Interview with Culinary Historian & James Beard Award Winning Author, Michael W. Twitty

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MichaelWTwittyEat My Globe by Simon Majumdar
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Michael W. Twitty Interview Notes

In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, enjoys one of the most fascinating conversations he has ever had with a culinary figure. Michael W. Twitty’s knowledge of the food world and its history is astonishing, and his way of sharing is inclusive and fun. Here, they talk more about the history of rice, but about so many other things as well. You don’t want to miss it.

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TRANSCRIPT

Eat My Globe

Interview with Culinary Historian

and James Beard Award Winning Author,

Michael W. Twitty


INTRO MUSIC


SIMON MAJUMDAR (“SM”):

Hey everybody. It's Simon Majumdar here and welcome to Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn't know you didn't know about food.


Now, on this very special episode, I'm gonna introduce you to a gentleman over whom I have been a huge fan for, oh, well, since I first read, uh, “The Cooking Gene,” his book that was published, I believe, in 2018. And since then, I've followed him on Twitter, on social media. I know you will want to, too. Um, so, this to me is really exciting. And what we're going to do is follow on from the episode we did last week, where I promised you I'd be bringing on this expert to talk about rice.

Let me introduce you all to Michael Twitty. Michael.


MICHAEL W. TWITTY (“MWT”):

Hello.


SM:

Thank you so much for joining us. I am so genuinely so excited to have you on Eat My Globe. I, since I've followed you on Twitter and. . . . I've been trying to think of a reason to have you on, because I just wanted to talk to you.


MWT:

[Laughter]


SM:

Uh, uh, and, and so, uh, I'm so pleased that we're gonna talk about a specific subject. But before we do that, um, I'd love you just to share who you are with everyone, for those who don't know you, they're gonna want to know you after this. Uh, please let me. . .  please tell us just a little bit about yourself.


MWT:

Okay. So, um, you know, the rabbis say that if you want to communicate something, you do it a regular hot, which means on one leg. So, my on. . . . It's basically your elevator pitch. So, my on one leg is, you know, my name is Michael W. Twitty. I am, um, a culinary historian and food writer, um, home cook, um, and in. . . historic interpretive chef. Um, I live in Virginia. I live in the American South. Um, my family is Southern. I'm Black. I'm Jewish. I'm gay. I am American. Um, and I really do believe that we walk into the kitchen with the, all the parts of ourselves, all of the histories that we. . . engender and, and, and bring with us. And so that's my passion is writing about not just food history out there, but food history in here in us and our brains and our bellies in, in our blood, in our roots. Um, and to me talking about that and relating that to people is, is really important because when we open ourselves up to that kind of dialogue and vulnerability, other people do too, and we understand our, we understand ourselves a lot better.


SM:

Uh, absolutely. And I know when, when I, again, when I follow you on Twitter, but when I read your books, um, you are, and we'll talk about identity in a moment, which is something that I, uh, deal with. If that's the right word, a lot, being kind of Bengali, Welsh, American. You know, I'm a mixture of things myself and I find that food particularly is in. . .  not only in my DNA, but I find food history is my way, my prism of trying to explain that whether I'm writing about the history of curry or the history of anything else. And I see that in yours all the time.


Let's, let's tell people about your books because we have a big audience here on Eat My Globe, and they’re all reading food history books. They're all reading, uh, not just from an academic point of view, what they're really trying to do and why this series exists. And as I said, we’re on our eighth season now. They're really looking for people. They're really looking for personalities. They're really looking for food DNA, and which is what I think you are talking about as well. So let, let's just talk about two of, well, we've talked about all of your books, but the two that really brought me into kind of your orbit were “The Cooking Gene” and “Koshersoul.” And I will say they are two of the most kind of profound and personal books that I've ever read in food or food history. Um, and I always, I said here on my notes here, they both read as if they kind of exploded onto the page. That's not to suggest they weren't well edited, but they felt very necessary. I mean, just tell me about the inspiration for those books, because I want people to, out to get them.


MWT:

Yeah. So, I wanted, I wanted people to feel as though. . . that they were at my kitchen table or that we were at my dining room table and we were just casually eating and time was no issue and they were just hearing my story. Um, I really wanted to write a so. . . well, I've already written solid academic stuff on food. Um, one of my, one of my first and best outings, as it were, was the, um, Oxford Symposium. And I gotta tell you, I felt so privileged to be there. My paper got accepted.


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

It was published. It was. . . it’s smoked and fermented foods and I was much younger then. . .


SM:

Did you go to Oxford?


MWT:

I mean, that was, yeah, that was 12 years ago.


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

I presented that twelve years ago and I, and I had never been to England before. My mom. . . . It was my mom was still around and I had, uh, never been and. . . . My whole life, I heard about England, England, England. And so, I was really excited to go and, um, um, my community made sure I went. I mean, it was a lot. It was a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of effort. I certainly didn't have the resources I have now. But, I got on that plane and I was in, you know, Europe for three weeks and went to the doctorate symposium and presented my paper. Suit and tie, and all.


SM:

[Laughter]


MWT:

And, uh, there was Claudia. Claudia Roden in the front row.


SM:

Amazing.


MWT:

And, um, and, um, um, so many illuminaries of food and. . .


SM:

Elisabeth Luard was there.


MWT:

Yes. And it was, it was something. It was something I never. . . . So, for me, if that was the gateway drug. . .


SM:

[Laughter]


MWT:

. . . that's what I had, where I had to go, right? But, also, I really wanted to do more of that. Let's see the thing about it is, in our, in our system in America, it's very difficult if you weren't, if you weren't established to write a solidly, you know, academic book and have it sell well.


SM:

Yes.


