This Voices In Food story, as told to Amanda Balagur, is from the perspective of Michael W. Twitty, a food writer, culinary historian and historical interpreter. He gained international recognition through his writing, public talks and his food blog, Afroculinaria. He is also the author of The Cooking Gene, which won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Book of the Year.
Twitty grew up in Washington D.C. and taught Hebrew school in that metro area for 15 years (he converted to Judaism at age 25). He is writing his second book, Kosher Soul, which focuses on his journey through the world of Jewish food as a Black American Jew, how Black Americans have affected Jewish food, the journey of Blacks and Jews in their own food worlds and how Black Jews have created their own foodways. He has published a blog post titled A Scolding in Seven Pieces in response to the recent protests and related violence.
On food and systemic racism in the U.S.
Black people (and Native Americans) are the blueprint for how America has dealt with its minorities of color. And what’s very powerful about being an ethnic minority in this country, soon to be a collective majority, is that the majority has to come back to us to eat.
Southern and Caribbean and Latin and Brazilan and Haitian and Jamaican and Creole and Cajun food — no matter what label you put on it — is African diaspora food. Colonialism has had a deep impact.
So what I’m saying is that [White House senior adviser] Stephen Miller writes these awful speeches for [President Donald] Trump, but when he’s hungry, he still has to go back to the Black and brown people to eat. If I were him, I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Mexican restaurant, but he does that all the time — it’s like a middle finger to our faces. It’s like saying, ‘We can use your bodies, your labor, your creativity, use you for entertainment, but we still want to kill you, annihilate you, remove you.’ And, that hasn’t changed since slavery, hasn’t changed since the first Thanksgiving.
“Honestly, I love the force that’s been put on this community to change, but if it was me, I would’ve scared the hell out of the powers that be. ... All I want is to have them wonder, ‘How are they gonna empower themselves next?’”
How are you going to take advantage of a people’s indigenous ingenuity and creativity and resourcefulness, and then turn around and annihilate them? The idea of the Black man and Black woman on the plantation, creating all these foods from the cultures around them and then not being able to eat them, or being punished for being hungry … hunger is a form of violence.
I see the news talking a lot about violence. And it disturbs me, because they think violence is throwing something through a window or breaking into a building, with money loss and maybe a couple of bloody noses. Violence is hunger. Violence is the fact that Native Americans don’t have running water in a lot of reservations in this country. Violence is food deserts.
We scoff at that, but these things add up to poor school performance, choices and ideas about life that are negative, that are not the American dream and that feed into a cycle of hopelessness and nihilism that a lot of children of color never escape. And, let’s face it — that same violence is affecting poor white communities, because they also have a health problem. These are forms of passive-aggressive violence.
What needs to happen for a better future
The most important thing that we have to do is look at the situation as an opportunity to really work together and think about things in new ways. Everybody should be growing food. Everybody should be putting their resources together. We should not have a situation where people are hungry. It’s important to be able to eat, and eat well. Everybody’s gotta grow some squash, everybody’s gotta grow some tomatoes … whatever they’ve got. And, I mean everywhere —every place where food can viably grow in a non-toxic environment. That’s really, really essential.
“Now’s the time for nutritionists, for the exercise gurus in the Black community, for all of us to come together and add to this narrative of how to make food work for us instead of us working for the food.”
We also have to understand who’s open, who’s not and who needs an opportunity, as far as folks who are doing food work. We need to support those businesses and our food writers and critics and everybody down the line. We have to know who they are, and we have to make sure they’re supported and have what they need.
Another thing that we have to do is that we have to start educating ourselves about the quality of the food that we need. We need to prioritize certain things over other things to become physically strong. It’s a health issue. Eating our greens, our sweet potatoes, our cabbage, our whatever-we-need to stay at our optimal health. Now’s the time for nutritionists, for the exercise gurus in the Black community, for all of us to come together and add to this narrative of how to make food work for us instead of us working for the food.
There’s no sin in free food — and by free, I mean sharing it without having to break your ass to earn a dollar for it. Because that’s how African-originated people eat. We’re a collective; we make sure everybody eats. Nobody goes hungry. Everybody has to contribute something, but nobody goes hungry, especially our elders and our children. So we have to start thinking that way.
Ultimately, it comes down to really being informed about our past. Not to go in circles — I call it the circles of wokeness — but to really have a multi-systemic approach. No more symbolics, no more talking about anything that’s surface.
On his personal desire to push harder for change
Honestly, I love the force that’s been put on this community to change, but if it was me, I would’ve scared the hell out of the powers that be.
“When people do things like this, they make it very hard for me personally, and for the Black community, to accept any kind of dialogue as being effective and real and important. It makes it very difficult for me to do my work without screaming.”
I would’ve said: OK, we may not give you a little protest, but what we are gonna do is, we’re gonna go into our spaces in our communities and shut the damn door. And then we’re gonna show up to the courthouse. And then we’re gonna show up to the registrar to vote. And then we’re gonna stop shopping at your stores. And then we’re gonna stop using your damn buses. And we’re gonna do what our ancestors did.
You want peaceful? I’ll give you peaceful. I’m also going to do the one thing you care about the most: take your money away. I’m gonna make this worse because you made our lives worse, and we’re gonna create lobbying firms in our own communities so that we can address the congressmen not as just concerned citizens, but as a collective business, a corporate and sovereign people.
All I want is to have them wonder, ‘How are they gonna empower themselves next?’ I’m all about scaring the hell out of people about our next move.
“Everybody should be growing food. Everybody should be putting their resources together. We should not have a situation where people are hungry.”
I think it’s patently clear that unless we go hard and demand reparations or demand that we get to use the Second Amendment like everyone else on equal terms, those will not be acceptable to normative white America.
We have no excuse. We have no excuse not to get this done, because the problem begins with our nourishment. But when you’re like me, and your job is to create hope through food, to bring people to the table and to understand each other, to love each other, to seek out a new way … [events like the killing of George Floyd] makes my role so much harder.
[Police] killed my distant brother, my distant family—and that’s horrific. But then, one of the other forms of violence here is taking away everything but submission. When people do things like this, they make it very hard for me personally, and for the Black community, to accept any kind of dialogue as being effective and real and important. It makes it very difficult for me to do my work without screaming.