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At first glance, the interiors of cities like Washington and Baltimore don’t seem like fertile ground for farming. But ambitious urban farmers are growing food deep inside the city limits and selling their fresh produce to local markets and restaurants. We explore the art of urban farming and the foods that go back generations in some African American communities.
- Michael Twitty Culinary Historian, Writer (Washington, D.C.)
- Denzel Mitchell Founder and Farm Manager, Five Seeds Farm and Apiary (Baltimore, Md.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world, it's Food Wednesday. Concrete, cognac bottles and condoms aren't the images that one typically associates with fertile farm land.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut enterprising farmers in the middle of big cities across the United States including Washington and Baltimore are proving that you cannot only grow good food right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a city but that you can even connect everyone from local restaurants to market shoppers with local, delicious ingredients and pieces of culture and history from communities that have faded in the era of chain grocers and big box stores.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the challenges of farming in urban areas and the pieces of our culture that are tied to where and how we get our food is Michael Twitty. He is a culinary historian who also writes about African and African American foods. He keeps a blog afroculinaria.com and writes at "The Cooking Gene." He tweets with the handle @koshersoul. Michael Twitty, it is a pleasure and an honor to meet you.
MR. MICHAEL TWITTYWell, likewise sir.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us. Denzel Mitchell is the founder and farm manager of Five Seeds Farm and Apiary in Baltimore, Md. Denzel visited with us once before but he didn't actually come on the air. So it is my pleasure to welcome you to the airwaves this time around, Denzel.
MR. DENZEL MITCHELLIt's good to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you grow your own food in a garden or are you a member of a community supported agricultural association? What do you most enjoy growing in the Washington or Baltimore areas? 800-433-8850, you can also send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIMichael, before we get into talking about the art of farming, let's talk about our relationship with food for a minute. You grew up in the Washington area and you essentially say that the food we eat and the food we grow is part of who we are so long as we understand it.
NNAMDIWhich for you is a past that stretched back to the food your grandfather grew in South Carolina. At what point, growing up, did you develop this fascination with learning about how the food we eat and grew defined who you were?
TWITTYWell, I think it's important to talk about this story in layers. My grandparents were all migrants. Virginia, Alabama by way of the Midwest and South Carolina. And I think a lot of people in the Washington area can tell that story. We come from these rural heritages, we're either African American, inside the Caribbean rural or West African in semi-rural.
TWITTYAnd we have this kind of like relationship to growing and the land that's impenetrable. When we lived on Kennedy Street Northeast, I remember my grandmother always had a garden and then my Virginia grandmother over in Brooklyn always had a garden. And they always had the things that they really liked.
TWITTYThere was simlin squash, which you call patty pan squash. There was always hot peppers, there's always mint. And there was always basil by the front door. Do you know what that is?
TWITTYBasil by the front door.
NNAMDIBasil by the front door.
TWITTYYes, was a matter of protecting the house. It was a kind of ritual which...
NNAMDII see. There's basil at my front door but I didn't realize that was...
TWITTYSee, ritual protection. So, you know, you grew up with this stuff by also like, you know, it's funny that I talk to my grandfather now and I'll say things like, well you know, I'm planting cotton this year. And he'll joke with me and say, how many acres you got?
TWITTYAnd of course, I don't have any acres but that's a real part of where I come from is just the idea that as the grandchild of southern migrants, just keeping those traditions going, the idea that you, you couldn't buy certain things from the store so you had to grow them yourself.
NNAMDIWhat kind of food did your grandfather grow in South Carolina?
TWITTYLord have mercy, everything. Well, still, he's still there. He moved back after it was okay to live and be alive in the state of South Carolina, he moved back. But, you know, I was recently, I did a couple of trips there for some genealogical research last summer and I was actually able to stand with my grandfather in front of the cotton gin he took his cotton to.
TWITTYIt was a matter of great pride for him because we went to inauguration together and he looked at me and you can, you know, he did this cane wobble over to the cotton gin and showed me where everything was. And he said, you know, I took my cotton here so you go over there and deal. But there were sweet potatoes and, you know, sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes more than anything else.
TWITTYAnd then there was always sorghum cane and sorghum is one of the products that we actually contributed to the American diet from West Africa. The, you know, persimmons and black walnut and pecan trees, you know. All these things that, you know, are endemic. Everybody has okra there, everybody has red pepper, everybody has peanuts.
TWITTYEverybody has all these, and of course, watermelon which I never loved to eat. My grandfather could a watermelon the size of your studio but, you know, it's just a matter of pride and I think the biggest issue here is self sufficiency. I think for other people it's an issue of being green, sustainable and healthy.
TWITTYI think for people who are African American, Caribbean, West African, I think the idea has always been we're proud because we fed ourselves, we fed ourselves.