MWT:

Otherwise, it just ends up in the overly expensive academic bookkeeper. Um, you have to have a, you have a popular brand. And so, I, um, went on. . . . I did what I called, “the Southern Discomfort Tour,” and that came after that first trip to England. And, um, I really had this burning desire to go around the American [inaudible] looking for my food and family roots and routes. I did that. Raised a, you know, good number of monies on it for, uh, for on crowd, through crowdfunding. And then, and that was about the time that I also had a. . . . After that I had a letter that I wrote, um, to Paula Dean. Open letter. And it was about her, yes, her struggles with her own racial justice issues. And it wasn't really about her so much. It was about the fact that the food scene spoke more about people like her than it did Black food creatives and chefs and culinarians and sommeliers, etcetera.


So that helped amplify and set the stage for “The Cooking Gene,” the book. And then I have this project that had, I had all these thousands of pictures, hundreds of hours of interviews, but no real aim. It was just like, I did all this stuff for what? And then someone said, you know, do you wanna do a book? Okay, fine. So, “The Cooking Gene” is part response to social issues, but it’s, you know, it was my DNA testing. For example, for African Americans, the DNA testing experience is not the same. And I would say that for Afro Caribbeans, Afro Latin folks, Afro Brazilians, etcetera. We're all kind of like in the same situation where our ancestors were, were, were not documented according to their ethnic origins.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

Um, not in the way that, you know, they weren't traced the way that European immigrants were traced. Um, yes, people might have wanted them based on their ethnicity and their knowledge base.


SM:

Yes.


MWT:

But this doesn't make it into the, the books as it, as it were. These were, this was marketing. And so, the bottom line is that we come from all these different ethnic groups but, over time, because of sale, because of, because of the violence of enslavement. . .


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

. . . because of many other factors, we were robbed of those very specific links. And we became, we became Black and American, not Black in Africa. This is very important to mention. And we became Black in Africa after colonialism. Those, those understandings of, you know, that's also important.


So, being able to talk about which ethnic groups and what foods, traditions they brought over, where these blocks were in early America, how we compared with Caribbean and Latin America, being able to talk about how the different cash crops, enslavement, um, created specific economies that had, um, very important links to certain food traditions.

I mean, it wasn't just like, here's the food. One. . . . It's not a one stop shop. Like people. . . . check's supposed to make it out to be. It actually was a history of migrations. . .


SM:

Uh-huh.


MWT:

. . . of population movements. And also, you cannot understand this without rel. . . without the relationship between the enslaved and the enslaver, between free Black people and, and free whites. You cannot understand a native, native, indigenous people. There's so many layers.

So, basically, “The Cooking Gene” is me putting that microscope on myself, going, how do all these constituent parts and my food journey make up me.


Koshersoul” is a follow up volume. Um, in between is “Rice,” which I did for UNC press.


SM:

Yes.


MWT:

Um, it's the last of their, um, “Savor the South” series.


SM:

Yes.


MWT:

So, 20 some books. Um, I don't know why there's a book on bacon and a book on ham, separately, or why there's a whole cookbook on bourbon, but there is a reason for all these things. And I'm just very proud to be, um, involved in that. I'm all. . . . I think, I'm only one of two Black authors in the entire series.


SM:

Wow. And that's, well, that was what brought me really, kind of, not the excuse, but the reason to bring you to talk about that as part of the rice thing that we'll talk about in a moment.

Uh, but “Koshersoul,” to me, as well, you know. . . . One thinks about the second album, as it were, and you'd done “Cooking Gene,” which was so. . .


MWT:

[Laughter]


SM:

. . . so remarkable. And then I read “Koshersoul.” So, and I go, this is every bit is remarkable about that as well. So, I'd love people to hear about that because obviously it's about your conversion and it's about so many things, uh, that you do. And you talk about that a lot on social media.


MWT:

Yeah.


SM:

So just talk a bit about “Koshersoul.” So, the, because again. . .


MWT:

Sure.


SM:

. . . that just felt like it, it, it had to come out of you in a sense.


MWT:

It was actually probably. . . these were competing projects as to what I might come out with first, if I have the chance.


SM:

Right.


MWT:

What, the words, if I have the chance. Um, I don't, I, I, I understand that for a lot of people, food media has very specific forms. It's more of a, how to, than what I am.


SM:

Yeah.


MWT:

You know what I'm saying?


SM:

Yeah, I do.


MWT:

It only recently only. . . . You know, this more than I do. Only recently have we had a scene where people can talk about how their food interplays with who they are.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

Before, it was just simply give me the recipe and keep running.


SM:

Yep.


MWT:

Show me how to do this technique. Um, food personality, of course. I remember growing up, seeing the evolution between, in between PBS slash shows from the BBC, moving into Food Network, moving into Cooking Channel, moving into, um, food media on different cable networks. Now, food, food, media streaming.


SM:

Yes.


MWT:

And it's only recently where we've even begun to ask questions, serious questions about food history, about food and culture about food and politics. And so, for me, those are inextricable. Uh, food is not apolitical. And, and I don't, and I, I don't get too bogged down in it. ‘Cause one of the challenges for “Koshersoul” has been, how do I write about something that is overshadowed by the situation in Israel, Palestine.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

And how do I write about the fact that there are cultures here that have been interactive quite some time without my involvement that have very similar foods, very similar traditions. But the arguments are very real about what do those traditions mean? Who came up with them? Why, what do they, who do they sustain? Um, to talk about Jewish food in terms of it being Black? Um, well, we're still struggling, still struggling as a Jewish family about. . . Does Jewish color, is it a race? Is it ethnicity? Is it a people? Is it a religion? Um, and how do these people who are of an, of another diaspora, of another trauma fit into this model? When, if you're in America, as opposed to other places, there is a very distinct and, um, connective tissue relationship between Blacks and Jews. . .


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

. . . uh, in Ve. . . Venn Diagram form. And there's a long, there's a history of that. I think some people come here and they find it very strange and we don't find it strange at all, because if you're marginalized and oppressed, you go to the same places.


SM:

Yeah, absolutely.


