Food historian Michael Twitty discusses African-American food culture at the Radcliffe Institute | New
Author and food historian Michael W. Twitty spoke on the history of African and African American food at a virtual event hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Thursday.
The lecture, titled “Feeding the Nation,” addressed the legacy of enslaved Africans and African Americans in American food culture. Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin then joined the conversation with Twitty and answered questions from the audience.
Twitty started the discussion by addressing a central misconception of African-American food culture.
“We have another kind of false tradition, which is that black food traditions come from their lack of ownership, their lack of agency, their lack of willpower,” Twitty said. “This is all completely wrong.”
Instead, Twitty explained, enslaved African Americans in the American South replicated food traditions and staple recipes from their homelands. Twitty cited the example of dried okra, a recipe that was popular among enslaved Africans in the South but originated in West Africa.
Twitty discussed society’s tendency to construct narratives that distort African American culinary history.
“When I do my work of reconstructing and piecing this narrative together, I found that there were so many elements that were totally ignored because we were so interested in attaching the narrative to how slaves ate, were cooking, living to a narrative of trauma,” Twitty said.
Twitty also commented on the importance of his research and the obstacles he faces as a food historian.
“As a black man who has taken on this work for his life, talking about our ancestors – and they are not just specimens, they are not just subjects, they are our ancestors – I know I must be twice as good for it to be just as good,” he said.
Twitty highlighted the need for “culinary justice” due to the “theft, erasure and denial” that black chefs and cooks have historically experienced.
“Our culture and our culinary tradition are at stake here,” he said.
Twitty noted that a big part of culinary justice is properly crediting black chefs and cooks and challenging those with “the power, the platform and the privilege to take [their] Culture.”
He called on individuals to help document local black food institutions, which can be overlooked by processes such as gentrification and redlining.
“We really need people to go through their family albums, find menus, find matchbooks,” Twitty said. “So we can start documenting this part of America’s black food history.”
Concluding his lecture, Twitty reiterated the importance of recovering and remembering African American cultural narratives.
“There’s something beautiful, lasting and spiritually cleansed about understanding that culture didn’t die with us,” he said.