NNAMDIAnd in your case, Denzel, east Washington is a long way away from where you grew up in Oklahoma, east Baltimore that is, where growing food in Oklahoma was a big part of your family's identity. How would you describe the relationship you had to food when you were growing up, both with what you ate and what you grew?
MITCHELLRight. You know, I can definitely relate with what Michael is saying. As my relationship with food started very young also, my parents grew their own food. My aunts, all grandparents, everywhere we went, you know, we couldn't ever get away from the garden and that's what was happening on Saturday mornings, no matter whose house you were at.
MITCHELLYou're waking up, picking squash bugs off the squash plants or picking potato beetles off the potatoes and as a child I thought I hated that but I really enjoyed the food. I really enjoyed sitting at my grandmother's feet and cooking with her, being in the kitchen with her and my connection to commercial agriculture, growing food for sale, started with being in the kitchen and wanting to cook and wanting to make that connection between the food that we're eating at the table and where it came from.
NNAMDII read an interview that, actually it was an interview gave to Michael, where you said that your paternal grandparents used to keep a huge garden and that they'd said that anyone can come here and eat. They loved feeding people from what they grew. How does that shape and influence what you do today?
MITCHELLWe had the same rule in our house and it wasn't that anybody could come into the garden. They could come into the house all day, any time of day, the door was wide open and my grandmother said anybody come in off the street, they can come and eat.
MITCHELLAnd we carry the same rule today and so that, you know, that was a major motivator for what I'm doing. You know, I saw this lot and there needed to be something on it that everybody could have access to.
NNAMDIWe'll talk a little bit more about that because it's "Food Wednesday" and we're talking with Denzel Mitchell, founder and farm manager of Five Seeds Farm and Apiary in Baltimore, Md. And Michael Twitty, he's a culinary historian. He also writes about African and African American food ways. Michael keeps a blog afroculinaria.com and writes at "The Cooking Gene." He tweets with the handle of @koshersoul. Kate, in Washington D.C. wants to join this conversation. Kate, you're on the air, go ahead please.
KATEHi, Kojo, thanks for hosting this show today. My name's Kate and I'm the owner of a local company, Capital City Farm Company, and we build vegetable gardens for homeowners and schools and other clients, then teach our clients about how to grow their own food.
KATEAnd what I like so much about the work I do in urban agricultural community here in Washington is the collaboration that I see. No one is, you know, fighting each other for businesses or resources. Instead all the organizations, businesses I know, are sharing resources, sharing information and helping each other to build the movement as a whole. And I'm encouraged by what I see in a city that's normally known for being kind of dog eat dog.
NNAMDIWell, you know it's funny that you mention that because when we had a conversation with people who are involved in high tech startups in the Washington a few weeks, they said the same thing, that there is a culture of cooperation here among people who are involved in startups. That is in complete contrast to the general image of the partisan divide that Washington is known for. So we are glad that in these areas Washington is showing a different side of the world.
NNAMDIKate, thank you so much for your call. 800-433-8850, you can call too. What pieces of our culture do you think fall by the wayside when we lose our connection to the foods we can grow and harvest around us? 800-433-8850. Michael, you say you learned to cook from your mom. What were the biggest things that she taught you?
TWITTYLet me specify something. I learned to cook from everybody in my family, the men folk too. Of course, the men folk were the barbeque and the meat people.
TWITTYYes, that's the way it falls down the road. Now, we did have a break in tradition when my uncle became the head baker. But ultimately, and I hope my mom is listening because I need to talk well about her because otherwise I'll get a whooping.
TWITTYThose cast iron skillets are made for eternity for a reason. You know, when I was growing up my mother was very militaristic in the kitchen and I think that's because she expected a certain level of quality. And I didn't grow up with just, you know, traditional soul food. And I might mention that everybody's soul food is different.
TWITTYOklahoma soul food isn't the same thing as South Carolina soul food. There are, you know, I grew up with a mixture of foods and dishes that my family picked up from being in such a cosmopolitan, diverse area as Washington and I'm very happy about that. I grew up with samosas as well as cornbread. I grew up with collard greens and I grew up with, you know, kale and rape greens and Ethiopian food etc.
TWITTYSo that's how, you know, I kind of got into the mix. And I want to piggyback on what my friend from Capital City Farm Company said because we all know each other from a network, I don't want to jump the gun, called Rooting D.C.
TWITTYWhich is grown, I mean, Rooting D.C. was a handful people and then the more people have started to take responsibility for their food supply and take, you know, take hold of the reins of food sovereignty, that program has now grown to several thousand people showing up on a Saturday morning, a full Saturday of classes and workshops and it's really amazing how many people especially people who are under, let's give a ballpark number of 40, 45 showing up to really get involved and do things and change neighborhoods and I think that's something to really proud of.
MITCHELLAs a matter of fact, that was the very first farming conference I ever went, was Rooting D.C. It was the very first year, it was when we lived in D.C. and that was my first introduction to commercial growing. And on the Sunday after the first Rooting D.C. conference they had a SPIN farming conference, which is Small Plot Intensive Farming.
