Famed food historian Michael Twitty tours local food scene

Author and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty will be in town June 5-7. | Photo by Adam W. Woomer

Many black people don’t like to garden, much less cook, says author Michael W. Twitty, a culinary historian coming to Louisville in June to talk about slave plantation cooking and the future of food.

“I ain’t no damn slave,” Twitty tells Insider. “That is the first words you will hear.”

Attitudes like that make it “verboten,” he says, to talk about slavery, gardening and the health benefits of returning to the kitchen.

Great food, he adds, breaks the silence.

“As slaves, we did not get scraps thrown at us. It is not that simple,” Twitty says. “The fuzzy part is when people ate good. The fuzzy part is when people had relationships that were not completely adversarial.”

In a three-day blitz of cooking and conversation aimed at racial reconciliation, Twitty will talk at the Frazier History Museum on Monday, June 5; at The Table restaurant in Portland on Tuesday, June 6; and at the Jewish Community Center on Wednesday, June 7.

Twitty will speak about his latest book.

The Frazier Museum has raised the money to bring Twitty here, inviting New Roots as a community partner committed to food justice.

“The Frazier is in a food desert,” says Penelope Peavler, the museum’s executive director. “Michael Twitty is a superstar who articulates these issues in a compelling way. Louisville is really lucky to have him visit.”

The visit to Louisville is a first for Twitty among his longtime travels, a “Southern Discomfort Tour,” documented in his acclaimed blog called “Afroculinaria,” which confronts racism and recipes. Twitty’s obsession with the past 400 years of African-American culinary history has led to gigs like being Colonial Williamsburg’s first “Revolutionary in Residence.”

As a cultural interpreter clad in stockings, breeches and a muslin shirt, Twitty led cooking demonstrations in that history theme park earlier this year.

In Louisville, Twitty, 41, will visit farms, compare notes with food justice activists and sign copies of his new book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.”  There will be talk of hoe cakes, greens, black-eyed peas, barbecue and the making of a proper biscuit.

“Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who ‘owns’ it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race,” the publisher, Harper Collins, noted in the introduction to Twitty’s memoir debuting in bookstores Aug. 1. “… Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight.”

While some African-Americans view gardening and cooking with disdain, their ancestors enjoyed some sovereignty through mastering these traditions, Twitty says. While slave cooks received no credit for sustaining Southern households for centuries, they enjoyed a degree of independence.

It’s time, he believes, for urban households to reclaim that spirit. Urban agriculture and local food activism has taken off in Washington, D.C., Detroit, New York City and Oakland. In Louisville, Twitty will be hosted by New Roots, the nonprofit organization behind 12 cooperative “Fresh Stops.” These markets, hosted mainly by churches, pool residents’ funds to purchase locally grown food in bulk to bring fresh vegetables to working class and poor households.

Louisville will have three chances to hear Twitty. | Courtesy of Michael W. Twitty

“Black people had to leave the rural areas to make a living and leave oppression. That took us away from a lot of life skills and stability that was passed down from generation to generation,” says Twitty. “That is what we are trying to get back. Somebody who had control over their food system is not a slave. If you think being agricultural makes you enslaved, you are forgetting that agriculture is the root of civilization.”

That is why Twitty is proud to don historical costume and provoke conversation.

He will sign copies of his book at the Frazier History Museum, 829 W. Main St., from 6-7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 5, in a program free to museum members and New Roots subscribers. The talk is $12 for museum non-members. Tickets for a rooftop dinner to follow cost $100.

Besides talking about slavery, Twitty’s writings explore his Jewish roots, like @KosherSoul, his Twitter handle that boasts 14,000 followers. Twitty will celebrate those traditions by cooking up black-eye pea hummus on Tuesday, June 6, from 6-8 p.m. at The Table, 1800 Portland Ave. Tickets are $5.

At the New Roots’ event on Wednesday, June 7, at 2:30 p.m., Twitty will be the guest chef at the Jewish Community Center, 3600 Dutchmans Lane, when shareholders claim their first vegetables of the 2017 growing season.

“This is a unique opportunity for everyone interested in food, culture and justice to connect,” says Karyn Moskowitz, executive director at New Roots. Twitty’s visit provides a venue “to spread the word about how Fresh Stop Markets use a cooperative economic model to help solve food insecurity in our region.”