Mouth Full of South
I first heard about culinary historian Michael Twitty in the wake of Paula Deen's dismissal from the Food Network. Last May, I attended one of his dinners, in which he typically dresses in period attire.
Photo by Jacob Dillow
"Slaves in early America were forced to wear horse bits in their mouths because they were considered livestock," Michael Twitty told me before taking a bite out of a slice of Edna Lewis's sweet, lemony Tyler pie. "I usually don't tell people that during my cooking demos because they don't want to hear it." Twitty, a stout, brown-bearded man from Washington, DC, was seated at the parlor table of Sherrill's Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. About 90 white guests had gathered there for an antebellum-style meal cooked using only 19th-century technology. Twitty was visiting the inn, an old way station for stagecoach travelers and hog drovers, while on his Southern Discomfort Tour—a sojourn to places where his ancestors had been enslaved and to other sites steeped in the cultural memory of slavery. At Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, and Magnolia Plantation, in South Carolina, Twitty had dressed in period attire to prepare meals in pre–Civil War kitchens without any modern conveniences, all the while educating guests about the roles that enslaved cooks of the colonial, federal, and antebellum eras had in shaping Southern American cuisine.
Twitty is Orthodox-Jewish, African-American, and gay, in no particular order. He is a man of many dimensions: a culinary historian, food writer, historical interpreter, and teacher who employs all parts of himself into every thing that he does. His "Cooking Gene Project" aims to study both the food history and families of descendants of African, European, and Native American people, both the enslaved and enslavers—from Africa to America. Twitty lives by his "kosher soul" ethos, cooking peach noodle kugel and matzoh-meal fried chicken in his interpreted "Afro-Ashkefardi" style of Jewish cuisine. Some of his DNA has even been traced to Jewish roots, but he officially converted in 2002. Other DNA he's uncovered has shed light onto his other ancestors, who were West, Central, and Southeastern African—more specifically, from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Senegambia, Benin, Nigeria, Congo-Angola and Mozambique. Some of thom were traded through Charleston, where approximately 40 percent of the total 400,000 Africans who were sold as slaves into North America are estimated to have landed. Twitty is also part Irish and Norwegian. His partner, Jacob Dillow, helps to chronicle his Southern Discomfort Tour by photographing the experience.
I first heard about Twitty's project in the wake of Paula Deen's dismissal from the Food Network over revelations that she had used racial slurs against her black employees. Among other things, Deen had allegedly expressed her desire for a "plantation-style wedding" for her brother, Bubba. "What I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts, and black bow ties," Deen said. "Now that would be a true Southern wedding, wouldn't it?" In an open letter in response to the controversy, Twitty offered to teach Deen what a real traditional Southern meal looked like. He invited her to cook with him at Stagville Plantation, in North Carolina, a site that once held more than 900 enslaved African Americans. "One time I saw you make hoecakes on your show," wrote Twitty, "and I never heard tell of where them hoecakes really came from… Don't forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks, some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor's Georgia plantation." Deen never replied to Twitty's letter and didn't show up at Stagville Plantation, but he kept on cooking his way across the South.
May 2014 in Asheville was hot and dry, and the horses on the lawn in front of Sherrill's Inn were kicking up dust. Twitty had teamed up with Blind Pig Productions, a local supper club, to roast a 180-pound hog on an outdoor spit over freshly felled saplings.
Twitty was gazing off into the shaded woods near the apple orchard. His arms were neatly intertwined behind his back. "It's time to go chop the wood," he announced the people in attendance, which included Elliot Moss (a local chef from Asheville), Michael Moore (the chef behind Blind Pig Productions), and his partner Dillow. In order for the entire hog to cook evenly for over 12 hours and achieve the desired succulent, falling-off-the-bone status, the meat would need to carefully rest on sturdy saplings with the girth of a broomstick.
Moore and Moss grabbed axes and headed to the woods, toward the Inn, while Twitty and Dillow turned right down the stone driveway toward the apple orchard. As Twitty and Dillow dragged the heavy tools through the tall grasses of the pasture, Twitty noted: "That's yarrow root you're stepping on," a wild plant known for its medicinal healing powers—an ingredient that Native Americans used to stop blood flow from gnarly wounds. The duo spotted a shaded area and got to work gathering felled cherry wood, birch, and oak saplings, which would help to impart a smoky, earthy flavor into the pork as it slowly roasted over the pit the next day. As Michael picked up his axe, he cautioned, "Watch out for the copperheads. They love to hang out under woodpiles, but don't worry. They usually give you warning. If it starts to smell like watermelon where it shouldn't, you're in trouble." He chuckled. Dillow picked up the other axe and started felling trees, while large beads of sweat trickled off his brown mutton chops onto his porcelain skin. The pair traded off in the process, taking breaks as needed to combat the heat index. They bickered over the right way to fell trees, which was followed by thundering laughter.