NNAMDIWell, Denzel let's dig into the urban part of farming now. Five Seeds Farm grows food smack dab in the middle of Charm City, Baltimore. You started the whole operation on a vacant parcel of land that you said was a trash magnet but had good sunlight. Why did you start growing food there and how did the city react when you turned the vacant lot into, well, a farm?
MITCHELLI started growing there because the land was there. it was right across the street, and nothing was happening with it. You know, the city would come out and mow it twice, maybe three times a year. And it was an eyesore. And the neighborhood vocally wanted something to happen with it. And so I worked with the neighborhood association to work with the city to get an adopt-a-lot agreement which is essentially an annual right of entry or -- and right of usage agreement. And we started growing food on it.
MITCHELLAnd it started as our own homesteading project to link back to how I was raised and to teach my children that -- how to can your own food, how to preserve your own food. Going back to what Michael was saying about self sufficiency, I really wanted to instill that in my children, cut down on the grocery bills because we had a growing family and are continuing to grow. And more souls were showing up year after year. And, you know, I didn't think the city knew that we were growing food. And I didn't think they knew that we were selling it.
MITCHELLIt turns out a couple years later that they did and they were open to it. And they opened up land in the city shortly thereafter to allow other people to farm. And so Baltimore City opened up land and put out requests for qualifications for more people who were qualified farmers. And I was by no means a qualified farmer. I'm still learning. I'm still a baby. But they opened up the opportunity for other people to take on vacant land and start farming. And so Baltimore's been extremely progressive in that sense.
MITCHELLSo I thought I was off the radar and nobody knew about it, you know, because I was breaking the law, you know, selling onions off a vacant lot to restaurants. And -- but when the city found out about it, they were -- they seemed to be pleased.
NNAMDIWell, here's a number of the questions we got, because it's not like the soil you started digging into was pristine. We got from Peggy in Washington, D.C., "How can people be sure that the urban land they're using is free of chemicals and other toxins?" We got this from Hillary, "How are these two urban soil contaminants addressed, lead from paint, et cetera, diseased spores from raccoon and rat fecal matter." And Andre in Silver Spring, "Could you ask your guests whether air quality is of concern to crop growers in D.C. and Baltimore?"
MITCHELLOkay. All right. Those are all great questions and those are questions that often are asked of urban agriculturists. So the first thing -- and this is with any farming operation -- the first thing you always do is get the soil tested. And probably the biggest concern -- obviously the biggest concern with city farming is what's the history of that land. I was extremely fortunate in that the land that I started farming on had never had a house on it. It was meant to be developed. It was -- it had been privately owned. The owner developed a lot of land in the neighborhood that we were in, but he never got to that section.
MITCHELLAnd so I got -- I had gotten pictures from some of the older residents in the neighborhood from 50 and 70 years ago, that it was a park and it's always been a park. It was just a pocket park, a neighborhood park. But we tested the soil. We tested the soil from three different universities testing for every manner of contaminant, obviously lead being the most important one. And as well as the nutrient makeup of that land, was it organic matter? You know, what are the nutrients? Because if you're going to farm, that's information that you need in any sense. And everything came back clean and we started working.
MITCHELLIn terms of, you know, animal contamination, I mean, animals are everywhere in a rural setting -- in a city setting. And, you know, there are practices to deter animals. But the biggest practice, especially for urban animals -- you know, rats and raccoons are lazy. And, you know, when people have issues with their garden in the city it oftentimes is because they have major weed issues, which means they're not weeding, they're not cultivating or they're not getting on top of their produce when it's ripe. And so tomatoes are dropping to the ground. Tomatoes drop to the ground, they smell good, you know, and then a raccoon is going to go after them.
TWITTYWe have to worry about pets too.
NNAMDIAnd we have to worry about pets also.
TWITTYThat's probably even more of an issue than the four food groups of rabbits, raccoons, squirrels and possums, you know. You know, there's asbestos, there's lead paint. And I think these issues are particularly interesting because you have so many people from Detroit, Bronx, Raleigh. I mean, we were -- last summer when we were going through the Deep South...
NNAMDIWe're going to talk about that in a little but go ahead.
TWITTYYeah, one thing I noticed was everybody who did an urban farming project that involved neighborhoods with people of color had the same exact issue. And in some cases you can't even use the land. So what they do is -- it's always raise beds.
MITCHELLYeah, you raise the bed.
TWITTYThat's -- I mean, it was astounding how many times you had to basically have a raised bed because you couldn't plant in the soil.
MITCHELLRight, right, exactly. And that's another way to get around it too. You can put a barrier cloth down over the soil. And there's farms in New York that do this, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, and you put your growing medium on top of the barrier cloth. And so you're growing in what you know is clean growing medium.
