Feb. 2, 2021

The Cooking Gene- A Discussion with Culinary Historian, Food Writer and Historical Interpreter Michael Twitty

The Cooking Gene- A Discussion with Culinary Historian, Food Writer and Historical Interpreter Michael Twitty

This week, I have Michael Twitty. He's a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways, and its parent traditions in Africa and her diaspora, and the food culture of the American South. 

Michael is a Judaic Studies teacher from the Washington DC area, and his interests include food culture, food history, Jewish cultural issues, African American history, and cultural politics. He started the blog Afroculinaria 10 years ago. His book, The Cooking Gene won the James Beard award in 2018 for both Book of the Year, and best food writing. 

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Michael Twitty
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The Cooking Gene Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/thecookinggene
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The Afroculinaria Website  https://afroculinaria.com/
Buy his book The Cooking Gene

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Transcript

Welcome to the season two premiere of the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. I'm your host Chris Spear. On the show. I have conversations with culinary entrepreneurs and people in the food and beverage industry who took a different route. They're caterers, research chefs, personal chefs, cookbook authors, food truckers, farmers, cottage bakers and all sorts of culinary renegades. I myself fall into the personal chef category as I started my own personal chef business perfect little bites 10 years ago. And while I started working in kitchens in the early 90s, I've literally never worked in a restaurant unless you count Burger King. This week, I have Michael Twitty. He's a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways, and its parent traditions in Africa and her diaspora and its legacy and the food culture of the American South. Michael is a Judaic Studies teacher from the Washington DC area. And his interests include food culture, food history, Jewish cultural issues, African American history, and cultural politics. He started the blog Afroculinaria, just about 10 years ag.His book, The Cooking Gene won the James Beard award in 2018 for Book of the Year. I'm really excited to share this episode with you. I've been following Michael's work for a number of years now and was really glad that he took the time to come on the show. I'd love it if you would subscribe to the show. And if you listen on Apple podcasts, a rating and review would be really great. And now, here's the show. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great week.

Chris Spear:

Hey, Michael, how's it going? Thanks for coming on the show.

Michael Twitty:

I'm doing fine. How are you?

Chris Spear:

I'm great. I'm really excited to talk to you. I hope your weeks going well, or as good as it can be. These are some pretty weird times right now.

Michael Twitty:

Yeah, Chris. It's a time of shedding the snakeskin I think, yeah, yeah, that's a good way to put it.

Chris Spear:

For our listeners who don't know who you are. And I think there probably aren't that many. I guess the best way is to say you're a culinary historian, and you have a great book that came out, what's that been like three years ago?

Michael Twitty:

Yeah, with a sort of a quick update the year following. And I think there's gonna be another update. Once it hits five years. Yeah, TheCooking Gene won the James Beard award for Book of the Year in 2018, as well as Best Writing and I couldn't be more thrilled with that, because I was the first black off black American author to win book of the year. And I'm my first go as well. So that was that was a that was a labor of love. I bet. Did you have any idea when you're writing it? how big this book would be? Did you realize the potential and you know, we're gonna go back a little bit before I get into this. But while we're there Did, did you think that this would be as well received as it was? Um,

Unknown:

