The Antebellum Chef – The Importance of Identity Cooking & Culinary Justice

“Food tells me who I am […] food tells me where we have been [and it] might just tell America where it’s going” (Twitty xvii). So says Michael W. Twitty, food writer and culinary historian. He isn’t concerned with the superficiality of food, but is instead invested in its deeper qualities; for him, cooking has become less about what the food looks or tastes like, and more about who is cooking and what the food means to them. Twitty cares about food’s rich history, the unique stories detailing where it comes from and how it came into each of our lives, and he sees the meals we eat as part of our individual personalities, their histories a part of our own, which makes sense. If we truly are what we eat, then we are all those stories, each joined together in a complex amalgamation called our identity. The sad truth is that so many people fail to recognize the hidden importance that food has in our lives, something that Twitty is actively working to change.

Michael Twitty isn’t like other modern-day chefs; in fact, most of his work focuses on the past rather than the present. His goal isn’t to revolutionize the restaurant industry or innovate any new cooking techniques. His goal is to become the first African American antebellum chef in over 150 years. As a culinary historian of the American South, Twitty has committed his life to documenting and educating people on the history of enslaved Africans’ cooking techniques, as well as their impact on practices today. His work is divided into two categories: identity cooking, which examines how the various aspects of his personal identity have interacted with and been influenced by the different foods in his life, and culinary justice, where he teaches people across the country how to acknowledge, respect, and uphold the cultural heritage that links us to the foods that we eat. Dubbed the “Antebellum Chef,” Twitty accomplishes both objectives through historical interpretations of plantation cooking, creating accurate depictions of the cooking traditions of how the cooking traditions of slaves both impacted and were impacted by the antebellum South.

Twitty didn’t always understand the premise behind identity cooking, and his relationship with food had an interesting start. Born in 1977 outside Washington D.C., he had the luxury of growing up surrounded by diverse ethnic and culinary backgrounds, from Indian to Sri Lankan, to British and Italian (Girorgis). He was exposed to all these different cultures and the integral role food played in each of them, but he didn’t really care why, and this apathy extended to Southern cuisine as well. He “hated soul food, and [he] hated being black” (Roig-Franzia). He didn’t understand the importance of Southern food and its culinary history, a history his family made their mission to instill in him. His grandmother, a retired cook and storyteller from Alabama, would tell him stories about life during the Jim Crow era while teaching him traditional Southern recipes, and his mother, even after moving during the Great Migration, continued to embrace the traditions, even with the meals she didn’t even like (Weissman).

Each new meal, each new tale, gave Twitty a new perspective on his varied background, but it still wasn’t connecting; he didn’t understand how they could make “something out of nothing” (Robinson). It wasn’t until his teenage years, when his uncle took him on a trip to Alabama, that their message began to resonate. It was there that he discovered Richard Henry Bellamy, a Confederate Army captain and Twitty’s 3rd great-grandfather, and Twitty finally realized his connection to Southern food and its influence on people’s lives (Roig-Franzia). Twitty left Alabama that day understanding that the history of Southern food and his family were intertwined in many ways, and he owed it to his ancestors to learn more about it; in 2018, in opposition to the Confederate Memorial Day celebrations, Twitty published an open letter addressed to Bellamy. The letter acknowledged the Confederate as his ancestor and the effect he has had on his life, while also condemning the actions of him and other slaveholders and reaffirming his mission to seek culinary justice (Twitty).

Twitty began his research into the origins of Southern cooking, a project titled The Cooking Gene, looking at techniques born in Africa that migrated to the U.S. during the antebellum period. Increasingly curious about the link between his own culinary heritage and personal identity, The Cooking Gene remained heavily tied to his own family, tracing his ancestral lineage along with their cooking traditions. Nevertheless, the project was more than just a glorified family tree; it was an extensive analysis of the birth of an entire culture, but his research only provided half the story. It taught him the ancestors’ culinary practices, but it didn’t say anything about the physical and emotional pain they endured gathering ingredients, or the terror they felt cooking in the kitchen (Spaeth). For him to truly understand their experiences, he needed to experience it for himself, so whenever he studied at plantations, he would dress in traditional slave attire, cotton tights, kerchief, and all. He would prepare his meals using only open hearth cookery, a technique similar to that of enslaved Africans (Masterclass Staff). This was more than just a reenactment; it was an interpretation of the hardships of slavery, performed with extreme accuracy, that allowed him to better understand through firsthand knowledge how these techniques formed the basis of modern Southern cuisine.

Twitty performing one of his historical interpretations

After years of studying and performing his historical interpretations, the time came for Twitty to share the results of his research with the rest of the public. He wanted everyone, regardless of who they were, to have the opportunity to be aware of and engage with this history. In pursuit of this dream, he started his own food blog, Afroculinaria – Exploring Culinary Traditions of Africa, Africa America and the African Diaspora, in 2011, where he began publishing articles exhibiting his studies, as well as personal writings like his open letter to Bellamy. It became a hub for people interested in food history to learn more about Southern cooking and its relation to Twitty on a personal level. The following year, he also launched his Southern Discomfort Tour (a play on the idea of Southern cooking as “comfort food”), where he visited cultural landmarks, performing his interpretations and giving research presentations, informing people on the harsh, uncomfortable realities of slavery that people don’t talk about (Twitty). His blog and tour gave him an audience to explain exactly what learning his culinary heritage meant to him.