NNAMDIMichael, you mentioned people of color growing in urban areas. We got this email from Fay in D.C., "Why are African-Americans left out of the urban garden movement in D.C. where there are serious food deserts?"
TWITTYSo not this year but last year in D.C. I did a talk about this. And this became a really hot button issue. And I anticipated this being an issue today because I'm not -- I'm proud to have a friend like Denzel but I'm going to tell you that he is of a new and growing breed as opposed to an established lot. It is unique to have an African-American -- a young African-American man...
MITCHELLAm I still young?
TWITTYYes, you still young. We in the same bracket. As long as I'm young, you young, brother. So I'm holding onto you for dear life, but the point is, is the fact that you have a young African-American man who has passed this onto his children. And, you know, one thing I'll never forget he told me the first time I met him was, you know something? I'm doing this because I want my children to know that daddy isn't crazy.
TWITTYAnd I love that because it was humorous, but it was -- hit to the heart of the matter is a lot of us -- first it's communal problem because a lot of us escaped rural life, not because we hated rural life, because it was socially and economically oppressive. But attach that in our minds was the drudgery of having to -- but, you know, the reality was if we didn't have the social and economic pressures it'd be great to have that lifestyle again.
TWITTYBut the quick and dirty answer is, is that I do feel -- well, I don't just feel, I know that at that particular workshop a lot -- it was a tension between black folks and white folks because you had a much newer white resident clientele and an older established black clientele both arguing over who has the right to teach my kid about fresh vegetables? See that's almost like missionary work, you know. I'm going to teach you how to live the right way. Wait a minute. But I've always had this in my culture. What are you -- who are you teaching? Who do you think you're talking to?
TWITTYAnd then you have other people saying, wait a minute, but you know that our kids are buying...
TWITTY...chips and soda at the store and they're not eating vegetables. So at what point is this an issue of ownership? At what point is this your communal responsibility? And how do we establish the kind of boundaries in communication that make intergenerational, interethnic cooperation on this issue possible and sustainable? I mean, that's an ongoing conversation. But the bottom line is, African-Americans, people of color in general should not be afraid to get their hands in the dirt because that dirt is where we come from. And that dirt is where we're going to go back to.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation at the intersection of which you will find both Denzel Mitchell and Michael Twitty directing traffic, come in this direction they are saying...
NNAMDI...towards growing our own food. If you'd like to join the conversation, and a lot of you clearly would, so the lines are filling up very fast. You might want to shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you find are the most challenging aspects of growing food in urban areas like Washington? What foods have you had the most success growing in recent years? You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow or simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday. We're talking about urban farming with Michael Twitty. He's a culinary historian. He also writes about African and African-American food ways. He keeps a blog at afroculinaria.com and writes at the Cooking Gene. He Tweets with the handle of @kosher soul. Also in studio with us is Denzel Mitchell. He's the founder and farm manager of Five Seeds Farm and Apiary in Baltimore, Md.
NNAMDIDenzel, now that you're full up and running, what are you growing every day at Five Seeds and how does that square with what you envisioned for what you could grow in Baltimore when you started?
MITCHELLRight. So it's probably -- I always tell people when they ask me that, it's probably a better question to ask me what I'm not growing.
NNAMDIWhat are you not growing?
MITCHELLWhat am I not growing? Sweet corn and watermelons. I leave that to the eastern shore. We don't have the soil.
NNAMDIJust about everything else you grow.
MITCHELLBut just about everything else. We grow a lot of leafy greens. I started putting in a lot of fruit trees at the original site in the city, and realized that that probably wasn't a good use of space in the city. But we got some really nice peaches and figs. I think I shared some of those with Michael last year. We have persimmons, pomegranates, plums, peaches. We inoculate mushrooms so we have shitakes. We grow tomatoes. We grow peppers. And as a matter of fact, a lot of -- one of my major influences around growing...
NNAMDIHold that thought right there because I think we're getting to one of those major influences right now by way of this phone call...
NNAMDI...from Ryan in Bethesda, Md. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi. I had watched a program on Sunday and I was wondering if it was your guests who was featured with this chef that specifically and exclusively buys a lot of his vegetables from this vacant lot in Baltimore.
RYANAnd he had -- was that the program where he had gotten some fig leaves as well as you all farming the occasional condom and used a pint bottle from back in the day?
NNAMDIWe'll get even more specific, Ryan. Hold the line for a second so we can get to Sam in Washington, D.C. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMThanks, Kojo. I'm a big fan of yours and I'm a big fan of my friends Michael and Denzel. So my name's Sam Hiersteiner and I am on the board of a organization in Washington, D.C. called City Blossoms which helps -- does some of the stuff that we're talking about here today. It helps kids attach to their communities and to gardening in open urban spaces and in schools. And one of the things that we've always said is that storytelling is really important in those settings.
SAMAnd one great story that I know both these guys can tell is about the fish pepper.
NNAMDIListen up, Ryan. Go ahead, Sam.
