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Michael Twitty Wants Us to Savor the South Through Rice

updated Jun 9, 2021
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I met Michael Twitty in 2011 when he launched what he called his Southern Discomfort Tour. This completely community-sourced research project took him across the American South to find his familial lineage on the sites of the plantations on which his ancestors were enslaved. The urgency and practicality of the undertaking was a fascinating approach to food history for its time, and I felt an instant kinship with him because he was like so many of us, asking serious questions about who we were in the American culinary story. 

He was taking scholarship outside of academia and literally working cotton and tobacco fields from ‘cant see to cant see’ (sun up to sun down) and recreating the culinary conditions of the enslaved kitchen, looking for answers at the ancestral source. Watching his scholarship evolve over the last decade has been a revelation. His work as a public scholar has created a new praxis to find those answers through the study of food and culture using the lens of the African diaspora as a primary source.

Michael’s debut book, The Cooking Gene — a watershed moment in Black culinary history — earned him two James Beard Awards and international acclaim. It’s also a book noted for breaking form as not only a memoir, but also as a powerful work of genealogy and anthropology. It asks critical questions about the making of American cuisine through the lens of the Black bodies who created it. He uses his work as an exercise in self-discovery while also claiming cultural agency for Black people by requiring the reader to contend with the truth of Black authorship, personhood, and lineage in the making of American cuisine.

Michael’s latest project, Rice, is a book that feels particularly fated given his long-standing advocacy and interrogation of rice cultivation in America. Take this powerful passage from his iconic “Culinary Injustice” speech at the 2013 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, for example. In that address, he says, “It took two seasons and freshly bought Africans to make the rice planters of Charleston millionaires, yet not a single Gullah Geechee person who is losing their land has a single rice field in Charleston, South Carolina, today, and you can buy Carolina Gold rice for $14 a bag; that’s culinary injustice.” Eight years later, those words are just as valid. 

I recently talked with Michael about diving into cookbook writing, the impact of the Savor the South Cookbook Series and Rice as its final book, as well as his journey across the African Atlantic that rounded out his culinary scholarship. 

I think of your work as a culinary history level set, where you ask the reader to contend with culture first through primary scholarship before they start to cook. The Cooking Gene did that work beautifully so that the natural next step would be a cookbook. Can you talk a bit about Rice and how the project came about?
I had been speaking with Elaine Maisner, executive editor of UNC Press, about working on a cookbook for the Savor the South Series for years. As my research evolved and the series grew and was fleshed out over the years, the last scheduled cookbook just happened to be Rice. You can’t talk about the foodways of the African Atlantic without rice, so I knew even before The Cooking Gene that I’d eventually close out the series and write Rice

By the time I got around to constructing the manuscript, I had the experience of not only the Southern Discomfort Tour, where I had gone around the entire South eating rice and seeing how rice functioned as a Southern staple, but also writing The Cooking Gene that led to discoveries about my family history and how rice played a role in our story. 

After seeing rice in the field and cooking different types of rice, and eating my way across several Southern rice cultures, I began work on this project.

So you were always fated to write Rice. Can you expand on the importance of Rice in the series and your work?
Rice is diverse and multifunctional both economically and gastronomically. It brings together different and distinct narratives around the South while keeping its distinct global identity.  

One of the most essential factors in this narrative is the cultivation of rice by West Africans and the story of their exploited knowledge base that created immense Southern wealth and gifted this country with the culinary heirloom of the Southern rice kitchen. When we are being divided by forces that want us to see humanity in a hierarchy, we need to be reminded of how the universality of rice as culture can bring us together. I think this is one of the primary functions of the series, and rice is the perfect subject to end on to drive that point home.

For the last five years or so, you’ve spent a lot of time in West Africa making direct culinary connections from Africa to the American South. Given what you’ve shared about rice and its importance from a diasporic perspective, I wonder if you could talk about how you went about organizing the book and balancing the global lens with the Southern focus. 
I believe that for too long, the focus of many books about the South centered European supremacy in the primary thinking about Southern food history at the expense of telling the whole story, which would give authorship to Black people.

Of course, it’s way more complicated than that. Here we have a crop grown by Africans for millennia with a diverse relationship with other cultures globally, from Iran to Italy to Puerto Rico to Java. But West Africa isn’t one place. It’s many. And those many worlds arrived here in chains with different points of indigenous civilization and outside influences.  

I wanted to write the book as though the cultural script was flipped. I wanted to show the diverse and divergent ways rice is served in Africa and the dishes it has inspired. Even in a cookbook, we can and should center our Ancestors’ roles.  

One of the brilliant things you did in the book was sharing the mic with multiethnic chefs and writers across the diaspora to share their unique rice expertise. Would you take a moment to lift some of the chefs you tapped to contribute and why it was essential to include their voices? 
Chef Wanda Blake and Shawanda Marie, and Olive Saye are all tradition-bearers representing the Great Migration, Afri-Creole culture, and African immigrants; BJ Dennis is the next generation master of Gullah-Geechee cuisine. Damon Fowler and John Martin Taylor have been long-standing scholars of the food of Savannah and Charleston, respectively, and the surrounding regions and Southern culinary history, as is the lovely Nancy MacDermott. These chefs and cookbook authors are friends, family, and teachers — and I thought of this book as a printed family reunion. They each brought a piece to the diaspora story that made the book so much richer.

Rice can be intimidating, and I’m wondering if you have any wisdom, tips, or tricks for cooking rice and consuming the book.
One of the first recipes folks should try is the Southern Dry Rice recipe. It’s a basic pot of perfectly cooked fluffy white rice that is like mediation to prepare. Perfecting the basic technique so that each grain is separated will teach you most of what you need to know about rice cookery. 

Many of the recipes I’ve shared are derivatives of one another, and I approached the book in a way that hopefully shares the culinary life cycle of rice and all its applications. The reader will indeed travel the world and taste the global influence on the South through the dishes. 

Ultimately rice is a forgiving, flexible, and satisfying staple, so just start cooking and let the ancestors guide your pots. 

I know you’re working on Kosher Soul for 2022 next, but did Rice inspire you to jump into the cookbook lane again? Can we expect another cookbook from you anytime soon? 
It did! I have a Southern cookbook in the works coming down the pike, so expect to see more recipes!

I want to thank Michael for taking the time to talk with me about his gorgeous book Rice, which you should buy immediately. He is also hard at work on his next book, a follow-up to The Cooking Gene called Kosher Soul, the second of a three-book set that will examine the synergy and commonality of Black and Jewish culture and cuisine.