Cooking as the slaves did


Michael W. Twitty explores the foodways of the enslaved @ Common-Place.
As an interpreter, researcher and educator in the subject area of enslaved people's lives and foodways, I am often asked, "where did you go to learn all of this?" The sincerity of the question enhances the awkwardness and anguish of making a humorous retort. My reply generally goes: "Well, I read. I cook on the hearth as much as possible. I listen to the elders of my past and those who are left, and I make mistakes and learn not to repeat them. I lose my eyebrows and arm hair to the fire, and often burn my hands and spill things. Sorry, there are no B.A., M.A. or Ph.D programs in how to cook like an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century slave or how to work in a cotton, tobacco, corn or rice field." There is nothing sexy about what I do. And what little feeling of "comfort" people get from the smells, stories and samples I have to offer is quickly turned bittersweet by the discomfort of the real meat of the meal—slavery.We don't shy away from slavery as much as we once did. It always seems to raise eyebrows and get the discursive blood flowing. Most of this kinetic response comes from thinking about slavery as a challenge to democracy. The same could be said for the mythos surrounding the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement, in which what we debate is not what made this debate necessary in the first place—slavery—but rather how the debate was resolved in terms of protests, movements, politics, wars, great men and women. I am an iconoclast. I'm really not turned on by this lofty democracy talk. It doesn't tell me how I got here, how we got here. In some ways it makes me angrier because slavery rolled into quasi-freedom in slow motion, while wars of independence and the birth of the personal computer seemed to revolutionize American life in minutes. I cannot understand my history looking through that lens. Slavery was not a complication; it was a more