Dishcourse: I Smell A Grass Cutter Rat…”Twains Feast” and Me

Soundtrack:  Sara Bareilles, “King of Anything;” The Cure, “Just Like Heaven,” Monica, “For You, I Will;” Aaliyah, “Try Again,” Lil’ Wayne, “Six Foot, Seven Foot;” Tito Puente, “Ran Kan Kan;” (Okay I played that back to back four times…),King Sunny Ade, “Ja Fun Mi.”

I love new books. I love books. I have 2,500 plus books here in this room I’m writing in.  Bibliophile doesn’t do it.  I am addicted to the feeling of paper.  I don’t think I’ll ever have the nook or kindle bug…I get too much of a high from the yellowed paper in old bookshops and the feeling that the Library of Congress is a temple.  When I went into the reading room of the Jefferson building, alone….for the first time at 15 years old, I had these remarkably greedy feelings of possessiveness.  I imagined I had the whole place to myself.  Then I was promptly told–get a letter from your principal because you’re too young! Yes! I was first “carded” at the L.O.C.  I got my letter, came back and haven’t left ever since.  Sorry for the tangent, I just want you to know that I feel the same way about books the way most of this country feels about the upcoming “Big Game” this weekend.  Right, is that the way to say it? …to avoid copyright infringement..?

So back on topic.  Where were we, oh yeah “infringement…” This is my first Dishcourse.  Note that it’s not a “Bolakaja!” I’m not angry; I just want to dialogue for a moment about the ethics of sharing and sourcing ideas.  I have a new book in my collection, ordered for Hannukah, entitled, Twain’s Feast.  It’s a good, tidy book.  Daddy always said, “Respect those who have theirs, because you still have yours to get.”  And, without reservation, I do.  Andrew Beahrs and I are about the same age and he’s taken a path in life that has given him quicker access to creating the kind of project I would ultimately like to be paid lots of money to do–to write show and tell books about food history that combine the culinary life, journalistic elements, detective work and scholarly and ethical rigor.  I admire Twain’s Feast, because its a work after my own heart, and if you’re out there Andrew, let’s talk! I want to know more about your process.

As I was reading Twain’s Feast, I noticed a tiny, curiously familiar and cleaver idea that I have been touting for a few years now.  Now before I “go there,” let’s “go here..” I’m not trying to as we say in the Black community, “start somethin’,” nor am I accusing Andrew Beahrs of any sort of impropriety.  Let’s be clear….I am not making any allegations of plagarism.  I am raising a red flag though about how ideas flow and are sorted and sourced in this time of lightning fast information exchange.  Let’s get to the point….Beahrs has about a dozen chapters each focusing on a specific food from Mark Twains/Samuel Clemens famous listing of the best American foods of his time–the mid to late 19th century.   The second chapter of the book, on raccoons and oppossums, has a clear and fluid summation of the African American foodways presence in Twain’s life and list.  I would have added a few things about the Virginia/Maryland migration westward to Missouri and the sea changes in the culture of the plantations and small farms and their foodways, but its not my book and not my project.  Beahrs has traveled in similar circles and lived in Virginia and worked on plantation archaeology projects and this sort of “homework” is beautifully reflected in his work.  Overall, Beahrs has more to say about the direct impact of African American cooks and cooking than many other (white) authors have let on in recent years and my hat/kippa is off to him for that.

Ok, so now that I’ve done some smooching, its time for my “What you talkin’ bout Andrew?!” moment.  I will admit that when I get a book by a kindred spirit I get ravenously paranoid and nervous…you other newbies out there know exactly what I mean…the feeling that your voice may be choked out because someone else got to the finish line first and you get an “A” for effort.  It was much less pronounced with Twain’s Feast.  I’ve matured in the past few years and as a good friend taught me, kindred works are trailblazers or jumping off points for discussion, dialogue and creative work.

Well here the hell I am…

So I saw a reference to raccoons and possums compared with the grass cutter rat of West and Central Africa on page 60.  At first I was a little bothered, but thought nothing of it.  I then set out to do some detective work.  Beahrs wisely compares game hunting in West Africa to similar subsistence traditions in the American South.  He then goes on to talk about Benin; not a great source for enslaved African Americans besides Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi Valley on sporadic occasions; and says it has “an obvious raccoon analogue called the grasscutter (or giant cane rat)….It’s sometimes served with yam porridge, or teligbo, paralleling the matching of dark, shredded meat with sweet potatoes that culinary historian John Martin Taylor says is common throughout the African diaspora. To West Africans used to eating grasscutters and other nocturnal mammals, eating raccoon and possum with sweet potatoes may have been familiar, even comforting.”

