Reflections on Michael Twitty’s Pepin Lecture

On October 24th, Michael Twitty visited BU to present a Pepin Lecture on his book, The Cooking Gene. This is Gastronomy student Ariana Gunderson’s take on the lecture.

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“But, America is not ready for you.” So said an editor at a major publishing house to Michael Twitty, when he proposed a book tracing the food history of his family and black American foodways in 2012. It turns out that Twitty, culinary historian and minor twitter celebrity (@KosherSoul) got the last laugh. Following a burst of media attention for his take on the Paula Deen scandal, publishers decided America was in fact ready to hear the story of Michael’s family and his intersectional identities – Twitty identifies as black, Jewish, Southern and gay. In his new book, The Cooking Gene, Twitty imparts an important narrative long silenced by white power structures in publishing, academia, media, and education.

Invited to BU for the Pépin Lecture Series, Twitty shared the story of his research and his book in an impassioned lecture peppered with Yiddish and pop culture references. In his talk, Twitty argued that when it comes to food, narratives matter.

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“Who owns Southern food? Who created Southern food?” These questions are pertinent to current discussions of appropriation and the persistent impact of colonialism on the present day, but Twitty reframed them to emphasize narrative: “Just because the oppressor and oppressed share the same food does not mean we can create a false equivalence.” Twitty argues that the narrative of a black southerner eating black eyed peas is fundamentally different from the narrative of a white southerner eating those same peas, and that the complications of those narratives are what matter to discussions of race and food.

Narrative also matters in the histories we tell ourselves and our children. Twitty objected to the characterizations of the influences of black cuisines on the American foodscape as “contributions.” This cultural transaction was theft, he asserted, not a “contribution” made in exchange for “rape, whips, and chains.” Telling the stories of black foodways is a small but imperative step to rectifying the whitewashing of our national historical narrative, but it is crucial to be honest about the conditions of that history.

Finally, Twitty argued that personal narrative matters. With each small genealogical epiphany – the name of his great-great grandmother, the current locations of his distant relatives, the foods cooked by his Igbo ancestors – Twitty’s sense of self- and community-identity gained context and legitimacy.  He encourages everyone, but especially black Americans, to research their own family history and genealogy as he has, to add depth and emplacement to their personal narratives.

At the conclusion of his talk, Twitty assigned the audience some homework (his experience as a Hebrew School teacher was apparent here).  “It doesn’t matter where you are in your life’s journey,” said Twitty. “Go home and write your food biography.”  This biography is to be as exhaustive as possible, to include everything – even one’s trips to McDonald’s.

“Then,” Twitty instructed the audience, “if your elders are still alive, interview them.” If not, write down everything you can remember about the food they bought, cooked, ate, or talked about. Elders need not be only blood relatives, they can be anyone in your community.  This documentation and preservation of food histories is exactly the work Twitty has completed in incredible depth for his own family history, a methodology especially important for lifting up the voices of the chronically silenced. “Anyone can do this!” Twitty asserted.

Ready or not, Twitty is precisely the food historian America needs.

Don’t forget to sign up for the next installment of the Pépin Lecture Series on November 8th, where BU Gastronomy’s own Megan Elias presents her new book, Food on the Page. Register here.

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