MWT:

The same, the same can be said of, you know, um, what really got, got me about working on this project was number one, they're both, um, confessional and they're both really cathartic because I'm putting out on paper, you know, really vulnerable experiences that I've had. You know, one quick one is that when I, um, I had some, some former friends and young man was a rabbi and he asked me to cook something for his group at this very prestigious institution. And I did. And I had to come over his house ‘cause his kitchen was the kosher kitchen. . .


SM:

Uh-huh.


MWT:

. . . I had to use. And his wife, young woman, um, who I thought I was cool with was, had a lot of like weird passive aggressive cultural anger. And, and I say that because she did not like the collard greens and asked a lot of questions about what were these things I brought in her house.


SM:

Hmmm.


MWT:

And it was, it was, it got me, it was deep. And it, you know, it slowly over, over the next day and a half, what unraveled was, there were a lot of, there were a lot of issues that I didn't know were there. And I talk a lot about that in “Koshersoul.” I talk a lot about these little, um, cultural landmines with food. But I also talk about, you know, finding my own identity, creating my own identity through food, you know, how do I, how do I create “Koshersoul” food in my own household? How do other Jews of African descent make their own “Koshersoul” food? What does that mean in terms of the, the, the wider rivers of African and Jewish tradition to a separate. . . them together? And I think we all think we all sort of have that. I mean, you could certainly, you could certainly write acres about that from, uh, um, in Anglo-Indian perspective.


SM:

Yeah. Oh yes.


MWT:

These histories are conjoined and they're complicated and they're nuanced. But thousands of people, excuse me, millions of people have these histories as part of their heritage and legacy. So instead of imagining that we're all these bubbles, let's talk about how it works out.


SM:

Well, it, I think, that's really, really important. And I was going to, uh, to ask you that question about identity, and I think it's useful for everyone. Because everyone listening to this show, and I said, we've got a, a big audience of people who are, uh, all come from so many different food backgrounds and we have everyone come on. And, and I think people are fascinated about using food as a, as a prism. You know, if we, if when I, I traveled around the world to write my first book, “Eat My Globe,” and I went to 31 countries and I went to everywhere. You know, probably more than that. Now I'm up to closing on, in a hundred countries.


MWT:

Wow.


SM:

But, um, what I, what I find is that everywhere I go, food is the one prism that I can sit with someone who is of a different, uh, political, different religion, different, you know, everything about them. And yet if I break bread with, um, then I'm, then I have a space, a kind of a civilized space where we sit together. We're not gonna argue. We're not gonna, I always say I can't, I, I could go down to parts of the South where people might be very different politically from me and I can argue with them. And, and I go, but you can't have a big argument with a mouthful of ribs.


MWT:

That’s right.


SM:

So, I can sit with people very, very different politically, and I can have these conversations. So, I'd love to know, you know, just, it's not a guide, but how do you, if people are listening to this and they go, what do I need to do? Where do I start? What do I do? ‘Cause you've done this, even though it's still an ongoing journey for you, this whole notion of identification is something that people find fascinating. And I'd just love to hear your insight on it.


MWT:

You know, one of the things is that you have to be willing to be wrong or surprised or take what you know, and understand it has layers. People, everybody wants, Simon, 140-character explanations for everything.


SM:

Yeah.


MWT:

They want a commercial. They don't want, they don't want real knowledge. Um, you look at someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, for example, who's dedicated herself to. sort of, like unraveling the world of Sichuan cuisine.


SM:

Incredible. Her books are extraordinary.


MWT:

Right? It's not, it's, it's, it's, it's like, that's, that's what it takes, right? It takes real honing in to really get something. You know, George Washington Carver, the, um, famous Black, um, scientist born in slavery, um, died a very, uh, seasoned aged man said that, if you love something enough, it'll give up its secrets to you. Maybe we don't love each other enough. Because, you know, culture is one of those footballs that people don't like to. . . . We'll talk about, we'll talk about, you know, sports or stock numbers or sports stats or entertainment. We don't. . . . But we still resort to things. And I say “we” in a very, in a very loose sense. I'm not talking about you and me. We still resort to canards stereotypes, limitations, boundaries, shut doors when it comes to aspects of food and culture. Um, so I tell people all the time, start with your own family. You know, I have a Masterclass about that, about that now. How to really understand your own story. And then, once you do that, once you've done that work or started that work, it's a lot easier to really appreciate other people's stuff. Because it's not, it's not so simple and it is very human. And it is, you know, like you said, when you have the food in your mouth, it's hard to, to say stupid things.


[Laughter]


SM:

[Laughter]


MWT:

You know, that's the thing, that's why I tell people all the time. You know, I said, you know, there's a. . . . I tell people if I, I make “Koshersoul” food, when people are ignorant of Black and Jewish or Black and Jewish cultures and, and ideas and peoplehood, so they can eat the food and, and be quiet while I give them the truth, you know, and hope they'll listen. That's the thing about it. It's exchange, it's a willingness to, to, to fail and to be wrong and to correct yourself and like no different than when we make food. And we correct the dish.


SM:

Yep.


MWT:

All of those skills are the same.


SM:

This is, uh. . . . Tell everyone about the Masterclass, just because, uh, I know that you posted something about that recently. And I, you know, people have the opportunity to go and check that out. I think they should. And we'll, we'll definitely make sure we give all the social media at the end as well.


MWT:

Sure.


SM:

But tell everyone about the Masterclass because, um, you know, it's, it's, it just sounds exceptional.


MWT:

So, the whole thing is. . . . Thank you. The whole thing is about, you know, um, I guess, we talked about how to. Sure, I can give you a class of just, how I make certain things. No. Well, um, because I don't really, I, when I cook, I'm just trying to get it done.


SM:

Yep.


MWT:

I'm not procedural, you know what I'm saying? I learned to cook from grandmothers. You know, grandmas, aren't the greatest, aren't the greatest, wouldn't be the greatest TV teachers.


SM:

No.