SAMI always loved hearing both of them talk about the fish pepper and its history in this area. So I'll take my answer offline.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Ryan, I'm going to put you back on the air because the chef you were referring to was Spike Gjerde. When he was on this show last, Michael was actually outside the studio. But tell the story that Sam wanted you to tell about Spike Gjerde and the fish pepper.
MITCHELLOh wow. So actually the story starts with Twitty.
NNAMDII was going to get back to him.
MITCHELLSo a very close friend of mine, as a birthday gift, handed me this little pamphlet, this little book, this hand-bound book called "Fighting Old (word?)." And I devoured it because I didn't know anything about Maryland food. I didn't know anything about Chesapeake Bay other than the environmental aspect, the watershed. But this idea that there was a Chesapeake Bay culinary history just completely blew my mind. And then for it to be rooted within an African-American tradition was incredible.
MITCHELLSo I fell in love with this pepper that this little pamphlet talked about called fish peppers. And at the same time I was sharpening my chops as a farmer and I was talking to other farmers. And I said, you know, I really want to sell to restaurants. What are some things I should grow? Talking to an experienced farmer, which is the best resource for a farmer, he said, well I'm going to tell you to grow two things, fish peppers...and I was like, I think I heard of those. I remember that.
MITCHELL...and a little small cherry tomato called Matt's Wild Cherry. Familiar with those. And so I started growing these peppers. And he said, when you have them I'll introduce you to the person that I want to introduce you to. And so he introduces me to Spike...
MITCHELL...Spike Gjerde. And I'm talking to Spike and I said, yeah...
NNAMDISpike Gjerde of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen.
MITCHELLYeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, right. Don't forget that. And I say, nice to meet you. I'm a big fan of yours and I have something that you might be interested in. And he's like, what is it? And I said, fish peppers. And I've never seen a grown man so excited in my life, yelling, rolling on the floor. He said, we're coming out to your place tomorrow. Now I had this huge -- you know, I had this idea that this major superstar chef is not going to have any time for me. He went to my little quarter acre spot in northeast Baltimore City the very next day. We spent three hours together. He was taking pictures with his iPhone looking at these beautiful plants and has been a match made in heaven ever since.
NNAMDIWell, what did he say to you about how much he wanted?
MITCHELLWell, so it was kind of interesting. So he said, is this all you got? And I said, yeah, yeah, this is it. He said, okay. Well, I'll take all of it. And I said...
NNAMDISo you kept talking a little more.
MITCHELL...we kept talking a little bit more. And then as we talked I was like, well how much are you looking for? He said, I need probably about 2,000 pounds a year.
NNAMDIHe said I'll take all...
NNAMDIThat's when you started yelling and screaming.
MITCHELLThat's when I started yelling and screaming and I said, you know, I need to find some more land to grow on.
NNAMDIMichael Twitty, we've talked to Chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen a few times in the past. He is an evangelist for the kinds of food people can grow in this region, some of which he says people have forgotten about completely. He told us he learned about a lot of that history from reading the work of you, Michael Twitty. How do you go about digging into and digging up the history of things like fish peppers, food people used to grow here throughout the region and in African-American communities in particular?
TWITTYWell, one of the first times I met this pepper it was -- you know, I was at a local historical farm and they were selling plants. And they labeled it a Thai fish pepper. And you understand, this is, you know, a variegated cream and green kind of plant and fruit. It's not just the leaves, it's the fruit too. And it goes through like six or seven color changes and then it just -- you know, it's this vermillion red and it's hot. It's like a little hotter than a Serrano pepper.
TWITTYAnd I got to tell you, being the nice Jewish boy I am, I looked at the pepper and I said, that's funny, you don't look Thai. And I said, you know, there's something about this. And then I just kept growing it and it would look so pretty and it tasted good. And then I did my homework and I started reading William (word?) and other people and I found out it's from us. It's not from Thailand, it's from us.
TWITTYAnd then we started talking a little bit more and I said, this pepper is one of the peppers they called in colonial times negro pepper, okay. And that was a very common term below the Mason Dixon Line and the West Indies for a whole family of hot peppers that enslaved Africans grew. And for me in particular I thought -- I started writing about the Chesapeake because this is actually -- you know, the little country folks, Louisiana people are very passionate about the idea they have the first quote unquote "Creole" cuisine.
TWITTYAnd they don't just mean specifically the Creole culture that we know. What they mean is a native-born cuisine of old and new world influences. But that's actually here, okay, because we're talking about 1607, 1613, 1619 and so forth. So this is a very old and long story we have right here. So I wanted people to know and understand, starting with Maryland -- because no one thinks about Maryland. You know, Maryland was the birthplace of Douglass, Tubman, Aldridge, Benjamin Banneker. There is -- you know, this is an incredible history that's right here.
