jewish, Twitty uses the book to explore his own African-American heritage and the nuances of Southern cuisine by taking readers way back—to places like farms, fields and Civil War battlefields.
His writing soars. “The travels to discover my heritage revealed to me that the South might not be a place so much as it is a series of moments, which in proper composition communicate an indelible history that people cling to as horseshoes do to old barns,” he writes in the book. “In cooking, the style of Southern food is more verb than adjective; it is the exercise of specific histories, not just the result. In food it becomes less a matter of location than of process, and it becomes difficult to separate the nature of the process from the heritage by which one acquired it.”
At a time when food lovers are content to regard what we eat as the felicitous, Instagrammable stuff that clicks are made of, Twitty in his work ponders a litany of "whys." Why are we eating this, this way? From what did this tradition spring? What does it say about us today, and where we can go from here? You don’t sit down to eat with him casually. Food, for him, is a chance to talk about painful realities of race, class, privilege and history.
To grossly oversimplify, he wants us to become almost students of the meals we eat. And maybe if we understand and appreciate them in a much deeper way, maybe in doing so you make the world a little better.
“She didn’t like the tone of the other folks at the dinner. Which was, this is a gateway to talk about all sorts of issues and how food is inextricable from social and political and economic and health issues, you name it. Redlines. Gentrification. Appropriation. It’s all in there. And she goes—'Well, food brings people together. Let’s just talk about the food.' And everybody groaned. Because that comment took us backwards. The experience of food is impacted by segregated neighborhoods. Your experience of food is impacted when you have a poor education regarding nutrition and health and diet.”
Twitty's is a voice of honesty that he’s been sharing for years, since well before the book. If you go back to 2013, you'll find a viral open letter Twitty wrote to Paula Deen after her use of a racial slur came to light. He made the point that he's disturbed by something much deeper than a white celebrity chef using the n-word, though that was inexcusable, too.
In his letter to Deen, he wrote, “Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse, not your past epithets, are what really piss me off.” It’s a thought that carries through to his new book. His dismay includes gentrification in cities, the lack of attention given to food deserts in the South, the erasure of black chefs in Southern food culture and much more.
“I was just in Nigeria, and I was Senegal earlier this year,” Twitty tells Food & Wine. “I spent about three weeks of my life in Africa this year. And I learned something very important. Southern white folks are some of the most African white people in America. They don’t realize just how much of their foodways, ways of looking at the world, ways of relating to each other, mannerisms, language, sounds, come from West Africa.
“This book is about giving not only black people back their sense of heritage and rootedness, but also asking white Americans and particularly white Southerners—who, of course, do not own racism at all or the issues that come off of racism at all—to let them know you’re not some separate white-topia. You’re up in this. You have absorbed the people around you for centuries. And they’ve absorbed you. And you’re part of each others’ worlds. They’re not to be separated out.”
Nigella Lawson shared her take via Twitter not long after the book was published: that it’s “beautifully written, searingly important,” and Twitty is a “guide, storyteller & teacher.”
That also happens to be how Twitty sees himself. He tried to explain what goes through his mind when he sits down for a meal and found it a little difficult; the experience is such a deep-dive into history and culture each time for him. Food, to him, is a lens through which you get a glimpse into the human consequences of a meal.
When he visits someone’s home, he always tries to study the cookbook collection. The recipes on scraps of paper lying around. How the kitchen is set up. If it’s chaos, it doesn’t matter. He likes it all; he likes knowing why people curate the meals the way they do.
“I always tell people—don’t ignore your base food desires," he says. "If you love the Chinese takeout place on the corner, think about that. Think about why. What’s the payoff? It’s not a judgement call. It’s just, what’s the payoff? What’s the conversation?"
Twitty believes that meals are never casual.
"They’re fraught with meaning for me," he says. "I'll tell you this much. I’m tired of this 150-year-plus cold civil war we’ve engaged in. I really am. And I want people to read this book and be tired of it with me and want to work on something different.”