I hoped I certainly hoped I didn't know. And that's because, you know, that was my first big book, and also through HarperCollins. So I had, you know, a big publisher behind me, but I essentially had to sell that book, I essentially had to market that book. And then of course, it was the import of it, which is different from marketing. You know, why is a book important? Why is a cookbook important? Why is a memoir significant that's very different from its market value. And so having to interact between those two spaces was tough. But I didn't have any idea how well it would do. You certainly, you know, ego and bravado, a great things, but they don't pay bills, you have to really, you know, just for those people who really want to do a book, you have to think of this as a marathon, not as an instantaneous moment of fame or wealth, those things aren't really there. But also, you know, I had to I had to tell people point blank, Chris, I was like, even on Twitter, I remember one person said to me that something to the effect of, you know, don't market to us just say cool stuff, and we'll retweet it. And I'm just like, sit down, and everyone else was like, sit down, because no, this is this the business space? So I guess to answer your question, it's just like, it's a blend of both having to do that elbow grease work, of making your project, sore, and then also the hope that people will get it. And unfortunately, I spent a lot of time focusing on people who really didn't, you know, really weren't nice that I didn't know that I'll never know, in the internet's and I didn't focus enough on all the positive energy and blessings I was getting from doing this project. Yeah, it's, you know, kind of similarly, I found some of that with the podcast, you know, I started wanting to tell stories, and it's finding the way to tell the stories you want to tell, but then also kind of promoting it? I don't, I don't know. I've never been good at promotion or self promotion. And that's been really hard for me. And then, you know, all these opinions start coming out. And it's like listening to, you know, finding, I guess, the place where the constructive criticism is, versus the people who don't even know me and just want to bring some hate. Yes, yes. And that's so difficult, especially because everything now is done by this sort of electronic consensus vote. And I remember very early on, you know, talking to publishers and editors, and the whole deal was, and it's funny, because now Oh, how the mighty have fallen, Chris. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. like nobody, nobody is really that on top these days. And I say that because those same publishers were just like, oh, you can have this many social media followers. And back then it was some crazy number, like, like a 900. And now it's like, 100,000. Wow. Yeah, it went from 902,002, to 2000, to 5000 to 15. You know, it's all part of the story. But I wanted to tell a story that was unique that talked about food. I talked about America's original sins. And they talked about my ancestors that talked about how, you know, food and cultural politics interact. And it's, it's something that's a project that's gonna stay with me the cookie is gonna be with me a very, till the day I had to leave this earth. Well, let's back up a little bit. Who are you? What was your upbringing, like and your relationship with food? How did you get into food and cooking? Well, I'm, I am 43 years old. I was born in Washington, DC. I know that there are people who have very specific feelings about what that means. But I stressed in the book and I'm stressing here that Washington for especially for black folks, who are Washingtonians and adjacent was never a Northeastern city. It was an upper South border, South City that was segregated. My father was born in DC over 80, some years ago, and a thoroughly segregated city. And my grandfather told me has told me multiple times that my grandfather Blissett memory, would talk about how like the minute you crossed over into Maryland, and then you crossed over into Virginia, you had to change your tone, you know, in black Dc, You were safe. And so black DC really shaped a lot of my my origin story, a lot of food from the Great Migration a lot. You know, we weren't it wasn't really up north either. As a weird place to be DC and Baltimore were never really like, the deep, they were never the deep south and they were never up north. And I think that's a that's a very particular culture that people need to be very aware of there. There were quite a number of cities and areas like that. That was sort of sitting in not even an in between space, but it like almost like a wall. And a lot of those folks who did come to those communities who were not indigenous Who are from off, you know, came from nearby. Tidewater, Maryland, Virginia, the eastern Carolina, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, the rural areas of those places, you know, tobacco growing oyster, raising all that fed into, you know who we were, I didn't know that. And then on my mom's side, were folks who escaped the rust belt. My grandfather and grandmother bus and memory my mom's were born in Alabama, I grew up with them. And they went to Ohio my way everybody else did. You know, you went straight up Ohio. They were they were Illinois, you know, they were basically spread out from Pittsburgh, to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Akron to Chicago to Milwaukee. That was the central South people. And so what people need to understand is all those food traditions fed into the way I grew up, you know, my grandmother was an excellent cook. My mother was an outstanding cook. There were little bits and impulses from the European ethnic communities that they live next to in Ohio. Um, there were parts of 1950s cooking to 1970s cooking definitely. And because I was born the late 70s, so all of that, you know, people forget those three generations before them really do impact how you eat, what you eat, how you eat. I did not grew up with what I call funky eating. You know, that just wasn't I mean, and that and that's another part of the story is that I think people need to know that, as African Americans could have sort of like, got further and further away from, you know, the Jim Crow, south of slavery south, the surrogate itself, there was also this absolute severance with certain foods, for example, everybody else was like, Huh, lima beans, butter beans, and I'm just like, Oh, my God, get away from me. Um, and you know, I don't know what it means to have a satisfying meal of cornbread and beans. We didn't have eat, we'd have to eat that ash, man, we'd have to eat it all. My grandmother would make chitlins from my uncle and from my grandfather. But she cuts her way through and she detested it. I mean, there was no scrapple in my house. There was no pig feet in my house. It was none other than that. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. And that was because we simply decided that was no longer going to be part of our repertoire. Yeah, you even said in the book that you didn't like soul food at all growing up. Which I mean, I am from the Boston area. So I didn't grow up with any of that. But now I live in Maryland, and my father in law was born and raised in DC. And that's all the stuff that he loves. He's a white man. And it's funny, like, he's just like, yeah, go to the store and pick up some pig's feet next time you're there, like, so, my eating has changed drastically since I moved down here. Mm hmm. Because when I was little, it was it was also the era of the booming of fast food, and convenience, food in various forms. I mean, you know, I'm from the generation where the commercials had elmers glue to look like milk. Everything looks stylistic, and aesthetically pleasing and important and there and present. And it just wasn't the same. We hit bones in our pockets and skin skin and, and the cartilage and you said was just like, there was no hiding from the fact that you were engaging with death. And there was a certain smell and there was a certain look, and there was a certain tenor. And my father used to eat to play with chitlins like, like kids eat pizza, for God's sakes. And he did it in the most, you know, performative, demonstrative, grotesque way, especially at me because he knew I just hated chitlins. But, you know, I kind of got out of that. I mean, I ate fried chicken, I ate, you know, biscuits, I ate all that stuff. And I know, and especially my grandmother and mothers, you know, but to be real with you. I like, got over that because my mother and grandmother and father and other people had me cook with them. And it gave me a sense of ownership. I like cooking because it was it I could make a mess. I like making a mess. to the to the to the consternation of my of my mom, a blessing memory. And it just grew from there. And I and I and I had a lot of black pride in my household. I mean, someone said something really nasty on Twitter about me like saying, it just just you know, amplifies the the anti blackness he grew up in. I didn't grow up in any blackness. With a light skinned grandmother, who was actually quite, you know, you would have thought my grandmother was born was was married to the mother in the Congo, the way she was so proud of being black. And you know, it's that kind of thing that people just don't get is that being vulnerable, being open about your food story can also open you up to people who don't really want those stories to be told. I think that's the hardest part is a man. I mean, I, I just remember the very first time I had anything published on the internet that was in an external publication and how proud I was, and the very first comment was, like, some troll who was horribly rude. And it's just like, I don't understand people like, inherently, is this how people actually are. I know, you've gotten a lot of hate. I've seen some stuff over the years, and I just can't imagine how much it's coming at you kind of from all sides at times. Because, you know, one, one particular vibe I get is, how can you be black? And, and cook on plantations do historical interpretive work? That, you know, you're just showing like people we want to be slaves again? No, I'm doing a job. And by the way, when, when you or your relatives come to Williamsburg, or another site, and let's say, God forbid, there were no black interpreters. And the history was never from the black perspective. You'd be complaining about that, too. But they don't see it that way. I mean, they literally have these fantasies, Chris, it's so unfortunate. These fantasies of me doing some shuck and jive grandchildren for the white folks. And I'm just like, that's not the that's not the point. And then some people are like, well, you're not really reaching anybody. And I said, you know, can't get out of my face. How dare you. The bottom line is, we have to be able to bring people to the table, we have to have hard conversations over this food, we have to really be honest about where this food comes from. And the politics of this food and how it's been used to divide us, and how can we use to bring us together. And that's really what my aim is. And I'm beginning to become a lot wiser, and a lot more open about just not focusing on those folks and focusing on what my real end is. And my real end is that the people who created this incredible cuisine should have honored where it's due, and respect where it's due. And that we should go forward into our future being far more mindful of how we pass down our narrative through food. So when did you really first start digging into all of this, the real history of both your family and African and African American cooking, when I was very young, very young, I would say probably, you know, by the time I was in middle school, what triggered that what made you want to start doing that? I don't know, if it was a trigger, I just think that I just grew up in a space where I loved history, I love food. And I had people who are willing to tell me a lot about where they came from, what food meant to them. I mean, I mean, a lot of the stories that we told as a family were especially salient when my my grandmother would talk about, you know, for example, her grandmother making sausage and hog killing time, and how she would, you know, grow the seeds and red pepper to put in the sausage. And, you know, no one made sauces like her and all these other things. And so that my, my gears are turning, I'm like, Well, how does that work? What is Hall killing time? You know, asking those kind of questions, and then doing the research and, you know, I was I was not easy, because, you know, you would think that everybody would like incline themselves to help you navigate your journey. And that's not how it worked. You know, I remember going to the, to the to the bookstore in the mall, and they had the whole foxfire series. And so I had to teach myself at you know, 1314 what that was what it's about without internet, you know, just kind of figuring it out on my own in trying to like, navigate this this this huge food heritage thing. Yeah, these kids today don't know how to operate without the internet. I'm 44 So you and I similar age and you know, having to go to a library and look for books, it was a lot harder to do any kind of intense research at that time hard catalog card catalog for sure. So when did you start doing the the cooking like at Colonial Williamsburg When was that? So I'm an itinerant so I've done it all over the place. At first, it was very difficult. Because to be honest with you, I thought you could just do like cooking so I would do these programs all around the DC area DMV area. And one day this uh this person I knew said to me, you know, it's a great idea what you're doing. But you got to get the right the pots the right clothes, the right this the right that and I took the advice not personally I just like okay. All right how do I do that so I started researching heirloom vegetable gardening, which I had never heard of. And that led me down a wormhole this is this is a long time ago, this is now we're now talking about something like 20 years of doing this work. And so then it was what the pots and I didn't have any money. So that meant really slowly, one skillet, that's far from historic, but that was better than, you know, not having a skillet at all, or, you know, pseudo historic clothes versus tailor made ones. So I really had to build up a whole material collection, you know, the tools, the utensils, the pots, the pans, the things to go along with those pots and pans things, you know, to at least make one plate of food, you get a pewter plate, they do this to do that you don't get the point. Yeah, just building a whole repertoire, and not being institutional at it. Because quite frankly, um, you know, there were a lot of places out there that, you know, they were telling little bits of the black story, but they were completely racist. And by racist, what I mean is, they didn't really value the black voice. They didn't think black people were educated enough, or they don't want to hire us to do to tell our own stories. So they were perfectly happy telling our story without us. Which goes back to my comment I made a few minutes ago about how some of the younger generation of African American folks who critique me without knowing exactly what I do need to understand is because the you know, no one had to hire us. And we were hired before to do these jobs. We were silent. And submissive. No, we were only we were we of course, we were the coach, the the you know, drivers, the coach, of course, we were the cooks in the kitchen. But I gotta tell you, those cooks in the kitchen back in the day, in historical sites. You didn't, they didn't say anything more than Hello, goodbye. Thank you in here, there's the bathroom. Because those institutions did not want them telling their stories, black people. Mm hmm. So who was Creek who creates those programs? Is that whoever oversees each site? like where are they getting their information about how the historical interpreter should be acting? Where's that coming from? Um, it's it's a blend, and I'm a contract contractor. So I'm, as an itinerant, I make up my own programs. I do my thing I've been brought in because, you know, I've created a niche arena where I'm like, Okay, this is what I do. This is why I do it. This is what we're doing. Because no one else does it. No one else does this work? No one. It's strange to be in a plan of what seven plus billion people? And who do you know, who do you want to talk to about how, you know, early African Americans from the 17th to the 19th centuries, cooked and ate and how they lived? And it's me and a couple other people. And I'm probably the only one who does it full time. That's crazy. Yeah. But good for being the one to do it. I think that's fantastic. It's, it's, it's hard. Because you know, at one, at some point, you look at yourself and go, Well, how do I pass this on how to create a legacy? You know, we aren't forever and our ancestors weren't forever. So how do we? How do we pass these stories on? How do we, you know, right now, that's a big part of my work in the cooking gene, to give everybody as some of you know, it first started off as a southern discomfort tour. And the southern discomfort tour was about me reclaiming memory, because I was starting to forget some things. And I didn't want to be one of those people who were just like, yeah, I kind of got some ancestry from here, and people who are from here, and I don't know very much about it. You know, people smile, and they shrug it off. And I thought that was not appropriate for me. As a historian. I think if you're a historian, you should know your own history, your own person where you know, where do you sit in history? Where do you sit in terms of our cultural memory in terms of our material culture in terms of raccontare history? We are both about the same age. So for us, you know, to tell you, we were born to the world of TV dinners. We were born into the microwave generation. We were the first generation we were when the microwave was was like, like these little air fryers now. Oh, yeah. Oh, my goodness. Yeah, let's kick rave. Did you have one of those bacon cookers which is like the tray with the slats and you just put bacon on it with a piece of paper over it? and microwave bacon, which is like not good at all. I don't I don't maybe they've made advances since then. But I don't think we've microwave bacon in like 30 years. No, but it was quick. And that we have the little Magic Chef microwave. Oh, yeah, yeah. And I was just thinking the other day, there was that line of frozen dinners that was like hamburgers, fries. And there was like milkshakes. And my friends and I loved them. And you could just like microwave, a hamburger and the French fries. And I was like, Oh, we don't even have to drive out to McDonald's. I mean, I was like, I couldn't drive anywhere. Right? That's exactly it. And of course, we're the frozen pizza generation. So I mean, knowing that now and knowing that the Generation Z has, you know, plays with Legos that are having organic smoothie set. Yeah, that's a that's a, you know, as much as I do love, culinary history of, you know, the early America, the colonial antebellum south, I may be one of these good days, maybe one of the good days, well, I can still enjoy the afterglow of it, is to write about that transition. Because I think people I think I'm forcing people believe like, history is, for your ancestors of you, you are in history, you are living in history, every day that passes and doesn't occur again, which is every day makes us a part of history. And even things we take for granted like our like our sort of, like, ready made cone, a world that we were born into, versus the world that we know, which is growing the food and read becoming reacquainted with the past of the food, but also, you know, being forward thinking about food, taking old foods in new ways and taking food in different directions. You know, the glory of my life was to go to stone barns. And when I was I didn't realize that the porcelain I was eating on was the bones of the cattle. Wow, that's really cool. You know, that kind of stuff. But that's a world that I think you and I never would have thought of when we were little. No, we were younger. I didn't even think of this stuff when I was 20. You know, I went to culinary school, I graduated Johnson Wales in 98. And, like, I just wanted to cook food. And now you know, there's a lot of discussions about food and being political and all this, I didn't even think about that for so long. Like, I just thought you just went to culinary school, you could make whatever, you know, I'm a white guy from New England. And I was like, Oh, I kind of want to go like opening a Cajun restaurant. Like I didn't even know what that meant. I had never been to New Orleans, like, I've never even eaten Cajun food. I just thought you could read some cookbooks and make whatever the hell you wanted. You know, I just felt even at 21, I was very naive. And it's, it's really been an evolution over the past 20 years. You know, I think what you just said is really impactful. And you're the only person who I said, who I've met who has actually just blurted it out and been really honest about it. I thought you could read a cookbook and just do whatever cook, whatever. And I think that really, I mean, that really applies to the way people look at Black food. I think people really believe anything. And it goes to, for what you said had was totally, you know, nonpartisan, non particular, which is like the idea that a cookbook is just a manual. It's not like a plumbing manual. If you know how to, you know, Tinker, you're great. You're fine. You're awesome. It's all good. And I think with a lot of ethnic food ways, I think the problem is, is