Ummm nice…..but a couple of issues…

1. In 2006, I cobbled together my first culinary history “mix tape,” a little book I’m still selling entitled “Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders 1634-1864,” which was followed by the establishment of http://www.afrofoodways.com where I posted some of my initial research and some recipes.  One of which was for possum.  My trademark is looking for culinary analogues, parallels and carryovers from West and Central Africa and the Afro-Caribbean in African American historic foodways.  Well in 2006 I put to paper–and in 2007–on the world wide web—a lovely place for idea sharing–and idea taking—the following words, long before Twain’s Feast was a thought:

ROAST POSSUM AND TATERS

“Slaves as a rule preferred possums to rabbits.”

—“Parson” Rezin Williams, Prince George’s County (Rawick, 75)

“Yes, I have hunted opossums, and coons.”

— James V. Deane (6)

“When hunting came, especially in the fall or winter, the
weather was cold , I have often heard my father speak of
rabbit, opossum and coon hunting and the dogs.”

— George Jones (44)

There seems to be a consensus among the enslaved elders who left us the stories of their lives that wild game was important to their diet and a seasonal delicacy.
During the whole of this fall and winter, we usually had something to roast, at least twice a week, in our cabin. These roasts were raccoons, opossums, and other game–the proceeds of my trapping. All the time the meat was hanging at the fire, as well as while it was on the table, our house was surrounded by the children of our fellow-slaves; some begging for a piece, and all expressing, by their eager countenances the keen desire they felt to partake with us of our dainties. It was idle to think of sharing with them, the contents of our board; for they were often thirty or forty in number; and the largest raccoon would scarcely have made a mouthful for each of them. –Charles Ball (274-275)
In a culture that was not averse to eating members of the rodent family, such as the cutting-grass rat (Thryonomys swinderianus) of Lower Guinea; the marsupial Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) was a real treat.  My great-grandfather was fond of it as were many in his generation and before.  Hunting and dealing with the wild was the concern of men, and this trait, brought across the Atlantic, helped preserve the manhood and brotherhood of many an enslaved man. When the “simmons,” (persimmons) were ripe and the frost and light snow had descended on the land the possums were considered to be at their fattest and most delicious.  Typically they were caught with dogs, kept alive a week or two and fed cornbread and persimmons until it the cook felt that they were “cleaned out.”  (Possums eat carrion in addition to fruits and nuts.)  They were then killed, bled and cleaned out of their entrails.  The possum was soaked overnight in cold, salted water.  Roasted with sweet potatoes (“taters,”) they were considered the height of the harvest feasting. I’ve never actually had possum, but this recipe is the result of years of research.  Try it!
1 possum
½ cup of fresh butter or lard
flour to coat
1 cup of water
salt and hot pepper flakes
5 large sweet potatoes, cut into chunks
1-2 tablespoon of molasses

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease down the possum with fresh butter or lard, rub salt and hot pepper flakes into the possum and sprinkle all over with flour. Place the possum in the pan and add the cup of water and bake for an hour. Place sweet potatoes around the possum and drizzle with molasses.  Bake for another 45 minutes until the potatoes are soft and the possum is brown.  Remember to add a little flour and water mixed together to thicken the stock in the pan to serve as gravy.

I’ve done over one hundred presentations where I’ve repeated the same information when I’ve shown my slide of the “four food groups”—possum, rabbit, squirrel and coon….I know the literature well—and nobody made that “leap” in print (news to you budding culinary historians—Ecclesiastes/Koheleth was right–there is “nothing new under the sun,” but if you look under a rock you just might find something the sun didn’t shed light on…) before I put the pieces together.  People might have talked about it–and they probably did–but I’ve put that information out there in print, on the web and in my talks.

2. Always follow the source.  I looked at the notes section of Andrew’s book.  I noticed a couple of things.  First the comparison of possum and coon with grasscutter is based on a “personal conversation” with J.C. Monroe on January 15, 2009–and admittedly I don’t know who J.C. Monroe is.  Maybe they have been to or lived in Benin and connected the dots too, fair enough. But here are the problems.  It’s not a documented source.  How do I know that Mr. Beahrs or J.C. Monroe didn’t check out http://www.afrofoodways and dialogued about it and re-packaged it as a “personal conversation?”

What makes this “ehh” moment even more salient is that I know the writings of my acquaintance and hero John Martin Taylor well.  He has a wonderful recipe from Pearl Edge for roast raccoon in his Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking on page 144.  He does not explicitly mention pairing possum or coon with “yams”/sweet potatoes anywhere in his text.  He simply says, “Her spicy stew of shredded meat bolstered by sweet potatoes is similar to goat and lamb dishes found throughout the African diaspora.”