MWT:

No. You have to literally be, you know, in the room with them and you have to go through something 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 times before you even get the, the tip of it, yeah? So, um, for me, the Masterclass, the how to is, how do I understand where I come through, through food? How do I tell my own food story? Um, how do, um, what is the food story of people from the African Atlantic? Um, how do we begin to share our food stories with each other? How do you trace your family story through food? How do you trace your own identity? If there was, if you didn't have the big family tree and, and names and connections, how would you even begin to tell your own story through food? All, all of that's there in that Masterclass. So that's my how to. And it's funny because, at first, it's like, well, what is my how to, is that really a how to? But it is a how to. It's, it's something, it's something valuable that people think take for granted. And I think one of the, one of the things that you hear about most, unfortunately, as people, you know, transition from life to spirit again, is how many people will say the words, I wish I had gotten that recipe. I wish I'd had that conversation. I wish I knew more.


SM:

Yeah.


MWT:

So, in other words, there is no time like the present and that dialogue isn't just with the elders. It's with you.


SM:

Yep.


MWT:

It's with the children. And it's not just the, the old. It's the dynamic. It's the things that are, that are changing in your own time and space. I, I, I, that's why I exhort people to not, to not think of it all as all as nostalgia.


SM:

No, no, I agree with that.


MWT:

Right. It's the process, right? It's everything that you are.


SM:

I, I have to just share two elements of. . . you talk about grandmothers and, you know, we've all exp. . . or a lot of people have experienced that. The two things that I always remember with my, well, Bengali great aunt, who I learned a lot of cooking, Bengali cooking from. One thing she would, I would ask her a measurement and she would always use the word Ēkaṭu, which is a Bengali word. Means just a little. Well, just a little from a grandmother who was 4 foot 11, and just a little when you're a big fat, you know, banana fingers like me is two different things. So, I always remember that and people go, how much? And I go, I have no idea. It's just, I tried do a little. And the other thing that I remember from her and I don't, this is just a humorous one. Whenever I tried to get a recipe from her, she always left a couple of ingredients out because she wanted to make it for me. She didn't want me to be able to make it as well as she did. And I don't. And I'm sure that's universal. But I just, the fact that you mentioned grandmothers, I wanted to share that because I guarantee you that's universal.


[Laughter]


MWT:

Absolutely universal. But you know, what's even more so I think there's something about that secret part. That's really, uh, um, you know, when you come from cultures that have been colonized or enslaved and, and the loaded word, appropriated, I think one thing that comes up a lot is this idea that somebody's watching. Somebody might, you know, take and carry this else. Um, I, I, I always, I always give recipes that I feel are sufficient.


SM:

[Laughter]


Yep.


MWT:

In other words, I've given you everything that you need to properly make it. I did not give you. . . . It's like, it's like, okay, just about anybody who is fertile can be a parent. Can be a, can be can, no, excuse me, can make a child. But not everybody's a parent. You feel what I'm saying?


SM:

I do.


MWT:

So, I can give you the, the, the instructions and the structure, but it's up to you to give it a soul.


SM:

That. . . . I love that. Uh, and you've written that fantastic book, “Rice: A Savor of the South Cookbook,” which people, again, should add to their list of things to have in their, uh, their kind of library at home, their food history library.


Um, so as I said, last week, I, I did an episode on the history of rice and I, I did my, my best to kind of escape from that. Well, rice comes from Asia and it went here and then it went there and then it went there. And obviously there is that journey as well. Uh, and, but I did try to talk about the Oryza Sativa, Asian rice, and then also to talk about, Oryza Glaberrima, or African rice. Uh, but as something who's written this terrific book on rice, I thought, well, what I need to do is to get an expert. So, I, I wanted to kind of find out about African rice, because it's something that we don't talk about terribly much or people don't know about. And they have this scene that it's all, you know, what we think about obviously. And I, you know, I come from, uh, a Bengali background. My wife is Filipino-American. So, we, we talk about a lot of Asian rice. So, we have our own arguments here about whether we should be having Basmati or Jasmine. And, you know, we talk about it. . .


MWT:

[Laughter]


SM:

. . . and we have, we have fights about whether rice should stick together every day. Um, but I, I would love, love just to hear. . . . Tell people what African rice is. Tell people about its history, you know. Could you just tell us a little bit about that? Because it was a lot of it was new to me, about it, how, you know, the dating of it. Uh, and I came at it as a pure amateur, and I'd just love to hear from an expert about African rice.


MWT:

So, um, there's several different types of, um, African rice species. Oryza Glaberrima, which is the red rice.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

Um, it has like, it's, it's kinda a street. It's a reddish brown street rice by nature. The grain itself. And Oryza Barthii [inaudible], all these are, these are more weedy wild rice is not there, not by wild rice, it does not mean Oryza Aquatica.


SM:

Sure, sure.


MWT:

[Inaudible] So, we're talking about, you know, Oryza species that grow naturally. Now, these were all, these were all gathered for millennia. So long before it was cultivated, you can be assured that they were gathered while in the wild. Oryza Glaberrima was cultivated and has been part of. . . . I mean, you can look at some of the, um, um, cave drawings from Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria. . .


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

. . . which are, you know, people don't understand that the Sahara was a grassland, a very, very lush grassland in the ancient period. Like let's say about 10 to 8,000 years ago. And, um, it was called the nursery of Africa. And in fact, you can, when you look at them, of those depictions of people and those drawings and paintings and those cave walls, you see the Berbers, you see the, the Wolof, you see the Yoruba, you see the Fulani, you see the Egyptians, the Nubians. All of them. All of them in those, in those spaces. People, you know, walking back and forth and walking with their herds of cattle, migrating and looking for water all along this vast, you know, 3000-mile expanse. It's, it's stunning. Um, but one of the things that you see in those drawings are images of women gathering grain that looks like it's not in the field, but like in a [inaudible] water.


SM:

Uh-huh.