that the end of the day, it's far deeper than read the manual, you know, my mother used to say, read the Bleep manual. It was just like, no, it's it's its culture, its history, it's a certain vibe. It's the keys to the executive bathroom. It's the it's it's the the code. It's the man having the master code behind all of the the bells and whistles and buttons. And I think that you have to really sort of do this kind of deep dive respectful initiation almost, to be able to really comprehend them apprehend what the hell that means we go into kitchen and cook something. And I think that's what I think people sometimes people get mad on the other side, like, you know, that that's one of the biggest criticisms I get from white people is that, you know, how special kajabi you know, which implies a certain amount of racism, right? Or at least ignorance of just like, No, you there's so many layers and levels that you have to get to, before you can even begin to approach this material in a kitchen. You know, it's challenging because I say like, I don't even really have a food culture and I didn't grow up, like I grew up eating the same timeframe as you Like the food wasn't really special, I grew up outside of Boston, you know, my family's ancestors are from England, you know, I'm not really particularly interested in like English food, I think that kind of stuff is bland, you know, I didn't grow up in a Mexican household or an Italian household, like, we just ate kind of, like 80s casseroles and stuff, you know. So when I went to culinary school, I have these grand visions of like, now I'm taking foods of Asia and foods of France and all this and was exposed to all these cultures and flavors. It's like, that's the food I want to make. But I have no reference point for that, because I didn't grow up eating it. I didn't grow up cooking it. And you know, it's really a challenging time. And now I'm living down in Maryland, which in you know, some people consider the south, right, like, I never thought of it as the South when I was living up in the Boston area. And it's like, what is my food? Now? You know, I have my own personal chef business, what kind of food can I make? Should I make and I still challenge with that? Like, should I be making shrimp and grits, uh, you know, a dish that I never had until, you know, eight years ago, that I have no history with. And so I still even kind of grapple with that because I don't really have this, like food history or culture that I grew up with. So still trying to find like, my voice and my vision, I guess through food. I like you know, and it's for me, it's the same thing. But you know, here's the deal. I think we're kind of in the same boat, but different coins, different sides of the same coin. And I say that because my early struggle to identify with soulfood was not about you know, I connected to some some parts of anti blackness of the guy from society, it's with a person messed up. It was from society, it wasn't for my family. It was from a world where there was no no way no damn, Beyonce wouldn't know what No, you know, a Barack Obama. You know? You know what, no, Kamala Harris. What? No, none of that. You know, we have a hope of Jesse Jackson. We had a we had an ever, ever changing ever molting Michael Jackson. We had a black mare in DC, who, who lost everything, because of an affair and because of his involvement with drugs. I mean, I mean, I mean, you know, and I say that, because I have a lot of love and respect for Marion Barry. Especially, you know, him before that incident, and him when he redeemed himself. But I say I'd say as a black kid growing up in DC, I didn't have the same resources that these folks have now. There was not the same language. And it wasn't I'll say the same relationship to our history. I mean, people people still in the black community are ambivalent about African American vernacular cooking. You know, there's still an ambivalence. And an ambivalence is not just because of, of times moving on, because people people really do believe that anything and everything that has the touch of that part of our southern story and background is poisonous. And it goes from being talking about is it healthy, is it not healthy to that slave food to you know, I don't, I don't want to touch that. That's, that's, that's, that's this, that's, you know, all these connotations that go along with it, that are very negative. And then there are other folks who are just like, you know, think that there is a very set black menu, you know, it's it's all in one bubble. And you know, for example, the infamous Whole Foods, greens with peanuts, and I had to explain to people Hey, guys, um, there's this place called Africa big old caught it with with lots of countries and and most of those countries, leafy greens are paired with peanuts. You know, but then and then you have then you have a whole other issue of diaspora wars, where some of us are just fine. are just fine sitting up here eating jollof rice and your chicken and fried chicken and collard greens and you know, raw, you know, rundown stew in and, you know, chicken and ground, let's do all together, because it's black das bro, we're off in the same places and homes. It doesn't really matter that others have is like, my food. And my culture is better than your culture, I have a culture, you don't have a culture that, uh, those things impact our food journeys. And they certainly for black chefs in particular, the same time period when going to school and getting a certificate and a degree was critical to your success as a chef, was the same time that black chefs in the kitchen started to become decimated, you know, not the folks who went to school with him who would always cook that way. who learned French cooking in the kitchen, who went away from dishwasher to head chef or sous chef. And then it was like, you got to go to school. Okay, so that means the folks who did this almost in a hereditary way. Oh, they were lost. And then the other generation that generation is going into school. That's black. Is this going to culinary school are being taught? Yeah, you could probably do better than that soul food and Southern Cooking can do that. You should do this to prove yourself. And so the French cooking and the Italian, the sushi, you know they got uplifted. At the same time we started to abandon those things. And the same time we were banning those things is the same time that other people are picking them up and going flying with them because there is a Paul Prudhomme because there's a Justin Wilson because there is an LED free, because there are people on PBS and, and other things, the chef stars coming up. And then that led to the Food Network. Right. We have Tyler Florence, we have Alton Brown, who's not really a southern, Southern, but he's one of the Africans himself that way. But you know, Paula Dean, you know, I'm sure you could go into policy and a lot. Yeah. Well, Paul de never, you know, to catch people up, I wrote a letter to Paula Dean in 2012. That went viral. And or was it 2013 2013 sorry, 213 went viral. And um, you know, I invited her to a Mila was making on a historic plantation, North Carolina, that was a fundraiser for historical organization trying to preserve the dwellings our ancestors lived in on that property. And