Culinary historian John Martin Taylor said nothing of the grasscutter connection nor did he provide any examples from the Caribbean or Latin America, the Middle East or any other part of the Diaspora.  I do know that up and coming culinary historian Michael Twitty said something about it–and published it several years before January 15, 2009 when this “personal communication” took place.

I’m not getting huffy, I promise.  I am raising a serious issue about the ethics of this kind of work.  I realize I’m still paying my dues, and have been for a few years now–going on six years.  However I have noticed that my “take” has shown up in the work of a handful of people, and its “interesting…”

Time for a good old fashioned, wave the finger in the air…..I’m nobody’s intern any more.  I do my own “thing,” because I didn’t want my work or ideas (no matter how small) to get subsumed into that of someone else without proper credit–and believe me I saw it happen so much when I would partner with others that I almost gave up on my dreams entirely.  One beautiful example of this not being the case is Mary Thompson of Mount Vernon whose forthcoming work on the enslaved community there cites me in her notes on the connection between West and Central Africans and ebony fruit and their reaction to the persimmon which is in the same botanical family.  (Btw I have a forthcoming piece about this and other botanical cognates coming out sometime this year or early 2012 in an edited volume on ethnobotany.) Thank you Mary for being so kind to give me a bibliographical shout out!

I’m really not accusing Mr. Beahrs of anything specific.  Maybe he’s never heard of me, maybe he never saw my site.  Maybe J.C. Monroe never saw my site, maybe its coincidence like the lottery winnings off those fortune cookie numbers….It just seems rather, interesting that there is no other textual reference for this factoid, and in his notes, its based on personal communication.  It strikes me as odd that he would further attribute to John Martin Taylor–an honorable man if there ever was one—the culinary history part when he did not in fact say what Mr. Beahrs insinuates he did.  There are a lot of coincidences here.  My yetzer hara–what some of you call the “little devil” on your shoulder–feels like saying that perhaps my site came up in the research process and instead of citing me or contacting me about this, the reference was attributed to a more known and established culinary historian, in this case, Mr. Taylor.  I wouldn’t be so “conspiracy theory” about it if it hadn’t happened to me before in the past in one form or another.  I have no proof of that whatsoever and I’m not supposed to be a “talebearer” according to the Holy Torah, so the little devil can shut the hell up for now.  But…

I want you to think about the ethical implications here.  Thank G-d for this blog, because for years I’ve wanted to be shout–HEY! Here we are–eager, young, and just wanting to be heard and have people take notice of our developing talents, knowledge base and dedication to maturing and growing in “the field.”  Even as we respect our elders and those who have “made it,” and have been given authority and cachet by publishing companies and the media; we little guys/gals and “up and comings” deserve to be heard too–and cited and given proper credit so we can build our credibility and prove ourselves worthy of the same validation that others have.

For example, my article on enslaved people’s gardens published in World of A Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States was quoted as part of a New York Times article : see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/arts/design/07antiques.html

Now that was part of the lead quote.  I find it interesting that the author of the piece never attributed the facts in her opener to any particular author but devoted considerable time to the author (whom she named) of a single piece who was largely interested in debunking the idea of slave quilts as derivative of African tradition and the controversial “quilt code.”   I did eighteen articles for the encyclopedia, more than any other consulted author, amounting to over 40 pages of material.  I’m not tooting my own horn, because I believe your work should speak for you–not you of your work…but even still…Why did one author challenging concepts of African American cultural authenticity and cultural mythology get a “shout out,” while a young man of color who is trying to get established, who wrote eighteen pieces, more than any other invited contributor, get a line lifted from his piece, but no name presence?  Who gets to decide who is “important” enough to mention and qualify as an “expert?” These are old questions that will not be answered here.  Forget me for a second–I was not the only younger/up and coming person to work on this project–which I will state categorically was lovingly and faithfully edited by Martha Katz-Hyman and Kim Rice (and thank G-d and thank them for the tremendous opportunity)  I think a better finish to the piece in the Times would have been to look at how we–the next generation—especially those of us of color are intellectually owning our ancestors story and passing it on for the better rather than debunking non-contextual questions of “authencity.”  Enough soap box.  Give credit where credit is due and shed light on those who need it to grow, succeed and reach others.

I would welcome the chance to talk to Mr. Beahrs, and I wish him all the best and give him due credit for creating a wonderful piece of culinary and literary history.  He did a very fair job of crediting our ancestors and did a great service to Mr. Twain.  Kol tuv!

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About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in Food and Slavery, Publications. Bookmark the permalink.

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