MWT:

And so, this is really old. Like, we're talking about, um, um, probably about four to 6,000 years. Um, the standard idea for, for Oryza Glaberrima is about, um, 3,500 BCE. And then, you know, from there, from, as a domesticated crop, and then from there, it helps build up, um, Timbuktu, these ancient centers of African, um, civilization. Um, much later on, it's joined by Oryza Sativa by way of the Arabs.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

And by way of the Portuguese. Um, the groups that are on the coast really don't experience that rice as a trade item. But when they get, when they get rice from the Portuguese, um, in Nigeria, Southeastern Nigeria, they called it, um, um, the beans of the Europeans.


SM:

[Laughter]


MWT:

Like they didn't know what to make of it. It was like, okay, this is, this is so different. But in my own travels in West Africa, I've been to, um, eight different nations, um, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, and Nigeria. And you see the traditional indigenous rights everywhere. Now, um, it was grown in certain areas. It was grown along the, um, Niger River, along the Gambia and Senegal Rivers and expanded wherever the people, wherever Mali was. So, Mali was founded by my ancestors, the Mandinga.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

And, um, it kind of almost, almost was like, kind of like a Roman Empire kind of expansion. So, wherever it went, it's culture went, and it's agriculture went. So, they have these pre-empire, massive cities, like Old Djenne and Djenne, Djenne, you know, all that. And then they, wherever they spread out, the Mandinga were farmers as well as, you know, um, artisans. So, the culture went with them, the, the crops was spread. So, there were two, there were two, um, um, origin spots where it's kind of like developing and then they merged over time. And so, a large part of what was now, what's now called, um, the Sahel, the area beneath the Sahara, and Senegambia and the rice coast. We're talking about areas, you know, Senegal, Gambia, um, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, um, Sierra Leone, Liberia up into Mali, up into Burkina Faso. Up into northern parts of Nigeria, up into, um, um, southern parts of Mauritania. That's our, that's our rice region. Rice millet sorghum. Okay.


SM:

Yes.


MWT:

As opposed to other parts of Africa where you've been, where it’s cassava, ya. . . yam, cassava planting. You get it? So, it's like, there, there, there are these tripartite staple cross around which the whole diet is based. And everybody eats pretty much the same way. Plant based, although that's a very Western term. Very veggie forward diet, ‘cause you know, livestock are very, very precious.


SM:

Of course. Yes.


MWT:

Um, right. And then you have fish. But you have the, the staple grain plus a sauce or a stew that goes with it. That is the daily meal. And you could say that about all of, all of sub-Saharan Africa, basically. It could be corn, it could be rice, it could be sorghum millet, yams, plantain, sweet potato, uh, cassava. But it's pretty much a starch, a soup, a sauce, stuff to go with it. And that's, and that's the communal um, daily meal. So, rice had a very important role. Now, here's the next step. Rice then moves. . . . And we can thank Judith Carney and Edda Fields Black, Daniel Littlefield, um, and, and many others for documenting this history, Peter Wood. Um, rice then travels across the Atlantic Ocean through the gen. . . through the genetic through, sorry, through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And um, one of the more important points that scholars have done. . . made in the re. . . in the most recent 20 years is that this was not, not even 20, probably 40, 50 years, is that this was not by accident. There were groups in West Africa. Again, the people who were on the Guinea coast were tuber people.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

People on the upper Guinea coast were, were grain people. And there was an, an, you know, explicit effort made to bring people, enslaved, in chains, to Maranhão in Brazil to the Artibonite region in Haiti to South Carolina, um, North Carolina, Georgia, the coast, the, the, the subtropical coast and inland about 40 miles to grow rice. It was on purpose. Um, and it was, um, in different stages, according to different parts of slavery. It didn't happen all once. In North America, it was my ancestors, my Mande, uh, sixth grade grandmother who was brought during a wave that lasted between 1750 and 1775, which was the beginnings of the American Revolution and into Charleston, South Carolina, which, which imported one, um, out of every four Africans that ended up in the American South, a quarter. So, a, a quarter of. . . . Almost every Black American has an ancestor who was brought to Charleston.


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

Um, yeah. And, and the numbers are incredible because it was this flood of people between, and they were. . .  and many of them were women. In fact, that's why the DNA part is more than just identifying the, the ethnic roots. It actually helps. . . shed somewhat uncertain, certain patterns. Like for example, I've asked a lot of African Americans who had Mande, Temne, other rice growing origins from south, I'm sorry, from Sierra Leone, Liberia. I said, I bet you it's your mom's side, isn't it? Or your. . . or maternal. And they said, how did you know? I said, it's because the women were the ones who knew how to pound the rice. And when it went with the baskets. And I said, that was essential to before mechanization. I mean, they'll see, they'll seagrass, see, uh, seagrass bassinets everybody admires. Those were part of the process. They weren't decorative. They were part of the process of processing the rice. Winnowing the rice. The standing mortar and pestle before that was mechanized, um, that was. . . somebody had to carve those things. So that's a whole, whole sets of knowledge had to be brought over. So, I'll give you two, three more statistics to put this, to have everybody put this in perspective.


SM:

Yeah.


MWT:

So, rice was exported from the low country back to the mother country of England, and then down into the Caribbean for provision. Now, one. . . . Put it this way, at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which is one year after the trade closes from Sierra Leone, Liberia. Of the 10. . . . Of the 12 richest men in America, almost every single one of 'em has, has a connection to slavery. Ten of them are South Carolina rice planters. If you had a successful rice crop, a successful plantation, within two to five years, you could become the coal colonial equivalent of a millionaire.


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

Charleston had a huge population. It had a diverse population. It had newspapers and libraries and museums. It had the kind of cultures and society building wealth that New York took another century to get. Not only that, Simon, but um, more land was moved to construct the dams and sluices and, um, irrigation ditches that would create the plan. . . the rice plantations that went from southern North Carolina to northern Florida than was used to build the, the pyramids at Giza.


SM:

Just extraordinary.


