At Monticello

1.  What is The Cooking Gene?

The Cooking Gene is the confluence of several major areas of interest that I hold dear–family history, Southern/African American food history, the cultural politics of identity, and intercultural connections and historical legacies.  We are traveling the “Old South,” in search of sites that are a part of my family history in slavery and segregation (plantations, gravesites, cotton gins, tobacco barns, churches, etc.) tracing the larger story of African American foodways through my Black, white and Native American ancestors and their personal stories.  We are attempting to dialogue with the white families who owned my family–some of whom I am related to by blood–using food as the medium of communication and discourse.  We are looking at the development of African American foodways from Africa to America and from the colonial South to the antebellum and postbellum South using my family tree and family geography if you will as a guide.  We’re calling that connection “foodsteps” instead of footsteps to describe those edible connections to the landscape and time.

We will be doing 7 community service projects as part of the project to be established before we get on the road.

We will interview and document the food producing efforts of Black farmers and fishermen.

We will seek out heirloom seeds and wildcrafting and medicinal lore in specific communities.

We will be doing food workshops that bring people of various backgrounds together in the spirit of education and racial (cross-cultural) reconciliation and healing.

We will honor the ancestors of each historic site and family history site by saying prayers, including The Kaddish, and through libation and we invite you to offer any names you want  for this process.

2.  Why Now? What is the purpose of all this?  

I really believe that food is a critically important way to bring people together across long-held boundaries that have divided them.  I think all people of conscience, no matter what their other political or cultural beliefs may be can agree that we Southerners and we Americans need to deal with the legacy of slavery and its affect on race relations in America and the Western world as a whole.  We can agree that kids need healthy food that comes from their communities.  We can agree that our past is important and needs to be taught and taught well. We can agree that racial reconciliation and healing are more important than racial posturing and conflicting agendas.   We can agree that enslaved Africans and African Americans made an incredible but not well recognized contribution to Southern and American cuisine and that this story can serve as an inspiration to us today.  We can also agree that there are African American historic interpreters, community scholars, farmers, fishermen, elders and others whose foodsteps and foodstories have not been told and that this has a direct impact on the cultural and economic viability and vitality of our communities.

We are going to be in a divisive and politically charged year.  The party’s just getting started.  I’ve always wanted to make sure that while I was young(er) I got to see my Old Country–the Old South—and document the paths of my foremothers and forefathers.  I have for the past ten years been addicted to historic foodways and telling the story of African American foodways from Africa to America, and from slavery to freedom.  Part of this project is meant to bring people together in a cultural and political climate (“nay we shant discuss politics) that had torn us apart as a country.  I want to bring us all back to the table.

This is a very personal and vulnerable project.  I am going into this knowing that peace, reconciliation, healing and connection have to be modus operandi, not anger, fear, resentment or making demands on others.  It’s always been my dream to get my respective family histories back to the earliest plantations I can find and the ship that brought my ancestors from Africa.  By making a public and personal project so visible my hope is that I can garner the interest and communal effort that will enable me to achieve that and use it as a teaching tool and a means to inspire others to take a similar path.

My Great Grandfather, Joseph Peter, the Grandson of an Enslaved African (Right) and his brother Lane

3.  Are you sure you aren’t South-Bashing?

My “beef” is with the Old South, not the “New” or “Newer” model.  I will be honest, I have no good blood for the philosophies that ripped my family apart from its homelands and exiled them and ripped their families apart in slavery.  You can probably guess how angry all of that makes me–or makes anyone who can speak to a vast oppressive system that has defined their people’s history.  Remember, I also teach seventh grade Hebrew school students about the Holocaust every week….so I know what it means to have a measured take on the pains of the past and move forward.

That having been said, I have always defined myself as a Southerner.  All of my grandparents were born in the South, and they instilled in me a Southern culture as did my Mother and Father.  My Dad and I were both born in the Census South, beneath the -Mason-Dixon line and my Mom grew UpSouth in Cincinnati when the city was mainly white Southerners of old, white Southerners from Appalachia and family’s like hers that were Black Southern migrants from the central South–Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and some from the Carolinas and Georgia.  My Southern roots go back to the 17th and 18th centuries.  I am telling a story that shows my link to ancestors who fought for the Confederacy as well as those who rebelled against slavery.  All of us–Black, white, Native American and in recent years Asian and Latino and others have built the South, built on the accruing legacies of others before us and we owe it to our ancestors to understand one another and appreciate how far we’ve come.

I also think Southern food culture is one of the most beautiful and culturally refined American cuisines with an incredible geographic and historical breadth and diversity.  We know a lot of new history, its time for a new, deeper take on that story–not just looking at it through culture or race–but as a product of human interactions with the land–and that’s something I want to celebrate as one of the genius elements of being Southern.

This isn’t South-bashing, this is South-loving.

