You might know where your food comes from, but do you know its history?
Culinary historian Michael Twitty does.
“Food provides a visceral lens through which to understand history,” Twitty, historian and author of the blog Afroculinaria, explains.
Twitty studies the intersection of food, culture and history in the colonial and antebellum South. His work combines archaeological, archival and oral history research with hands-on demonstrations to give us a literally digestible way of learning what life was like for enslaved people in the southern United States.
“We don’t have video or documents from enslaved people during that time,” says Twitty. But we do have evidence of what and how they ate. Twitty believes that preparing and eating that food ourselves connects us to that everyday but very meaningful experience. Just as eating fresh ceviche conjures memories of the Yucatán, or a good bowl of pasta can take us to Rome, eating food from our past helps us understand history from a new perspective.
On a recent episode of Time Team America, coproduced by OPB, Twitty traveled to Maryland to explore the life of Josiah Henson, an enslaved man whose autobiography inspired the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this particular investigation, the Time Team archaeologists had three days to find the site of the plantation where Henson lived and worked.
Twitty prepared lunch for the archaeologists with the foods and cooking methods Henson and his family would’ve used, including salt pork and vegetables from a garden plot known as a “truck patch.” Twitty is quick to point out, though, that a meal like this one would be saved for special occasions. Most days on a plantation, it would’ve been “same bowl of corn mush, different day.”
And speaking of corn mush, that staple of the antebellum diet holds a special place in Twitty’s heart. Of all the recipes he’s encountered in his work, his favorite is a cornmeal dressing known as kush, made by combining leftover vegetables and meat with cornbread. The dish is cooked over low heat in a cast-iron skillet — a time-honored technique Twitty is passionate about preserving.
“People need to understand the principles of slow cooking and making the table,” he says. When you cook with a clay pot or cast-iron skillet, “you’re eating a meal and having an experience that can connect us to the past.”
A driving force behind Twitty’s work is challenging common misconceptions about U.S. food history, such as the idea that enslaved people ate scraps while white slave owners ate high-quality food.
“All Southern people ate corn and pork every day,” he says. “That wasn’t a status thing.”
And some of the foods we prize today, like ribs, were considered to be lower quality than, say, the innards of an animal or its head.
“This shows you the power of food in transmitting certain truths,” Twitty says. “Enslaved people took the remainders of the world around them — food, rituals, spirituality — and turned them into culture. That’s what happened.”
Twitty urges those who cook his recipes and read his work to think about all the interactions that happened to create that food culture. Those relationships are fraught with conflict and violence, politics and power — and yet the food endures.
“How does that happen?” he asks. “This was an ongoing war of the will, the body, the souls of people for 300 years. How does food come together so well? That is in and of itself a question worthy of our speculation and respect.”
Time Team America airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on OPB through July 7, 2014.
Michael Twitty’s Recipe for Kush
- 2 white or yellow onions, roughly chopped
- 4 tablespoons of lard, shortening or cooking oil
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes or one crumbled pod of long red cayenne pepper
- Assorted dried herbs — sage, bits of rosemary, thyme
- 1/4 cup of bits of country ham (or smoked turkey) — optional
- 1 medium pan of yellow cornbread cool, slightly dry and crumbled
- 1/4 cup of chicken, ham, beef or vegetable stock (you may choose to use the pot liquor from greens as your stock)
- Heat the lard, shortening or oil in a large skillet.
- Sauté the onions until they are translucent, adding half of the salt and half of the red pepper flakes, and some of the herbs.
- As the onions begin to turn clear, add the meat if you choose, and add the rest of the oil to the pan.
- Slowly incorporate the crumbled cornbread into the skilled until it is completely incorporated.
- Add the rest of the red pepper, herbs and salt, and the stock to moisten.
- Cook over a low heat and stir frequently until the stock has been fully absorbed. Do not allow the kush to burn.
- Serve immediately with boiled vegetables or fish.