she never showed up. And, and that helped spur on the cooking gene in some ways. Because he really wasn't who I was after that. That was after I had traveled the South in done three big trips, going from, you know, up and down. I mean, across the south, one of the most important summers of my life, Chris, not just because it shaped the book of that, and I didn't really intend to write a book at that point, I was just doing it, to see how far I could go with those journeys. And that and then intent that purpose. But it was important for me, because I had, I had literally dreamed of four years of doing something like that, then since my grandmother was alive, but memory, which meant, you know, 12 and 13 years old. Here, I was almost 40. And I'm you know, I'm making this massive, sort of like Odyssey across the American South with the sole intent purpose of connecting the food to this to the stories of my ancestors, our ancestors, racial justice, innovation, creativity, and working through healing the trauma of American slavery. And it just changed my life forever. In fact, I remember sitting down with the rabbi at Temple, Beth el in Birmingham, which is not very far from the church where the four little girls were, were murdered in 63. And she said to me, do you realize this, your life is gonna change forever because of this. And it was the first time I had to really confront the fact really scary fact, that now that I had met these foods on the road, I was never gonna be the same person again. Mm hmm. That must have been an amazing trip. And so eye opening, right? It was because I didn't, um, it was before, it was kind of like, in a weird spot, politically. You know, we went from being, you know, hey, this is great. Life is awesome. We have a black president, two people really being vicious about it. And I was worried, not scared as in Oh, my God, I'm going to whatever. But I was worried that that would temper my ability to connect with people and really relate and really have an honest, open conversations. And it didn't, it didn't think maybe I was just blessed. And things were, they were, but I mean, just being able to eat a creole tomato. I understand how different that tomato is from a tomato grown anywhere else, because of the nature of the soil of South Louisiana. What it meant to have fresh sorghum, and Tennessee. You know what it meant to, you know, have somebody pull blue crabs out of the bay in Southern Maryland, what it meant to see the real deal country hands hanging up in Virginia, all of these sort of like moments of just, you know, this is what it is that you know, children Pete from Alabama, this is where it is, this is why it's important is why it should smell a certain way and look a certain way. And this is what it means to the people who eat it, though you can't get that from a book. Not at all. And we don't talk enough about terroir, I think, you know, like, people have a garden and they grow a tomato here and Maryland. And they I think a lot of people assume that it tastes the same as it does, you know, down, down south or whatever. Mm hmm. Yeah, No way. No way. It's, it's it's You know, for example, going to New England, and this is, and this is something that we should really emphasize. Most Americans I was I was horrified to find ourselves most Americans in their lifetime, you know, God in their lifetime 1415 states max. Hmm. And that's being generous. I think the real numbers like 12. And I think most people, if they do travel, they will get to New York, they'll get to Florida, they'll get to California, they could Chicago, or Hawaii, those are the top five other places they'll go, for the most part, they'll never know what it means to be in the middle of Georgia, or in Wyoming, or some other place other place, or go to Maine, for example. And even why even while the reason why even bring this up is that I'm just like, oh, so the bottom line here is this. You don't see other places and intimately get to know them and the people and their food and everything about it. How is it that you give to make pronouncements and pronunciations over the general body politic and culture when you don't know your own neighbors and fellow citizens, and some people, and some people travel and they, they'll go to a place like Georgia, but they won't eat a local restaurant, they'll eat an Applebee's. So even if they do travel, they're not getting that local flair. Exactly. They're not getting it. And it's just, it's just a it's a sad example of how we're not really taking advantage of the abundance and diversity that we are blessed to have, by virtue of consequence of being in the United States of America. Now, so you're Jewish, but you weren't born Jewish, you chose to convert? How old were you when you converted to Judaism? I'm in my 20s. Um, to be real with you. This is how I describe it. Now, all the whole picture. So people who don't understand that I have, I have some I have some Jewish ancestry. from Ukraine, I know you always knew this, because we had stories about my family. But it wasn't like Ukraine, or Germany, or just like, you know, we had Jewish ancestors, and not black. But I kind of knew that. But I grew up in a very Jewish area, once we got to Maryland, and I did convert when I was in my early 20s. And I also knew I had this little spark. And then when I, you know, found out later on, oh, yeah, you've got actual biological cousins, from Ukraine, and a lot of them. It was just like, the African ancestry stuff. And we're just like, okay, so these look, these voices are these voices in these flavors, and these foods are calling the the phone calls coming from in the house. You know, it's not, it's not all just an outsider. So to me, it was never really exotic. And right now, I'm working on kosher soul, which is talking about part of that journey. I want to make myself as little as exotic as as little strange and exotic as possible. Because I want people to understand that I've interviewed a lot of people who are black and Jewish, who are born Jewish, who are biracial, who are born of black Jewish families that have been black and Jewish for quite some time, hundreds of years, not centuries, and millennia. And there's some people who can who convert into just like, yeah, converted, no big deal. There's some people who don't talk about it in those terms. There are people who have, you know, blended families where they're not well, they participate in Jewish culture and culinary tradition, but aren't necessarily Jewish themselves. So there's this whole world of blacks involving Judaism and America and beyond that I've incorporated the kosher soul and asking those questions of identity. But one one of the things that really interested me was the to the degree to which that Southern Jews through their neighbors for people black domestics who worked in those households had an entire you know, as, as Marcy Coen, Ferris puts it, matsubara, gumbo cuisine that was less about fusion and more about finding acceptance in a region where they were definitely a minority. And I know people tend to think of the south as being Oh my god, the last place Jews would emigrate to and be a part of, but that's actually not true. Charleston and Savannah, in the colonial period had more Jews in New York and Philadelphia, New Orleans, a