Enjoyed the art in The Cooking Gene? Meet my illustrator, Stephen Crotts!

When you hear people talk about the enmity of white and Black Southerners you need to understand that everyday that paradigm is being challenged by the generations here and to come. When I wanted a dream team of people for this book and The Cooking Gene project I selected artists and photographers from diverse backgrounds.  One friend of a friend I met in my journeys was Stephen Crotts. I wanted my book to have the rustic feel his art has. I wanted it to communicate the past translated into now. Stephen is my friend, he brought this to book to life and I want you to meet him: 

How long have you been creating your art?

Everyone draws as a child, right? People find other creative outlets along the way. I just kept scribbling.

How does being from the South and especially South Carolina impact your work?

My family raised me to notice and care about the people and places surrounding me, and exposed me to Southern history, nature, food, music and more. My folks shared their faith with me, showing me what it looks like to love your neighbor. They helped me actually see the South for what it is: broken and beautiful, scarred and surviving.

When I started playing banjo in high school, I gobbled up as much as I could find about the instrument’s African origins. At college I got involved with a group of living history interpreters who were all African-American. Seeing eyes opened as we did programs about slavery in museums and on plantation sites made me want to be a bigger part of inviting people to consider the past. An artist residency in the 8th Ward of New Orleans dazzled all my senses, but not without putting my inherited advantages in contrast with the opportunities of my neighbors there. Getting to work with museums in the years since has allowed me to keep telling Southern stories in the community.

How long have you worked in this medium and what other media do you work with?

I started carrying sketchbooks in high school. Sketching from life in ink forced me to pay more attention to the marks I was making. I started and finished several of the ink drawings for The Cooking Gene in my sketchbooks. When I approach drawings loosely, on scrap paper or in my sketchbook, the work often ends up with more spontaneity and life. In addition to drawing with ink, I have also been working more in oils. Painting a landscape outdoors requires working quickly to capture whatever drama there is in front of me at that moment. The light and conditions are constantly changing, so it can be a challenge. Painting places allows me to actively observe and appreciate where I am.

I was really impressed with how you brought the African ancestors to life. Tell me more about that process?

For some of the ancestors, we had photographs to reference. Starting there, we incorporated visual clues to their stories, such as the woven fan Elijah Mitchell holds. Additionally, we worked in botanical ornamentation of the kinds of crops the ancestors worked with. Attempting to draw people for whom we have no visual record was more of a challenge. Because of the genealogy you have done, we know which people groups these individuals belonged to. For me, it was a balance of looking at others from those groups, as well as the faces of their descendants (including yourself).

The illustrations in The Cooking Gene are really poignant because they often bring to life old photographs of my Ancestors. It’s one thing to bring out the realism, but how did you work on capturing the spirit within them?

The habit of drawing faces from life helps me get close to the edge of intangible qualities in people – those things a snapshot may not capture. I’m always hoping for more than a technically accurate rendering. I’m really looking for a sense of the person’s emotion, and I have to lean on what I’ve seen in the eyes of living people when approaching the image of someone I haven’t met.

What was your favorite illustration in The Cooking Gene?

The drawing of Jack Todd struck me. We see the mast of a ship just over his shoulder. He has just arrived in America. My imagination fails to grasp the reality of that moment, but the drawing stared me down and made me consider it. What it would mean for my family and me if I were suddenly removed from our joint pursuit of happiness? What are the consequences of refusing to recognize the image of the Creator in another human being?

You love nature and are a brilliant amateur naturalist. Your images of animals and wildlife are both fun and exact in how they evoke Southern identity. How does your relationship with nature impact your work and your relationship with the South?

Finding wild creatures is so thrilling in part because it can’t be planned, and there’s always a measure of surprise and delight in that. Daddy taught me how to whistle to the Bobwhite quail and wait for its response. My uncle took my cousin and me on weekend adventures, highlighting counties where we observed beetles, dragonflies or snakes in a binder of South Carolina maps marked for each species. Now I get to quiz my daughter on the calls of our backyard birds. Things like the appearance of wildflowers or the emerging of cicadas mark time for me throughout the year, and deeply make this place what it is.

