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Historian Michael Twitty explores slaves’ culinary heritage

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 pieced together 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 cooked over open fires and with the same rustic tools.

That book brought Twitty an invitation to speak at a historic house and museum outside Washington, D.C. He eventually started a blog called www.afrofoodways.com, and in 2010, he launched www.afroculinaria.com, a website that 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 www.thecookinggene.com. He had hoped to break bread with the descendents of folks who had enslaved his ancestors, but that didn’t happen. Instead he had an eerie experience in a South Carolina grocery store, 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. “I got to sit down with her,” Twitty said. “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.”

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

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