Twitty’s journey so-far culminated in 2017 with the release of his first book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Best described as “part cookbook, part memoir, part history, and part genealogical survey,” the book chronicles his trip throughout the Cooking Gene Project, tracing the food traditions of his family back eight generations and paying homage to their contributions to his life; it showcased Twitty’s identity through a culinary lens, and most importantly, discussed the pain slaves were subjected to, and in a way, reclaimed those experiences from the people that would rather ignore it (Spaeth). In 2018, The Cooking Gene won a James Beard Foundation Award for Writing and Book of the Year, making Twitty not only the first African American recipient of this award, but also one of only two authors to receive this award for a non-cookbook. It represented a transformation within the modern food industry; the conversation surrounding food was shifting away from just how it tasted to the bigger societal issues surrounding that food. Chefs were able to express not only themselves but their opinions about the world through the food they cooked, and people wanted to see it. Like Twitty, they had begun to realize food’s true value.

Part of the reason Twitty originally started The Cooking Gene was because he was curious about the role food played in his identity; the other part was because he wanted to pursue culinary justice for enslaved Africans. The cultural impact of slaves in the South has often been ignored, and Twitty wanted people to recognize their significance. To better understand his pursuits, it is best to compare his ideals on Southern cooking with another chef: the Queen of Southern cuisine herself, Paula Deen. For Paula, Southern food is, simply put, comfort food, the stereotypical fried chicken, corn, and maybe an apple pie for dessert. She is not concerned with the complexities of its historical importance, just whether it tastes good or not, and she clearly does not care about the contributions of African American cooks, as evident in the interview with Dora Charles, her former business partner (Jackson). The fact is she abused these traditions to advance her career, and now because of that career, the rest of the public have become like-minded, oblivious to the need for culinary justice. She changed the identity of Southern cooking, so that it would never be more than that fried chicken, corn, and apple pie for dessert.

For Twitty, these issues with Paula Deen illustrated his greatest fear: complacency. Her ideas on what Southern cooking was and was not didn’t reflect its true history, but the public was okay with that, so they didn’t challenge her. What’s worse, when her racist behavior was revealed in 2013, people were quick to forgive her. Well, he wasn’t. While news of her fall from grace made headlines, Twitty published an open letter addressing the disgraced celebrity on his blog. The letter wasn’t to condemn her, but society for “the near universal erasure of the black presence from American culinary memory” (Weissman). He spoke to Paula as “a fellow Southerner, a cousin […] not as a combatant,” explaining to her the history behind the food she and her followers were happy to ignore, how her “okra soup, benne, jambalaya […] have inextricable ties to the plantation South and its […] Black Majority” (Twitty). He even ended the letter by inviting Deen to a North Carolina plantation to cook alongside him as a meal of reconciliation, but she never officially responded.

Paula Deen was never the problem; it was ignorance that angered Twitty. People didn’t know the truth behind Southern cooking, and they didn’t care enough to learn, but to forget slaves’ contributions is to forget the struggles that led to them, and that is why Twitty travels across the country researching. That is why he has dedicated his entire life researching his background and history. He spent his life working in the fields so all we had to do was open a book. He wants people to recognize the importance of African Americans in Southern culture and give them their due respect.

Michael W. Twitty isn’t like other modern-day chefs; he understands that the importance of a meal goes beyond how it tastes. It defines who we are at our core. Sure, he didn’t always have this realization, but after going on his journey, experiencing how much of what his ancestors went through has become fixed in his culture, he can acknowledge how their traditions have become a cornerstone of his way of life. Twitty has taught us that food shapes all our identities in vastly different ways, and it is our duty to understand and respect how it does so. There’s a lot more we can learn from Twitty, and he isn’t done teaching, either. Self-described as “four times blessed” (large of body, African American, Jewish, and gay), Twitty is committed to documenting how each facet of his identity has impacted his relationship with cooking. The Cooking Gene was merely the first entry of a trilogy; his 2022 book Kosher Soul discusses how Twitty connects his Jewish faith with his culinary practices, and he plans to write another book in the future detailing how his sexuality has shaped his experiences in the kitchen. Twitty is exploring how food connects him to his world, and he encourages each of us to do the same.

Works Cited 

Giorgis, Hannah. “Michael Twitty Is Untangling the Roots of Southern Food.” The Ringer, The Ringer, 24 Aug. 2017, Accessed 8 April 2022.

Jackson, Lauren Michele. “The Real Problem with Paula Deen.” Eater, Eater, 7 Nov. 2019, Accessed 8 April 2022.  

MasterClass Staff. “Michael W. Twitty: Learn About the Culinary Historian – 2022.” MasterClass, MasterClass, 17 Feb. 2022, Accessed 8 April 2022.

Robinson, Jill K. “Southern Food & Trauma Travel with Michael W. Twitty.” The Statesider, The Statesider 2021, 10 Apr. 2020, Accessed 8 April 2022.    

Roig-Franzia, Manuel. “Tracing His Urge to Cook through Slavery and the South.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Aug. 2017, Accessed 8 April 2022.  

Spaeth, Sho. “The Cooking Gene: An Appreciation.” Serious Eats, Serious Eats, 2 Feb. 2021, Accessed 8 April 2022.  

Twitty, Michael W. “An Open Letter to Paula Deen.” Afroculinaria, 17 Jan. 2014, Accessed 8 April 2022.  

Twitty, Michael W. “Dear Grandpa Massa: An Open Letter to My White Ancestor for Confederate Memorial Day.” Afroculinaria, 24 Apr. 2018, Accessed 8 April 2022. 

Twitty, Michael W. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, Amistad, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2018. Accessed 8 May 2022

Weissman, Michaele. “His Paula Deen Takedown Went Viral. But This Food Scholar Isn’t Done Yet.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 Feb. 2016, Accessed 8 April 2022. 

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