What was challenging about working on this project? What was enjoyable?

It is challenging (and humbling) to try to honor and communicate the lives of people upon whose shoulders we are standing. The heavy lifting has been done in the writing. I hope the drawings serve as a set of eyes looking back, reminding us that what we’re reading isn’t abstract. There’s joy for me in the making of the images, but more in what they invited me to consider along the way. We have not suddenly manufactured the syncopated rhythms and rich tastes we enjoy at our cultural banquet. Every good thing is a gift that has given at great cost. Faithful stewardship begins in recognition and thankfulness.

Stephen Crotts is an artist and illustrator living with his wife and daughters in Rock Hill, South Carolina. See more of his work at scrotts.com.

Posted in African American Food History, African Food Culture, Cultural Politics, Events and Appearances, Pop Culture and Pop Food, Publications, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Washington Post Review of The Cooking Gene 


This is cool. I pretty much like it and go, aiight. 

I guess I’d like to correct a few things. 1. Because of an unscrupulous landlord and some failures on the part of the City of Rockville Code Enforcement Division to address how they broke the law, I no longer live in Rockville, Maryland. It is no longer my hometown.

Also, I didn’t drop out of Howard University, I ran out of money. Drop out and broke out are two different things. Hey, just being real. 

And, “substantial girth,” yes, and? Normally I’d take that as a compliment but in this differing context….I will still take it as a compliment. 



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The Forgotten History of Black Chefs – Eater


Honored that this selection from THE COOKING GENE appears on Eater 🙂

The love that everyone is showing for this book is amazing and very emotional for me. I am grateful for all of the positive energy and strength from my old and newfound family. May all the good vibes go beyond us to heal our South, the country and the world. Why hold it in? 

If you would like to know more about my book visit here and if you would like to get a copy visit the above link or here. At a time when we are once again trying to wrestle with race in America, I offer my work as a means to promote healing and understanding. We need it desperately.

Sister Heather Beyer, we thank you for your service as a human being doing Gds work on planet earth.

Posted in African American Food History, Cultural Politics, Diaspora Food Culture, Elders and Wise Folk, Events and Appearances, Publications, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Response to #Charlottesville 


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The Faces of #TheCookingGene 

This has been an amazing day.

Thank you. 

Summer has it on the shelf next to the copy of Roots she inherited from her Grandmother. 

Posted in Events and Appearances, Jewish Stuff, Pop Culture and Pop Food, Publications, The Cooking Gene, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Good Press on Launch Day! THE COOKING GENE, Part 1 August 1, 2017

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/food-historian-reckons-black-roots-southern-food-180964285/?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=socialmedia If you want to check out Smithsonian magazine’s coverage.

Or…if you missed this morning’s piece on the NPR show “On Point,” listen here. Its a really great conversation about who “owns” Southern food.

Want some recipes? Try this piece from the Toledo Blade

I’m busy but grateful and I’m going to update!

Love you 🙂



Twitty 🙂

Posted in African American Food History, Diaspora Food Culture, Food and Slavery, Pop Culture and Pop Food, Publications, Scholars, Elders and Wise Folk, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dear HBO: About that Alt-Reality “Confederate” Show.

Ok. HBO has created tremendous buzz about a show that has everybody talking, even me. It’s a show called “Confederate,” the South won, time moved on, slavery and abolitionist sentiments and battles over freedom evolved through our own day.

To put it in Entertainment Weekly’s words: 

But wait, isn’t that already the reality we essentially live in micro form now? 