MWT:

All of this stuff connects. And what's unfortunate is that a lot of people, especially Americans, especially southerners don't know this history. And, of course, we can't. . . the cooking part. . . . The food part is that the rice then becomes a, um, a staple, right?, of the food culture. It's e. . . it's Etouffee with crawfish. It's Jambalaya. It's Hoppin’ John. It's Jambalaya [inaudible], which is basically the Louisiana version of Hoppin’ John, which is, which for Caribbean listeners is rice and peas and peas and rice, right? It's all, it's all the above. It's red beans and rice in Louisiana. It's the, it is from the original red beans and rice from Haiti and the regional djon, the rice with the black mushrooms from Haiti, it's the Bahian rice, the Mexican rice, and the rice pilao, which Perloo, which are all the same thing by the way. And whose, whose great granddaddy dish is Jollof rice from West Africa.


SM:

And we had. . .


MWT:

So, all of it . . .


SM:

Yeah. I had that in my mind with, you know, pulao and plov, and you follow those lines. And all of that you're saying comes from Jollof, will have its roots in, in the Jollof rice.


MWT:

Yep. It's all there. And, and of course we have deep connections to other rice traditions. For example, I’m fascinated with, with how Central Asia does rice. Or how Southeast Asia does rice. And it's interesting how we all sort of. . . . Every rice culture has exactly the same thing. What do, what does every rice culture do when the rice is done? And it's all at the pot. The bottom.


SM:

Oh yeah, absolutely.


MWT:

It's pot over. Right.


SM:

Absolutely.


MWT:

And that is, that's a big thing or the crust around the pot. Um, and it's, it's just, and you know, there are some, you know, the words are global. There’re Silk Road meets Gold Route means transatlantic slave trade. But what makes the, the rice of the South and the Caribbean, other places unique is that it's based on this idea from West Africa, that every grain should be single and distinct, not sticky.


SM:

That is, I, it's just the way that you've connected that all together for me. And as I said, coming at that area as a, as an amateur, and I think one of the reasons that we do Eat My Globe is I like to an ingredient and I, or if I'm talking about ingredients, and show just the impact that it's had, the impact it's had on the, the slave trade and moving enslaved people, the, the impact it's had on waterways, the impact it's had on roads, the impact it's had on just about everything. And yet, you are talking about something that people go into their supermarkets now, and it's a staple and they don't necessarily think about it. And when you pick up a, a bag of rice, even if you are going into pretty basic supermarket, the history of that, both good and bad, in terms of nutrition, and then obviously in terms of enslavement and things like that, it's just extraordinary. And that's what I want people, uh, to look at that.


What I, what I, what I really wanted to look at as well is then obviously how that's used in South Carolina, because there was this, and I don't know whether it's appropriation or from the original kind of plantation kitchens from the, that area where people were cooking these dishes. Um, and then they, it got kind of subsumed into a Southern culture. And I say this not as a Southern person who understand it, but with a couple of kind of areas, one that it just became food for everybody. And two, there was almost this dismissive nature of the people who originally cooked it, and they would talk about it as if it was just some intuitive thing. There was no training with these people. I've just been reading . . .


MWT:

Right.


SM:

. . . about Lena, uh, Lena Richard. And, what she complained about is that people looked at her wrote about her, is if she'd just be given this, it was an intuitive thing. Not that she'd done a huge amounts of work to learn her discipline and her craft. And so, I just wonder about those two aspects of it, one, about it going into Southern food and it now being just a thing of Southern food. And I know you've had conversations with people like Sean Brock and people like that about it, but also that area of, uh, of what Richard felt as well.


MWT:

Well, the whole thing was the Black cook was lauded and raised, but as a servant, as an enslaved person. And then it was always natural, born, intuitive. Okay. That's nice to hear. To a point. But also cultivated. Curated. Brainy. Smart. Intelligent. Um, but you know, people. . . it's, it was a very complicated narrative. A lot of many cooks, not every cook, but many cooks had some sort of literacy. Now, I'm defining that very openly and very loosely. It could be, I could read, but not write. It could be, I could tell time. It could be, I could, I could do measurements. You have to have at least some of this to be able to cook for someone in the Western way. But you're also applying that non-Western way of cooking that we talked about earlier to these kitchens. And, of course, you know, there's a lot of Americans. . .  American culinary historians into a very, sort of like, they're still, they think that the best way is to be Eurocentric. So, they they're desperate to claim that Southern food is British food.


SM:

[Laughter]


MWT:

Not really. It's, it's, there's a lot of Britain and a lot of Germany and a lot of France there, but in no, no recognizable fashion. Um, and that, that the, the go-to the, the signature foods, the cultural foods are pretty much all a negotiation between Europe, Africa and Native America. There's no question of this. So, you know, there was even an attempt, Simon, to make a, um, national mammy memorial on the, on the mall in the 1920s.


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

Yep. They wanted mammy and yes. And it was from a North Carolina Congressman and he basically said he wanted to remind people about the good old faithful Negroes to pass. So. . .


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

. . . of course, you can see how Black people started to, like, we knew we were great cooks. We knew we. . . not just because, well, some intuitive thing, but because we were the ones doing it and we had to, we had to master it, we had to be about it. We were not just cooking for people in that capacity. We were tavern owners and we were caterers and we were professional cooks and personal chefs, not just enslaved cooks, not just for people of color who sorted of could cook half the time. But so, um, we kind of slid back because of those connotations. But all. . . the whole idea was you're, you're not, you're not really that smart. You're just, you're just kind of like, um, a machine that we turn on and turn off and the work gets done. And that a lot of the, a lot of the food writing up until very recently talked about how the Southern table grown, but never talked about the trauma or the triggers or the, the action and thought and care and, and, and the, and the troubled nuance that go on, went into putting the food on the table. The, the food didn't fly onto the table.


SM:

Yeah.


MWT:

The food was prepared and put there. And sometimes, you know, when sometimes people get upset with this, you know, I think it's politicizing the food in the past. No, but I'm, let's be real. Everybody. Every single person on earth has a female ancestor who saw a child die in birth. Every single human on the planet. You don't, you don't think that that, that, that those women live with the stress in their bodies from daily work? The stress in their bodies from, you know, the idea that you really wanna love your children and love them into the world. And sometimes they don't make it. And sometimes they don't, they it's so bad that you don't make it.