The four men regrouped near the center of the meadow, dragging the massive saplings toward the area where they planned to dig the BBQ pit. A truck had dropped off a hearty pile of lumber next to the area, which would stoke the fire the following morning. Moore and Moss grabbed two heavy shovels and began digging a deep hole, measuring progress with their feet, then height, until they were standing two feet under.
The pit was deep enough. Moore walked back to his black pickup truck, resting his arms over the side, breathing heavily between large swigs of water. His white T-shirt was soaked in sweat and fresh dirt. The temperature had kicked up towards 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the chorus of summer locusts was screeching. "There's supposed to be terrible thunderstorms tomorrow morning," he relayed as he checked his iPhone. Twitty walked up to the truck and reassuringly stated, "If we get a couple of sprinkles, it should be fine. I'm not worried."
It was dead quiet at 8 AM in the Blue Ridge Valley, and we were not standing in BBQ weather.
The sparrows knew better than to make noise after the thunderstorms that had dumped over the area earlier on that morning. The onslaught of car-denting hail didn't help either. The air, though, was the dreadful omen—a wet, scented plume of honeysuckle and smoldering fire—that the day might be a challenging one. Twitty was staring down into the pit of soaked firewood. His face was sullen, defeated, and fearful. The smoke from the stacked chimney fires he had built was wafting up towards his face like a physical insult. He stared at the wood, noting that these were the worst conditions he's ever had to cook in. "I'm just going to have to wing it and boil all 180 pounds of the pork to feed all of these people in 12 hours. That's what the ancestors would do, not only because they didn't have teeth, but because they didn't always have the luxury to make sure that the animal was cooked all the way through if you just barbecued it, so that helped." The key, he explained, was to "take the water that it is boiling in—known as the mop—and keep basting the barbecue throughout the process." With no sous chef nearby and no charcoal grill to fall back on, Michael decided to move to Plan B and gathered hay to dry out the chimney fires and light up the pit.
When 11 AM rolled in with the sunshine, the pit was barely hot. The guests were going to arrive in nine hours, and the meat looked as though it had been freshly butchered. What it lacked in cooking time, it gained in flavor from marinating overnight in kitchen pepper—a mysterious spice blend that Twitty refused to reveal, but a working recipe with origins to colonial America and England. Every household had their own version on hand, often a blend of dried ginger, bay leaf, allspice, mace, dried parsley, and salt. Moss and Moore were busy nearby, preparing cucumber salad, spiced catfish, sweet potatoes with rum, okra with stewed tomatoes, and cush—a cornbread hash—under Twitty's supervision. The cush was not dissimilar to cornbread dressing, a modern-day Southern dish that consists of crumbled cornbread, sausage, or meat, celery, and herbs. Its origins date back to the hands of slaves, who took dried-up pieces of cornbread, tossed them into a skillet with wild green onions or other foraged herbs, and pork fat left over from another meal. Just as the scent of mace started to compete with the perfume of BBQ smoke, a navy blue Smart Car interrupted the outdoor cooking session as it sped up the driveway, kicking up dust clouds in its wake.
Jeff Bannister, a man with an ashen grey ponytail slammed the door on the tiny vehicle and shouted, "Hey, baby!" at Twitty before giving him a huge hug. He was not dissimilar to a character from Apocalypse Now, and could rival Bear Grylls in his wilderness skills. He grew up in Charleston, where his familial roots link back to the early years of Charleston's existence. Bannister resides in Greenville, South Carolina, where he serves people with legal papers in his professional life. He moonlights as an expert in grilling entire animals—hence his website name, Icookwholecows.com—and holds an annual event, Bovinoche, where he cooks enough creatures to fill up a zoo, from whole yak to cow, alligator, pig, lamb, and goat. Bannister met Twitty during a cooking demo and has since befriended him because "no one else cooks historically like Michael does, and there are only a few of us in the game."