close third in the early 19th century. And beyond that history, there were Jews scattered throughout the deep south. And they set up communities those communities, created a co cuisine that was a bridge between Jewish cuisines and the old world and southern particularly black Based cuisines of the American South. And I thought that everybody did that. And it turns out that they're, that for a lot of African American Jews in the, in the northeast or Midwest or west coast, that's really, they tend to keep the two cuisine separate. They make appearances at, you know, so for example, you might have a chicken Gumbo and Orthodox black family in Los Angeles, you know, with roots in Louisiana places. But that's not like my like, you know, fusion, not fusion, but the best of both worlds Venn diagram, Afro, fit cooking. And the people who do this the most are actually white Southerners who convert to Judaism. Interesting. Yes, that's what I found. I was like, Whoa, but, you know, I've also been, you know, the receiving end of many calls over the past 15 years of people going, Hey, Mr. Twitty, I know you're in you do this. And I'm Jewish, and I converted. And I'm white. And I'm Southern. And I really can't let go of my my food. But I don't always have to make a kosher or this or that I wanted to have an idea. And yeah, they communicate that to me that that it's it's so important to them. One thing I want to dispel right now, is that Southern food doesn't require pork. Ladies and gentlemen, one of the biggest questions I get is how can you do Jewish food with your food and southern without the pork? Come on now. And I'm just like, that there was there's no Bible that said, that's a necessity, not at all. And, by the way, the tradition that I come from the offshoot of Southern food that I come from, is born in African tradition that didn't have hardly any pork for 70,000 years. So I mean, shrug. There are these things called smoked turkey necks, wings, backbones, and everything else. And beef can be smoked lamb bacon and duck bacon. You know what I'm saying? You can do a lot with that smoked turkey. You can do a lot with that. And I mean, there's so many, I think people forget that the the most important part isn't pork or pork fat even. It's the smoky flavor. And you know, that little bit of a little bit of grease in the water. That's the most important part. It's not that you ate pork. Yeah. It's really interesting to me, my sister in law lives in Charleston, but she converted to Judaism at the age of like, 38 or something. So she was born and raised in DC here with my, my wife, raised Southern Baptists, like my in laws live with me. And they're pretty religious, like their church goers. You know, like, I think my mother in law would go to church seven days a week if she could. And just it seemingly like out of the blue, she's very, you know, someone who always like to read and study history and stuff and just came out as, like, at 38 that she just thought Judaism was her religion that she fit best with. And it's converted. So yeah, she lives down in Charleston, and practices down there. So we've had some really interesting conversations. There's deities in the faith is God, there's the Jewish people, you know, and that's why the food is so important. The religious dietary laws and then there's, there's also, you know, the food that becomes part of the Diaspora and it's moving, it's, you know, it's journeys. And that's why the Jewish food is not just, you know, you can be Jewish and faithful to your food and not the religion. And it's very hard for people to understand. Yeah, I actually have run to kosher kitchens and my life, I went into it with no experience, and I just needed a job. And I end up working in retirement communities, one in Seattle and one outside Philadelphia, but they were fully on, you know, three kitchen, three kitchens, meat, dairy parve, you know, I worked at a place we had like, 750 people living there, and it was just like, man, it was, it was a lot to take in. But it was really cool. And I enjoyed that. And at the time, I was a vegetarian. So I loved it, because I knew, at least you know, on dairy meals, or you know, anything that came out of the park kitchen was going to be okay for me to eat. So, yeah, that was it was a whole learning experience. Yeah, I worked at a retirement community in Seattle. Kenny G's grandmother lived there. You know, yeah, I would sit I would go to her apartment or we'd sit on the balcony eating Krispy Kreme Doughnuts like overlooking the water in Seattle and tell stories. So yeah, I've met some really cool people in my time. So you had your website Afro culinaria. And just I wanted to go back really quick and look through it before we talked and I realized I don't even know if you know this. Your first post was on January 12 2011, which is exactly 10 years ago today. So happy I didn't even know that we didn't. We didn't plan that but I was just that's how I first encountered your work was through there, and I was looking, I was thinking, wow, how long has that been? I'm like, oh, we're gonna do the podcast and it's gonna be exactly 10 years. So Happy anniversary. Thank you so much. I didn't even realize wow, happy birthday to me. Yeah, time flies, right? What? Uh, what? Uh, yeah. Cuz like, I think it's once you get that once you start working on the book, or books, plural, the what I do, which is not so much like, you know, recipe based. I can't ever it's it starts to change. You know where your focus is? Uh huh. Because you don't get money from blog. Oh, no, I've been doing it. I think like 12 years now and no money at all. You get money from being cooking gigs and speaking and writing but not. So I hate to I hate to say that. But now that you've now chief told me I have to do some kind of anniversary thing. Wow. And not just not to throw another thing on your to do list today. But yeah, but I guess I guess it's fun. Because that get you know it I think people understand with food, I often get the question. Are you a chef? You ever chef? Do you have a restaurant? And people can only understand me in terms of catering restaurants and cookbooks. And I'm like, No, some of us need to be nutritionists. And some of us need to be personal chefs. And some of us need to need to be in hotels, or retirement communities, or cultural and community centers. And some of us run restaurants. And some of us write cookbooks. And just getting people to understand that, you know, if I if I was running a restaurant, I sure as hell wouldn't be talking to them. Because it's so much work. They don't get it. You know what I'm saying? They don't get that, that restaurant life, love the amount of privilege, you would have to have to be able to both have the restaurant and then dream up fantastic recipes and flavor combinations, and whisk them away, and then have time to converse with the entire world. That's why this is Chefs Without Restaurants. But you know, I've I've talked about like, even dealing with what I perceived, and maybe it's all in my head. But like the disappointment when people found out I didn't work in restaurants, like they would say, what do you do? I'm a chef. And they get all excited and say, where I'd say like, I work for Sodexo, which is a contract food service company in a retirement