TWITTYI mean, local is nice, but I'm not one of the crazy folks who goes and says -- everybody wants me to tell them how something from Alexandria is different from something from Montgomery County. And I have to break their heart and tell them that basically up until 1865, it's all the same. These people are marrying each other. They're taking their seeds back and forth across waterways. It's all the same. There's no big different between those two groups of people.
TWITTYBut what's special about it, though, is that this little region -- not little -- it's not little -- this region speaks to global forces. We're talking about the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. We're talking about the mass immigration from Europe. We're talking about the first skirmishes and conflicts between Algonquian confederacies and the British Empire. We have a lot of...
NNAMDIAll coming together in the food.
TWITTYAll coming together through food, and over food and in food, and so there's that thing where we have to look at our history and go, okay, we didn't have grits, but we did have hominy. We didn't have this, but we did have this. Like Spike said, you know, why put Tabasco on my table when there's a fish pepper that speaks to what -- it's what you're supposed to put on your oysters.
MITCHELLThat's what you're supposed to put on your oyster.
TWITTYAnd on your chicken and that -- because that's endemic to where we are.
NNAMDIIt's certainly what I put on it when Spike and Denzel were here the last time. Ryan, thank you very much for your call. You said a couple of quick things that you need to explain, Michael Twitty, you said as a good Jewish boy, and people may think of it as a tongue-in-cheek statement, I knew it as a literal statement. Your African-American heritage is a big part of your journey of self-discovery when it comes to food, but your faith is a big part of it too. You converted to Judaism as a young adult. How did that influence your relationship with food?
TWITTYWell, I think what's interesting is that we've -- as we go through more and more genealogy stuff, and I find out that I'm eight percent eastern European, I think it's in the kishkas, you know, your Yiddish listeners will know what I'm saying. It's in your gut. There's an expression in Yiddish that says (speaks foreign language), literally means I'm Jewish through my stomach. I'm religious through my -- through food, through my plate, and that's how I come to know things.
TWITTYAnd it's -- it's interesting that one of the best blog posts that I've had recently -- well, of all time, was on relationship to Passover, which thank God, because I couldn't take any more Matzo. It's just too much. It's, you know, thank God for collard greens and all that other soul food to the rescue. But the bottom line is that for me, those two identities merge through food. It's not apolitical. I want to make that very clear. Some folks try to make food into this apolitical la da la, you know, kumbaya moment, (unintelligible) kind of thing, but it's really not. Food is always political, especially when you come from an oppressed culture.
NNAMDIYou recently launched a big tour throughout the south to learn more about African-American food ways and your own family tree. What can you tell us about the Cooking Gene Project?
TWITTYVery briefly, the Cooking Gene Project, of which this gentleman next to me is -- was a supporter, and also I want to -- I'm going to rope him in this year, because we didn't get to all of our Chesapeake sites. It's basically, you know, exploring the idea that food history and family history are intimately connected. Obviously, I have to treat it through -- going through one person alone is enough because you have all these lines that go everywhere across the world.
TWITTYBut the idea here is that tracing food from Africa to America, tracing my family from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom, and not just looking at the past, but looking at how contemporary people, you know, I'm trying to connect Denzel this year with people I know in Mobile, in Montgomery, in New Orleans and other places who are also do the same kind of work, and also talking to black chefs. I mean, it really is -- I think what's really nice about the friendship I feel with Spike and Denzel and others, is that there is a real connection between scholarship, research and history, folks who produce and grow in loving care the food, and folks who really care about how it's cooked and how it's served and the esthetics around it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. I knew there wouldn't be enough time for this broadcast with these two gentlemen, but if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls as soon as possible after this break. The lines are busy, so if you'd still like to communicate with us, send us an email to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation on Urban Agriculture. We're talking with Denzel Mitchell, founder and farm manager of Five Seeds Farm and Apiary in Baltimore, Md., and Michael Twitty. He's a culinary historian who also writes about Africa and African-American foodways. He keeps a blog at afroculinaria.com and writes at The Cooking Gene. He tweets with the handle of @koshersoul. And Denzel, you source your foods to markets and to restaurants. I read that you were told tomatoes and the aforementioned fish peppers were the way to develop restaurant relationships in Baltimore. Why those two foods?
MITCHELLWell, I think because Spike has created such a huge market in Baltimore. Fish peppers were a massive opportunity. The tomatoes -- those cherry tomatoes actually didn't work out. They become a weedy mess, and they're still around. But what I did find from my experience working in kitchens, was how to make inroads in other restaurants, and we sell to a lot of restaurants in Baltimore, and we started working with some restaurants here in DC, and that's been really fantastic. But the importance of culinary history has found that many more people are interested in fish peppers, so we're going to continue to grow those.
NNAMDIYou've also expanded your farm business to apiculture, otherwise known as beekeeping. How did you go from growing vegetables to cultivating honey?
MITCHELLWell, you know, it goes hand in hand. We need pollinators on the farm, and I didn't see a lot of pollinators in this city, and so we decided we thought it was a good idea, and I say we meaning myself and my -- at the time eight year old son, that we should start beekeeping. And so I took a short course or beekeeping, and we started with two hives and now we've grown an apiary every since. And the honey business has been really, really good to us.
TWITTYY'all sell out, don't you?
MITCHELLYeah. Within weeks.
NNAMDIThis from Alan. "Can you ask Michael about what's happened to the tradition of arrabers in Baltimore? Does Denzel sell his food to any of them? I visited Baltimore once in the 80s and saw a guy selling watermelons off the back of a horse-drawn wagon. Are there other cities where this happens, or am I crazy to think what I saw was a completely Baltimorean thing?"
TWITTYOh, the arraber tradition is extremely Baltimore related, but, you know, in a lot of cities, there used to be African-American men usually, who would have the horse-drawn carriage, and they would -- wagon, and they would sell watermelons and -- and they were -- and it's not just the food, it's the chant.
TWITTYThey go -- and everybody had a distinct chant.
TWITTYAnd you -- that's how you knew one grower from the next is they had a specific kind of chant, and it was certainly arabbers who would bring around fish peppers, other kind of peppers, and the idea was...
TWITTYAnd oysters and stuff.
TWITTYAnd this was -- and what's interesting is that you go back in history, you'll learn that, you know, anything the government or the law tries to outlaw was done extremely frequently. And as far as African-Americans are concerned, Afro-Marylanders, I don't know if you know this or not, but in -- when the Haitian revolution happened, and people from the island of Haiti came to the new world -- came to North America, and New Orleans and Baltimore were the two big -- because they were the two big Catholic cities.
TWITTYOkay? So they get off the boat, some of them are still enslaved. A lot of them say, you know, forget you, you are no longer legally my owner, I'm done. And they have skills. They can count, they can do math, they have literary skills, and they marry into black American families.
TWITTYThey took over the produce market in antebellum Baltimore for 20 years, shut it down.
TWITTYNo one else could -- and they basically made a spot where enslaved and free because Baltimore became a quickly majority free black city...
TWITTY...where interacting and selling food -- not just selling food, but exchanging details about the world. You see how that works?
TWITTYThat's very important to the development of the community. But the long story short is, the law outlawed blacks from selling oysters, watermelon, other things on occasion, and the idea was to keep them out of competition with white farmers, but also to control how many people congregated in a spot.
TWITTYThat's very important.
TWITTYSo that -- all that history is involved. But as we've come to the age of more like corner stores and big grocery stores, those small time distribution agents have declined.
NNAMDIAs I said, we don't have enough time in this broadcast, because both Denzel and Michael wanted to talk about a lot of things. They also wanted to talk about a lot of people. Fortunately, it would appear, some of those people may be here to speak for themselves. Here is Gail is Washington D.C.
MITCHELLThere she is.
NNAMDIGail, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TWITTYWe were going to talk about you, girl.
GAILWell, here I am talking for myself. How's it going?
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Gail.
GAILHi, thanks. My name is Gail Taylor and I am the owner of Three Part Harmony Farm in Washington D.C. I'm a black farmer in the District, and I'm trying to get the first for-profit farm in this century launched in the District.
NNAMDIGood for you, Gail. How long have you been in business?
GAILWell, last year I launched officially. I worked at a farm in Maryland before that.
NNAMDIWell, great for you. And as we pointed out, you are familiar to both of these gentleman. Have they been of assistance to you?
GAILOf course, yeah. I would just like to say -- and I also work with -- I have a partner who does bees and mushrooms as well. Good Sense Farm and Apiary, and we are launching a co-op this year of farmers of color in the Mid-Atlantic region. The one thing that I would just like to comment on is I'm about two or three years behind Denzel and what's happening in Baltimore, and one of the main problems that I keep running into in the District is land access...
GAIL...because the property values are so high in the city that the taxes on that property are cost prohibitive for growing vegetables. So, for example I'm growing on a two-acre of piece of land in northeast D.C. in Brookland right now...
GAIL...but I'm not allowed to grow any of the produce that I sell. I donated it all last year to a food pantry because the owners can't pay the $50,000 a year in taxes on the property.
NNAMDIIt sounds like you need to be involved in some political activity or to be involved with someone who is involved with political activity. Is that something that you're planning to do, Gail?
GAILYeah. Right now we're drafting legislation that will hopefully...
NNAMDIThere you go.
GAIL...be introduced this year by Kenyan McDuffie's office. That's actually his ward that I'm farming in, and it would provide a tax bracket where urban agriculture would be exempt from taxes.
GAILSo that we would be able to grow produce and then sell it.
MITCHELLAnd we're trying to do the same thing in Baltimore.
NNAMDIGail, thank you very much for your call and good luck to you. Michael, you know, we can't have this conversation about urban agriculture with you without asking what exactly are you growing in your garden, or planning to grow, that you're most excited about this year?