Not knocking you HBO, seriously, it reminds me of the mockumentary “CSA: Confederate States of America” in which the most salient feature were television advertisements for enslaved Black people and “Cops” reimagined as a show about slave catching.  It’s interesting that a show is being produced in the twilight of “Underground,” a show that gave Obama era passion and swag to the abolitionist movement…of course, not your show not your channel, not your problem. And yet, a whole new generation of people were tuned in to learn about slavery and the resistance against it.  As an interpreter of slavery, a Black man who willingly chooses to portray and give voice to the lives of his enslaved Ancestors, this is a gift. It’s hard to get African Americans to visit and therefore become stewards of the history of their Ancestors’ plantation experience. When we dont show up, we can’t police the narratives others tell and can’t speak up for our dead. But that’s not your baggage, not your problem, right?

Your show concept is cool until we begin to think of all the other alt-history moments that would be equally provocative but seem unimaginable because of our addictive, national obsession with structurally racist ideas. What if Dr. King became president or Dr. Betty Shabazz or Coretta Scott King or Fred Hampton or Myrlie Evers? What if Haiti fomented rebellion to free enslaved African Americans? What if, and this is really crazy….if enslaved Africans were completely freed in 1776 or even 1789. Or maybe shucks, full and permanent equality and voting rights after the Civil War? 

Just imagine if our 1776 hero Kwaku Walker is emancipated on July 4th. What if he got to change his surname back to Ayensu after a full apology and recompense in a land share by his former slaveholder. Imagine that some would repatriate, others would encourage the United States to abolish the slave trade. A large portion might demand representation in the government. And in the spirit of freedom of religion and assembly later guaranteed, the Orisha, Abosom and Vodu might be worshipped like Allah or Jesus in Black houses of worship. Imagine white children more fully assimilating into African culture and better health and less stress leading to Black majorities from southern Maryland to coastal Georgia where the ancient civilizations of West and Central Africa could flourish in an American context. Maybe Kwame forces Jefferson to rethink his views of racial hierarchies. Maybe he helps cure Benjamin Franklin’s Negrophobia. Imagine Kwaku’s wife Belinda passing down to her daughter’s the knowledge that no man, especially not slaveholders would ever violate her womanhood. Imagine the sanctity of their marriage, parental rights and familyhood protected by law.

Why is the inevitable scene of sexual degradation and semi-pornographic snuffery your show might well have or moments of torture a la sadism/masochism more important than a show that would show the warm promise of what America could have been, not if it had maintained a twisted romantic inspired push pull of moralities, but had in fact honored it’s cause to declare all (men) equal? What if there was no more encroachment on Native lands? Funny, we had a show on your network and dime about coexisting with vampires, but never a notion about Native peoples being able to live in peace with treaty keeping non-Native neighbors. How about if Abigail Adams was able to get her voice heard and American women were liberated long before anyone knew what a lighter or a bra was?

To another point, this show could be a means of being sharp social commentary on today’s vestiges of slavery and the racist past as prologue. If it is, I’m all for it. Indict law enforcement overreach and show it’s roots in slave catching and slave patrols and executions of enslaved people…read Africans in America…for being perceived threats. Show the history of our bizarre accepted exploitation of women of color and the baggage of identity issues we were lobbed with in slavery’s aftermath. The Black body and the agricultural, industrial and cultural products associated with it from the 18th-19th centuries were America’s most valuable holdings ever. Talk about the theft of our labor and culture, talk about our daily ongoing resistance, born of our inception in 1526.

If you’re going to do this, there must be no moral ambiguity. The institution of racial chattel slavery was one of the greatest moral evils in the history of humankind. There is no waffling here. Facts: our world has been shapes by this institution and it’s dregs and aftermath. Slavery keeps claiming victims (and to hell with anyone who dares wince at the word or suggestion.)  If you’re going to do this, do it right or not at all. 

We live in a country where apologists for this system still exist. Where websites written by so-called neo-Confederates talk about people like me as “feral Negroes.” This is not a time to be merely provocative but preemptive. Voting rights have been under attack ever since they were granted. The so called Alt-Right has introduced Nazi era tactics and is led by Richard Spencer, a spineless racist who once suggested the white West find a “humane” way to exact genocide against African Americans.  

We don’t have room for error here.  Not one inch, lest others take a mile. 

Posted in Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments