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Southern cuisine has been a site of cultural conflict for generations, touching, as it does, on the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the south. Living historian Michael Twitty explores the contours of that conflict in his book “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.” He joins Kojo to discuss his own roots and culinary scholarship, as well as the impact of Africans and African-Americans’ on the region’s food, and the politics of how southern history is remembered today.
- Michael Twitty Author, "The Cooking Gene"
Excerpt from "The Cooking Gene" by Michael W. Twitty
Excerpted from The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty. Copyright 2017 by Michael W. Twitty. Published with permission from Amistad Press and HarperCollins Publishers
It’s a misnomer. “The Old South.”
The South has never been still, or merely aged. It is not stagnant and it is not as set in its ways or physical boundaries as much as some would like to pretend. Perhaps there is nothing old about the South except its airs. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, old? The first two were barely middle-age, Georgia was just starting to think about being emeritus, and Arkansas was in puberty when the “War between the States” (because real Southerners don’t say the “Civil War”) broke out. The New South waits for us, but it’s less place than lingering idea. And the postmodern South? Who cares, nothing is made there. In our minds, nothing is like the Old South, home of the original American rebel.
The Old South was introduced to me in movies and magazines as the bizarre place we black Americans owed our identity. Untanned, ageless white ladies in pastel crinolines . . . Carolina blue, pale jessamine yellow, dogwood blossom pink, mint julep green . . . bedazzled with stars and bars and frills aplenty. Parasols and fat black crones called “mammies” and crusting, crooning, near-senile ex-bucks fondly called “Uncle.” Everybody and everything was satisfactual, and in their right place. White men and white columns and bow ties on white suits, the kind you’d never dream of getting chicken gravy or whip blood on. Blemishless and benign, a patriarchy overlooking a peaceable racial hierarchy ordained by a Creator with a permanent beef with Cain and Ham, and then Joshua butted in:
“Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” (9:23)
“Hewers of wood and drawers of water.” The Oprah Winfrey Show, 1987. Oprah goes to Forsyth County, Georgia, where no black person had “been allowed to live” in seventy-five years. She had been on the air five months. Confederate battle flags were on display; a people unreconstructed came out in force to show America’s future richest black person where she stood. What seemed like the entire town showed up to justify their whiteopia.
No racial description whatsoever appears in the Scripture for Cain or Canaan, son of Ham, and the verse from the book of Joshua has nothing to do with anyone living in America, and yet a man had his Bible open, ready in 1987 to justify a permanent and seemingly ancient division that did not exist in the British mind before the late sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. My Alabama-born-and-raised grandmother, a refugee of “Bombingham,” is folding clothes; under her breath is a constant stream of “God damn them.” Her breath slowed to a seethe and her eyes became fixed into what seemed like a cut from which she would never return. I was ten and I was barely taught in school that in my own area—the Washington metroplex—slavery and racism had defined the economy, politics, and social order. Seeing this made me dread my own country and, presumably, my own ancestral homeland—the Old South.
“The lazy, laughing South / With blood on its mouth / . . . And I, who am black, would love her,” wrote Langston Hughes, a refugee of Joplin, Missouri, the poet laureate of black America. The poems I was bid to remember frequently referenced a place that was caught up in a weird braid of nostalgia, lament, romance, horror, and fear. Forsyth County, Georgia, is no longer the same place it was nearly thirty years ago, and black people have long since moved in. And yet across the region, flashpoints continue, the shootings, the draggings, the overreach of police authority, the obstruction of the vote, inequalities and inequities and silent and sturdy boundaries between white and black. For some, “we” are the South, but “they” are Dixie, and yet we and they all know the old hanging trees and the strange fruit they once bore.
I dare to believe all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family. We are unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support.
The Old South is where I cook. The Old South is a place where food tells me where I am. The Old South is a place where food tells me who I am. The Old South is where food tells me where we have been. The Old South is where the story of our food might just tell America where it’s going.
The Old South / With soul food in its mouth / and I, who am African American, must know her.
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