TWITTYWell, this year, my friends -- well, Gail, if you're still listening out there, I wanted to say that I will be getting some of your peanuts this year, because I don't want to do it for myself, because they -- they have really great seed starting classes and, you know, producing plugs. It's a great thing, but also I'll be working with Common Good City Farm, where we did the taping for "Bizarre Foods D.C." And working with them to talk to our young people.
NNAMDIBecause you wrote that seed programs in D.C. that give away seeds like Rooting D.C. still are not packing houses. Why is that?
TWITTYWell, the thing is, is that we -- I think -- Gail brought up a tremendous issue which is it's cost prohibitive. You know, before it was just an issue of you grew things in your own yard, or you grew things in a collective, and you had access to things, and I think the issue is space, access, who owns the land, how much taxes you pay on it. How do you make that lucrative? I mean, for a lot of us, it's not just -- I mean, I have to say this, it's not just a labor of love, it's a labor of feeding our families and making a living, which is important...
TWITTY…which is just totally American in that sense. But...
MITCHELLThe other thing is we don't have the skill set to...
MITCHELL...to create a sustainable business model that encloses the loop.
TWITTYAnd we have to learn that from each other...
TWITTY...and go to classes and workshops. But this year what I'm doing is I'm doing a barbecue garden. Are you ready for this?
TWITTYSo basically -- basically I don't -- I tend not to grow anything in my, you know, my garden is a 12 or 13, I guess, what do you call it, raised bed thing. I used to grow everything together, you know, home -- motherland style, but that got -- that's gotten out of hand, so I decided to scale back from the tradition and go to raised beds for a while. Basically the idea is, I don't grow anything that's not a Chesapeake or southern heirloom.
TWITTYOr a Caribbean heirloom as well. And my bottom line is this year I'm doing everything that goes with traditional barbeque, from the peppers to the tomatoes that go in the sauce to the Portuguese onions to every spice and herb to the cole slaw to the potato salad, a barbecue garden.
NNAMDIA themed garden. A barbecue garden is what Michael Twitty will be working on. We got a tweet from Anne Beaman (ph) who says, "Both your guests mentioned Rooting D.C., but neither mentioned NFI, the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, the 501 (c)(3) that made it happen. Please link neighborhoodfarminitiative.org," and we will provide a link to that on our website, kojoshow.org, to neighborhoodfarminitiative.org. In the meantime, here is Zachary in Washington D.C. Zachary, your turn.
ZACHARYHi, I'm Zachary. My best friend Gail just called in.
ZACHARYHow you doing?
TWITTYHow you doing, sister?
ZACHARYI'm great. So Gail brought up great issues. I'm a beekeeper and a mushroom grower in Washington D.C., and we're the two models of for-profit farming, and I want to stress that non-profit farming is great and awesome and brings a lot of young folks into agriculture, but we're trying to earn a living for ourselves in a way that hasn't been done in a long time in D.C. So I want to just star that as a really big sort of jumping off point for some of the issues that get us into the political and the economic realm of whether or not urban farming is sustainable.
ZACHARYI believe it is, and I believe that urban farmers can probably benefit from some of the tools of old. Michael Twitty can talk about that very well, but co-ops and tool sharing and resource sharing within a community, but also just a collective-minded culture that...
NNAMDIZachary, thank you very much. We're running out of time very quickly...
NNAMDI...and there's someone who needs some help, so I'll go to John in Silver Spring. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes. Thanks for taking my call, Kojo. Real quickly, like I said, I am a first-time home owner. I'm in Montgomery County, actually in Silver Spring, which is kind of a built up, heavily residential area. I've got a yard. I would love to grow a garden. I have no idea how to go about doing it, what dirt I need, soil condition, or anything. Where can I go to learn these types...
NNAMDIAnd we got an email from Jonathan who says, "How much does soil testing cost? How much soil should you test? What's the process, or do the universities explain what they need and how to do it?"
TWITTYThey do. They do. So there's a private laboratory, A&L Eastern which has a website, and they'll give you all the instructions to send in the soil test. University of Delaware does soil testing and all the instructions are there. You pull the soil up, you let it dry out, put it in a bag, and ship it off to them, and it's a minimal cost, 15 to $20.
NNAMDIAnd that's all the time we have. John, I'd love to have more -- don't remember when last I had this much fun with Denzel Mitchell. He is the founder and farm manager of Five Seeds Farm and Apiary in Baltimore, Md. And Michael Twitty, culinary historian. He also writes about Africa and African-American foodways. He keeps a blog at afroculinaria.com and writes The Cooking Gene. He tweets with the handle of @koshersoul. Michael Twitty, thank you so much for joining us.
TWITTYThank you, sir.
NNAMDIDenzel Mitchell, thank you for joining us...
MITCHELLAbsolutely. Thank you.
NNAMDI...and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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