SM:

Yeah.


MWT:

You think they didn't take that with them into the, the act of domestic work? You don't think that cooks, who worked for people who were of higher status or royalty in their society, didn't lament the fact that their life sucked? Or that there were certain pleasures and pleasantries that they enjoyed that other people there didn't, but at what cost?


So, it's, so I'm just trying to say that there are other ways to look at the inequalities, the, the, the emotions. Uh, one of the things that is so important about under. . . understanding the role of Black cooks in the African Atlantic period is that there is a definite pride in their work, pride in their food, pride in their creation. But at the same time, they understand they're in chains. They're imprisoned. Can you imagine, can you imagine that there, that these, or, or, you know, having sometimes these feelings of having raised generations within a family, how much of that belongs to you?


SM:

Yeah.


MWT:

How much of it doesn't. I will tell you something. I was in South. . . I was in Charleston. Thanks to COVID, I haven't traveled a whole lot, but I had to be in Charleston for something. And I went to a, one of the houses, is one of the wealthiest slave traders and planners in the city. And I had, I sometimes as an interpreter, as a museum person, I've had moments that were very emotional and very powerful. And this one was. . . . I go in there, I walk through from where the kitchen was, which was not a, a, a, just a, uh, a room. It was a kitchen house. ‘Cause in the South at the time, a lot of. . . there were separate buildings.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

Kitchen. Now, the enslaved who were in that kitchen making that Perloo, which was seasonal, right?


SM:

Yes.


MWT:

Duck Perloo, Crab Perloo, Turtle, uh, or, or even the soups, right? Okra soup, oyster soup with peanut. Oh. And I, I know it.


SM:

Wonderful.


MWT:

With the rice, right? And so, they're making these food that come from their heritage. But as they walk in, the building is such that they cannot see the guests and the guests cannot see them. Their labor is, is walled off on the other side, blocked off from the garden even, where they slaughter the animals, where they bring things in from the market, where they call to bring things in from the little garden that was there. And the only one, the only people that can actually see both worlds is the presiding Butler.


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

And he walks in and you go, Simon, I'm telling you, you go to the, you see the front door and then your front door is here. And then over here is this, you know, sizable, not huge, but sizable dining room set with the best silver from London. Set with the best, um, mahogany wood from tropical Asia. Set with the best, whatever. And I, when I walked up, you see this massive staircase built by enslaved craftsmen and your feet hit the spot that has an indentation. Guess what that indentation was? That's where the Butler had to stand over and over. And then his predecessor, and then his. . . for generations. And then I realized something like, it was like something like an emotional train went through me. And it was the realization that it was like a little message going. I was around all of this and none of it was mine. I worked for all of this. None of it was mine.


SM:

Extraordinary. I. . . . To be in a contemporary setting and to experience, I mean, we talk about, you know, time tunnels and going back and experiencing history, that's. . . and to have that impact on your, on you, your personality, your DNA immediately, that, that's hard to, to even explain to people that. . .


MWT:

Right.


SM:

Wow.


MWT:

It’s good memory. It's the fact that it, the fact that I've been to other plantations and plantation houses where you see that same indentation in the wood.


SM:

Um-hm.


MWT:

And you know what that was. That was where they stood. It wasn't, you know, and where the, the person had to stand. So, you corroborate that with, with written testimony and descriptions and you go, this is no joke. This is no joke. But the idea that this African staple became a Southern staple, you know, we haven't even talked about the rice pudding in Texas or the Rice Calas, the fritters in, in Louisiana, which we're also eaten in other places as well. They're not just, you know, there. But I think some of these dishes died out. Why did they die out? Because the institution of slavery ended. And then after that, the people who worked in the houses stopped working in the houses. I wonder why? But I mean, the food we, we, we, we, we asked that. . . . We often asked the question and say, say to people, oh, what. . . I wonder whatever happened to that dish? Well, the class horses changed dishes.


SM:

Uh, this, uh, Michael, this I, I had here in my kind of list of questions, very functional, varied questions about, oh, what happened to Asian rice coming in or what happened to the travel. And, but it seems almost crass of me to ask those questions now when you've shared so much personal about it. Um, and so I, I'd rather not kind of do, do that terribly and talk about ‘cause I was gonna go, oh, well, I know people are trying to recreate the original kind of rice and Carolina Gold and all of that. But I think what you've said then, uh, and what you've said throughout this is probably almost where we need to be. You need to, when you look at rice, when you get rice, when you cook with rice, particularly here in the United States, remember that. Remember its impact on our society. Remember that the, the, the, the, uh, capitalism of what created the society came from that staple.


And what I hope is that people will listen to this. You’re incredible. I'm, I'm. . . . You can see me. I'm leaning forward listening to you talk. ‘Cause I know you're a storyteller and I'm just excited by it and horrified by it. And, you know, um, but what I want is rather to kind of stop there talking about rice, because I think you've, you've told us everything. You've told us the story. And rather than me ask crass questions about how it came over and changed and the dishes and the blah, blah, blah, I'd love to leave it there. Uh, and, and move on just to talk now about what's exciting in your life. What's coming out. Because I think you've given us everything we need to know about rice. Because you've given it from what you always do, a very personal point of view rather than that functional point of view. And I hope that's okay. I just feel that this is, is the right the right place to. . .


MWT:

And you just have to. . . . This is a part of our, our personal, our life stories. Right?


SM:

Absolutely. And I, when I hear you talking about it, you know, I could ask you, you know, all kinds of, like, crass functional questions about it, traveling around and doing this, that, and that people could go and read your book for that.


MWT:

That’s true.


SM:

And we'll get, we'll get them to go and do that. But I, what I'd love to do now is, um, just find out because I'm, you know, so grateful that you took the time to come on, uh, before I ask you, we always finish. And it seems slightly crass to do this again at the end of, with the answer to talk, but we always like to finish with some fun questions at the end. ‘Cause I like to show that everyone is, you know, just a human being, but also before we do that, let's just talk about, what's exciting you right now, what you’re working on?


