Culinary author and historian Michael W. Twitty delivered a lecture on African and African American food history at a virtual event hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Thursday.
The lecture, entitled “Feeding the Nation,” addressed the legacy of enslaved Africans and African Americans in American food culture. Dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute Tomiko Brown-Nagin later joined in conversation with Twitty and fielded audience questions.
Twitty began the discussion by addressing a central misconception of African American culinary culture.
“We have another sort of fake lore, which is, Black people's food traditions come from their lack of ownership, their lack of agency, their lack of willpower,” Twitty said. “All of that is completely not true.”
Rather, 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 the tendency for society to construct narratives that misrepresent African American culinary history.
“When I do my work of reconstructing and piecing back together this narrative, I found that there were so many elements that were just totally overlooked because we were so interested in attaching the narrative of how enslaved people ate, cooked, lived to a trauma narrative,” Twitty said.
Twitty also commented on the importance of his research and the obstacles that he faces as a food historian.
“As a Black person who has taken on this work for his life, to talk about our ancestors — and these are not just specimens, these are not just subjects, these are our ancestors — I know that I have to be twice as good at 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 is at stake here,” he said.
Twitty noted that a major part of culinary justice involves properly crediting Black chefs and cooks and challenging those who have “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 forgotten through processes like gentrification and redlining.
“We really do need people to go into their family scrapbooks, find menus, find matchbooks,” Twitty said. “So we can begin to document that part of Black food history in America.”
Concluding his lecture, Twitty reiterated the significance of reclaiming and remembering African American cultural narratives.
“There is something beautiful and sustainable and spiritually purified about understanding that the culture did not die with us,” he said.