Historian explores slaves' food traditions

2013-01-30T00:00:00Z Historian explores slaves' food traditionsAndrea Weigl The (raleigh, N.c.) News & Observer Arizona Daily Star

Culinary historian Michael Twitty is like an archaeologist piecing together the foods African slaves brought to this country and the imprint they left on American food traditions.

Twitty recently took a tour of the South to highlight slaves' culinary heritage.

Twitty's interest in food and his family's food customs started early. As he said, "I asked my grandparents a lot of questions."

But his work as a food historian began in earnest when he published a small book in 2006 - "Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders 1634-1864."

Twitty explained he figured out the slaves' food traditions with a "triple-deck of information" - knowing what they cooked and ate in west and central Africa, how they gardened and fished here, and how they cooked over open fires and with rustic tools.

Twitty eventually started a blog called afrofoodways.com and in 2010, he launched the afroculinaria.com website, which explores the food traditions of Africa, African-Americans and the African diaspora.

Then last year Twitty decided to travel throughout the South, including to places in North Carolina where his enslaved ancestors had lived. His "Southern Discomfort" tour went from his home in Maryland to New Orleans and then from his home to near Columbia, S.C. He documented his travels at thecookinggene.com online.

He had an eerie experience in a South Carolina supermarket, south of Charlotte. "I remember walking into a grocery store - I felt like I was related to everybody in that store. I could hear people calling out names on the loudspeaker that were in the (nearby) graveyard and in my family tree," Twitty said.

One of his favorite moments came during a demonstration at Somerset Place, a historic site about 80 miles east of Greenville.

Twitty talked to an 80-year-old woman whose relatives had been slaves there.

"She gave me an earful about how people raised things, what was catching in the canals, who did the catching, how did they do it," he said.

In pursuit of culinary history, little has changed for Twitty. He's still asking a lot of questions.

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