MWT:

Well, um, I'm working on, uh, begin the beginnings of two projects. One short, one long. The short one is, um, a, um, an answer to the work of Michael Powell in the sense of, um, I want a, uh, what I'm calling the little Black food book.


SM:

Oh.


MWT:

Yes. And I'm writing it with the generation in mind that's younger, that doesn't. . . that may not understand that all of these historical cultural pieces, they weren't there for a long time. They were there in, in mosaic form, but they weren't in one spot. So, I want. . . . To create a received tradition, you must create a sing. . . you know, not a single narrative, but something that weaves the narratives together. So, I want, I, I wanted to be partly humor, partly functional, partly practical, partly historical, but nothing, something you could put in your back pocket and take with you from spot to spot. Something that your mother and father can give you and you can, you know, take it to your, your home and make, make, make a, build a tradition out of. And the other one is I'm working with Salem Press to do one of their cookbook Bibles, the cookbook Bible of the American South.


SM:

Oh.


MWT:

500 recipes. It's gonna be extensive, lots of information, lots of, um, essays, um, lots of recipes. Um, so that's gonna be a big, a big deal. It's actually been, you know, um, it's gonna take me three years.


SM:

Gosh.


MWT:

So, a lot of, a lot of things like that.


SM:

Both of those when, uh, when they come out and if Eat My Globe is still going, uh, we would love, love, love to have you come on and talk about those.


BREAK MUSIC


SM:

Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.


SM:

So, okay. Let's, and I said, this, this is a bit after we've had so many, you know, incredible conversations through this, but I am gonna ask you some fun questions ‘cause I always do.


MWT:

Yeah.


SM:

And, uh, um, so here are some of the fun questions if you're up for them. So, if there was a period in time where you could return to experience a meal, a style of meal and a drink, a cocktail, whatever it was, when would it be?


MWT:

Oh, wow. Hmm. I had to think about this a lot. I think that the Ottoman Empire. . .


SM:

Oh yep.


MWT:

At its height, when, you know, there were hundreds of forces and you know, to leave a, to leave a hospital, you had to be able to eat a whole chicken by yourself. So as so goes the myth. Um, I just, I just, uh, I just kind of wanna see if I had, if I had the ability to do time travel, I think it would be one week in each seat in the height of each season.


SM:

That would be incredible.


MWT:

Yeah. And that's only one of them. I think the Romans, I mean, I, I, you [inaudible] at this when I was younger or younger, please. When I was an elementary school student, one of my favorite programs was “I, Claudius.”


SM:

Oh, I love, I watch it every year.


MWT:

And it's like, I, I, every time it had a food scene. . .


SM:

[Laughter]


MWT:

. . . it was remarkable to me. Um, so yeah, I've, I've, I'm a couple of those, like New York in the seventies.


SM:

New York in the seventies, I interviewed Jacques Pépin, and, and talked to fifties and sixties and, uh, talking to him about eating at Le Pavillon or. . .


MWT:

Wow.


SM:

. . . uh, some of, some of those I would love that would be up on there for me. So, I definitely agree with that. Okay. Now, if there was a dish named after you, what would it be?


MWT:

Oh my God. Um, after, okay. We've made this hard. So, I'm, I'm gonna, I'm gonna whittle this down. Whittle this down. A dish named after me. I would, you know what, it's gonna, I would have to name, rename my “Koshersoul” rolls.


SM:

“Koshersoul” rolls.


MWT:

Yes. My pastrami collared green egg rolls.


SM:

Oh, wow. Oh, just, just actually the thought of that makes me very hungry right now.


MWT:

Yes. And I prefer, and I prefer spring, the little crispy spring roll wrappers to everything else. Um, but to me, like, yeah, because I, I've always said you can put, you know, you can create any identity in a spring roll.


SM:

Absolutely.


MWT:

And do whatever you want with it. And so, I, I think that would be, that would be it.


SM:

Okay. I think that's a great answer. And finally, as someone who I, I know has probably seen dozens of inventions since you're traveling around. And what do you think the single most important invention in the history of food and beverage?


MWT:

I, I think the mixer. The standing mixer. The, it really is, you know, the workhorse.


SM:

Yes. Yep. That's a great answer.


MWT:

You know? Yeah, yeah. That would be, that would be it. And, of course, they have many different forms. Of course, we know the main form that is status symbol today, but I mean, just the idea that how many, how many backs have been broken, leaning over a floor kneading dough.


SM:

Yep.


MWT:

How many hands are arthritic from the process?


SM:

Still, yeah. Still are, when I meet some of my, uh, baking friends.


MWT:

Um-hm.


SM:

Um, so Michael, to, before you go, I'd love you just to share your social media, just so everybody can find you, they can go find your books.


MWT:

Sure. Um, on Twitter, I'm at Koshersoul @koshersoul. K O. . . . K O S H E R S O U L. On Instagram, I am at the cooking gene. So, the title of the book, at the cooking gene. Um, um, my Facebook fan page is Michael W Twitty, Michael W Twitty. And my blog, which I hope to revamp and reboot. It's still there, um, is at, at Afro is Afroculinaria, A F R O C U L I N A R I A. Afroculinaria. And you know, once you write books and other things, the blogosphere is hard to return to.


SM:

Absolutely. So, Michael, let me just say a huge, thank you. I'm so humbled that you took time to come on. Your books are extraordinary. Just remind everyone, go and check out the “Rice” book, go and check out “Koshersoul,” go and check out “The Cooking Gene.” You, you will really not regret it. Please make sure you have those in your library.


MWT:

Well, thank you. Y'all be well.


OUTRO MUSIC


SM:

Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.


And, if you like what you hear, please don’t forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider. That really makes a difference.

Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.


CREDITS

The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”


[Pa pa pa pa pa sound]


and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.

Published Date: June 20, 2022

For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.