Bannister wasted no time in bossing the group around while he stripped off his shirt, exposing his tanned, muscular beer belly as he leaned down towards the pit fire, tinkering until it magically stoked into roaring flames within a matter of minutes. His hunting knife was ready at his side in anticipation of anything that needed to be cut or re-sized. The cauldrons holding the pig legs were at a hard boil, and Jeff improvised as he pulled out an iron tri-pod from his car, a piece of equipment he had used in the past to cook Argentinian "gaucho" style. He quickly built a contraption from the tripod that looked like a medieval times torture device to dangle one of the pork legs from, which would spin and cook close to the coals. Over the next few hours of the afternoon, Bannister was everywhere—speeding down the driveway in his vehicle, hauling wood chips for the fire, carrying buckets of water down the hill from the horse trough, and cursing the whole way. The group of men took shifts rotating the pork and resting to hydrate. Moore pulled a handle of Old Grand-Dad whiskey from the back of his truck and passed it around to the group for some instant relief. Bannister and Moss took long swigs, wiping their mouths while smiling at the fire. When the bottled arrived at Twitty, he poured a shot into the bottle cap. "I knew I did something wrong this morning," he smiled. "I forgot to pay tribute to the ancestors." He poured out the spirit onto the grass below.
"Shit, that is hot as hell!" Bannister yelled while he pulled the spinning pork leg from the fire. He threw it down on the chef's table inside a cooking tent that had been set up next to the pit and grabbed his hunting knife, quickly cutting off slices and throwing them into metal serving pans as quickly as he could before they were sent up to the kitchen inside the inn.
By the time the guests arrived, Twitty and the other cooks had been preparing the meal on the property for more than 24 hours.
While the patrons mingled with iced chardonnays and beer under a wooden portico at the entrance to the inn, Twitty carved a 40-pound cut of the sizzling pork leg for the chef's table. "A woman at a demo once asked me what was behind the molecular breakdown or reasoning for why slaves cut things in the way that they did back in the day," he said. "I explained to her that they weren't thinking about that at the time, because they didn't have that kind of luxury."
Once all the guests were seated, Twitty gave a speech about the meal he had prepared for them. "Science, history, statistics, genetics, culture, food, and the culinary arts bring me closer to my Southern ancestors. They were my forebears, but truly they were yours as well." The crowd applauded and dove their forks into catfish stew and piping-hot French rolls buttered with sweet horse-pulled sorghum. Fried chicken, which was particularly popular that night, had been prepared from a recipe by Rufus Estes, a former slave who in 1911 self-published Good Things to Eat, one of the earliest-known cookbooks by a black railway chef. But nothing garnered as much attention as the cush. "I had a black nanny growing up who used to make a dish like this," a blond woman in her 50s told Twitty. It wasn't uncommon for Twitty to hear stories like this on his tour, and he savored them as much as the guests savored his barbecued pork. A bluegrass band had been hired to play, and one of the members approached Twitty to tell him that he hadn't seen pork cooked over saplings since his childhood, when a black family down the road used to make it that way. Twitty was particularly intrigued that they used burlap sacks to hold the meat. For Twitty, the cooking demonstrations are an opportunity to gather stories from his guests that will help him better understand the South's long culinary history.
"When people start testifying about their stories, that's a break in the wall," Twitty said. "I get a lot of 'colored-mammy' stories from white people who are usually between the ages of fifty and ninety. They tell me stories that they've never shared with anyone else in their family." In moments like this, Twitty becomes a historian, quick to grab pencil and paper and interrogate his guests: "What town are you from? Do you remember her name and what she cooked for you?"
"In sharing their stories, they become part of my story," he explained. "They may not be able to embrace everything that I am, and that's OK, but it shows that they're starting to get it, and that's just enough to get the ball rolling."
In recent months, Twitty decided to expand his program beyond mere culinary education. "I'm using food as a way to discuss race as a person of color," he told me. "There's a gentleman's agreement in the South that is 'Don't talk about race.' We can talk about Jesus and football, and even food, but don't talk about that." Twitty realized that by creating a broader dialogue and diversifying his audience, he could use food to break that taboo. On his blog, Afroculinaria, he has written posts responding to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, and addressed the release of a cookbook called Thug Kitchen by a young white couple from Los Angeles. "We're not just post Ferguson today, baby. We're post–Thug Kitchen," Twitty told me. "It's infuriating that two pretty white kids from California can sell an idea and have white folks say, 'Oh no, it has nothing to do with race.'"
In using his blog to expand the conversation, Twitty has also expanded his mission. He doesn't just want to restore black chefs to their rightful place at the birth of Southern cuisine; he wants to increase their representation in the current food movement. He sees a future where young black farmers are given pride of place and more black chefs are awarded Michelin stars. He wants to use food to heal the wounds of the past and the present. "As we learned in Ferguson, there's a cost in not knowing your neighbors," Twitty told me. He'll continue bringing neighbors together in the South, plate by plate. For Paula Deen's future, black comedian and television host Steve Harvey has ideas. He's invited the TV persona to teach culinary classes at his ongoing mentoring camp to young, fatherless African American boys.
It is unclear if she will be instructing them on Southern cuisine.
This story was also featured in the March Issue of VICE.