community. And they just kind of look at you like, I thought you were cool, you know? And it's like, No, no, like, you know, and it took a long time, a long time for me to come to terms with being comfortable with who I am, professionally and how I self identify. But there's so many more of us. I think if you looked at all the people in all aspects of food and beverage, there's more of us than restaurant cooks and chefs maybe, especially right now, especially right now, there's so many so many even restaurant chefs are now Chefs Without Restaurants. Unfortunately, we aren't we I mean, think about this, those of us who do food work outside of a brick and mortar. You know, and I've said 1000 million times that, for a lot of us chefs of color being without a brick and mortar is because of a lot of things that come from systemic racism. Mm hmm. But I mean, if you just take that out by itself, you know, we're the barbecue man. On the side of the road, were the people who do like the the pop up dinner in the middle of a field at a southern farm with picnic tables. You know, we've been able to use these these survival methods passed down from the past generations to be able to weather this pandemic and in its financial aftermath. In ways other people aren't. And I mean, as long as chefs and restaurants depend on a certain amount of cachet based on the history, the food, the culture, the people. I'm not going out of business no time soon. Mm hmm. Because there are other things. I mean, your grandma needs to eat. So therefore there needs to be somebody who is a competent chef with the nutritionist background is going to be able to be there for her. And by the way, people, everybody can't cook. So people do need personal chefs, and culinary systems to get them through that. And by the way, we have cultural and societal ills it can only be healed through through mutual awareness. and cultural literacy. That's where I come in. On top of just being Agrio or in West Africa. That's that's the the French gloss the word for storyteller for generations that have been cut off. I mean, that's why I did what I did. And it's why I do what I do is because I want to tell stories about people like myself who are outliers, but also, you know, massive amounts of people whose story was never taught to people in school. You know, if people understood the story of just, you know, the things that took But the cooking gene they would understand black history from a far different perspective and excuse me American history from Verdun perspective than what they got growing up. I didn't get any you know, in New England, you learn more about the Revolutionary War than the Civil War, like I'm sure I learned somewhat about the Civil War, but I didn't really know much about that much about the South. We had one African American, maybe two in my graduating class at my high school of like, 250 kids, like, I just didn't, I didn't grow up have any having any black friends or experience with like, black culture or any of that. And it was a good long time before I even encountered that. Yeah, I mean, I don't, I didn't even think about that till I met a group of kids that I was doing a program for high school kids from Alaska, I didn't realize that. First of all, being on the East Coast is being on the East Coast, you have access to a lot, particularly if you live in the DMV, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War. All of that is right there. You know, if you don't realize that somebody in Massachusetts has a much less, you know, visceral understanding of Antietam or Manassas. You know, then then you do all that for them Bunker Hill and you know, Boston calm and all these other and the harbor where the tea was thrown in, is right there. Yes. It's something that you go you go Hmm. So my one time from a place called Marlborough, Massachusetts, and we have this thing called the john brown bell in Marlboro. And I can say without a doubt, nobody really cares about this thing. Okay. It's really sad because now I live by Harpers Ferry. When you go to Harpers Ferry, there's a building there, and it has the old firehouse or whatever it is, and the bell is missing. The troops that came down from walbro were actually told that they could keep whatever they found when they came down here when they fought and they took the bell, the bell that john brown rang in Harpers Ferry, and it was dragged back from Harpers Ferry up to Marlborough, Massachusetts, where it still lays I'm have the feeling that this is something that needs to come back down here to the south. It's a missing piece. But it's been this battle for a number of years. I didn't even know that until I moved down here. I mean, like 10 years ago, yeah, they, they wanted it for the front of their fire truck and mall, bro. So these guys came down here to fight. And we're told Yeah, you know, like spoils of war, whatever you find, you can bring, and they brought the bell back. And I guess it went on a fire truck in Marlborough for a number of years, like way back when and now it's in this tower that's guarded with like security alarms and everything, because I think people have tried to steal it. But they are still standing their ground that this is something that they rightfully deserve or earned, or whatever that is. And I just think it's so sad because I go to Harpers Ferry all the time with my kids. And every time I look up now and see this thing where the bell should have been, I think like, how can I help facilitate getting this back? I don't know if I can if I have that ability, but I just feel like, Man, it's just not right. And I've never heard of this. Oh, wow. Yeah. Incredible. So that's my Massachusetts tie to the south and civil war. That's, that's, you know, that's incredible. Wow, I can't I can't deal. Well, I really want to thank you for coming on the show. I know we're getting towards the end of time. And I just wanted to say how much of a pleasure it's been I've really enjoyed your work. I've you know, read the the blog and the book. And yeah, I hope you enjoyed coming on talking with me. Oh, this is fantastic. Now we were kind of over it. We're kind of overdue for a big discussion. And, you know, you know, hopefully, once the, you know, the Rona. We can we can have we can have a face to face and cook together like that. Yeah, it's uh, the road has been a weird time. But I'm, I'm optimistic that we're maybe starting to wind down my wife goes to get her second vaccination shot in a week. But I think we still have a long ways to go. Oh, very cool. Very cool. Very cool. You know, we're, we have a long way to go. But I'm glad that something is happening. Good. And I still haven't gotten mine yet. And I can't wait to because I really just want this to be over. All right. All right.

Chris Spear:

Well, to all our listeners. Thanks so much. This has been the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. As always, you can find us at Chefs Without restaurants.com and.org and on all social media platforms. Thanks so much, and have a great week. Thank you. Thanks for listening to the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. And if you're interested in being a guest on the show, or sponsoring the show, please let us know. We can be reached at ChefsWithoutrestaurants@gmail.com Thanks so much.