By Lindsay Smith, consultant, Washington Regional Food Funders
“Did you know that collard greens are the new kale? Or that offal is a fancy word for chitlins? This makes all of my grandparents foodies.”
Michael Twitty, at the kickoff of WRAG’s 2014 Brightest Minds series, was commenting on both the popularity of Southern food in contemporary American culture, and the lack of understanding that many of these foods were first brought to America’s table by enslaved people. According to Michael, in many instances these foods were not only the last pieces of African culture which they held on to, but the basis of the meals they made for their families and their white masters. These foods eventually became the foundation of today’s American Southern cuisine.
Into the 20th century, many vegetable purveyors, cooks, restaurant proprietors, and others in the food business were African American. In Michael’s experience much of that heritage, knowledge, and pride has been lost as African Americans migrated out of the South in search of new opportunities and professions. He’s worked with youth of color, using garden activities to teach about history and culture, and been told by a few that they didn’t want to participate initially because they were “not a slave.” He’s travelled extensively throughout the South where he’s seen many African American restaurants shuttered, and presented at conferences with several hundred people in attendance where he finds himself one of a handful of people of color.
But this can change, and there are roles for a variety of community leaders to play in doing so, including funders. Food brings us together. It can be used to teach about science, math, history, health, or home economics. And whether it’s collard greens from Africa or potatoes from Peru, food can be used to teach about cultural ancestry and build bridges between communities. In Michael’s words, true community can be built through food.
There’s a growing awareness that where our food comes from matters to environmental sustainability, workers’ rights, and much more. As community members and consumers, Michael suggests that cultural heritage and economic development should also be factored into our thinking about food. He talked about a white chef in the South who positions himself as the interpreter of one African country’s cuisine without any obvious attempt to partner with contemporary African or African American authorities on the cuisine. He contrasted this with an example of a partnership between a white chef with a farm-to-table restaurant and a local farmer. The chef makes a hot sauce from the heritage varieties of a pepper first grown by slaves but now grown by an African American farmer. With these contrasting examples, Michael illustrates his notion of culinary justice.
Whereas food justice generally refers to the right to grow, sell, and consume culturally appropriate and healthy food, culinary justice extends the concept to include recognizing cultural authority over certain foods and traditions. This includes the right to benefit from one’s own foods and traditions. By embracing this notion, Michael argues that food can be used more effectively as a tool for community building and development.
To learn more about Michael Twitty’s work, check out his blog, afroculinaria.com