Great-Great-Great Grandfather Henry Hancock, born in the 1840's Alabama

4.  How are you funding this trip?  If I donate what is my money going to fund?  Is this a gimmick?

Thanks to the miracle and curse of the Internet, opportunities to get a project funded have bloomed that were not an option just years ago. While I LOVE the grant process 🙂  It is really important that independent projects, especially those by young(er) people who don’t have the advantage of being established have the opportunity to get the financial and communal support they need.  Its hard to go on to the next thing when you’re worried about the last thing you did and the thing before that because you’re not stable.  So news–crowdfunding isn’t about getting rich–its about having the support that enables an artists, scholar, cook, activist, filmmaker, writer, the ability to be stable and work with greater consistency and integrity.  The times in my professional life where I have failed others are the times when I can’t make ends meet and feel helpless…that’s not where we need to be for this project–this initial funding is an investment in its long term stability.

We will be using as our means of crowd-funding.  We are opting for flexible funding…that means we will get whatever is donated whether or not we meet our goal in May minus the percentage taken by the site.  We are still working out what people should get per donation.  If you have any suggestions–write me here!!! Comment!  Talk!  You can do that! 🙂

Breaking Down the Money:

We are trying to raise about 8,000 dollars to fund The Cooking Gene.  That’s probably too low for our needs,  but we are banking on safety not sky’s the limit.
Travel–we will need money for gas and when necessary bus and train fare.
Food–we are committing ourselves to spending 80% of our food budget in local businesses and establishments, farmer’s markets, farm to table restaurants, local farmers and fishermen especially African American and Native American producers who are badly in need of support.  Food in a service based economy is one of the most important ways of keeping a community working and thriving!
Research and Equipment and Supplies–We are making every effort to be as “green” as possible in our supply list–no water bottles but we will travel with a filter, reusable bags and the like.  We will need atlases, guides, memory cards, tripods and the like to properly document and upload our findings daily.
DNA Testing—I am going to test myself and several male relatives to find out more about our genetic roots in West and Central Africa, Native America and Europe.
Lodging–It won’t be great digs but as long as we are safe and locked in at night it’s all good.
Oh @#$%^ Money—You never know whats going to happen to you out there…We need to be prepared.
While 8,000 is the goal we need to keep going once the project is funded. Please keep in mind this is about two months away from home and away from work to do this project.  Anything extra is vastly appreciated.
Just as important as funding the project and donating is getting the word out.  The more people who know about us and what we are trying to do the likelihood we can move forward sooner with putting our plan in stone.
If 800 people contribute (think about how small that is in the American population alone….) ten dollars—-we’ve met our goal.
If 500 people contribute 16 dollars, we’ve met our goal.
You get the point–8,000 is our base goal…..but we need as much as people can give without causing a burden on their budgets.

(We need help determining what our gifts will be for each level of donation–if you have any suggestions or ideas PLEASE PLEASE let me know!)

5.  What kind of end-products are you offering the public and people who want to get involved in the process of making this happen?

We will first launch The Cooking Gene blog on WordPress on January 16, 2012.  Dr. King’s birthday observed.  We want to fulfill his dream of everybody coming to the table of brotherhood–the sons of formers slaves and the sons of former slaveowners…The blog will be our major output along with a You Tube channel and other resources on Facebook and Twitter.  We will use the Blog to chart our progress in developing the project, blog about the relevant national and family history and foodways related to it, and post letters and comments and recipes from interested contributors and students from around the South.  When we get on the road each step of the journey will be documented and I’ll record commentary, discussions, historic food demonstrations that I do along the way.  There is bound to be interesting and deep dialogue and that will be blogged about each night after the days’ travels are done—even after I’ve worked a day in cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, rice and the like…..yes it’s going to hurt…..We want the blog to also be sounding board for people looking for their roots and connections through food no matter what background they come from.

We hope that with the appropriate media attention, the video that we document, and the written transcripts of the Southern Discomfort Tour that it will eventually feed into a book and or documentary based on the Project.  In either case we hope that this process will enable us to streamline that so we can reach a larger audience.

Uncle AB and his jazz band

6.  Why, in a bad economic climate should I fund this project?

Hey I get it–the recession and economic downturn is bad–but we have to get out of it by supporting each other.  I am including some of the material from my Grandparent’s childhood in the Depression because I want people to understand that by pulling together we can survive anything and be a greater America.  This project will inevitably attract teachers and counselors who want their kids to cook or garden with me or hear more about   my story and share their own stories…It will have at least seven community service projects associated with it (if you want to be on that bandwagon–tell us NOW!) and its a project where we are well aware of the need to bring witness to American food producers and local food people who need our dollars, our shout outs and our support.  Also, I’m using this project as a means to promote others like myself doing similar work.  We love you for even a dollar if that’s all you can give because it’s going to take a village to maintain the village.

My Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Captain Richard Henry Bellamy, Confederate States of America

7.  What are your expectations for The Cooking Gene?  How do you think people will react?  How do you think the White families you are trying to reach out to will react?  What do you want African Americans to get out of this?  What do you want others to get out of this?

I hope this turns into a major dialogue about how food speaks to our identities and can transform how we relate to each other.  I want people to have a massive conversation that is so big I can’t contain it and get in there and do community projects that help everybody out in these hard times.

I hope that the White families know I’m not looking for a check, I’m not looking for anything but any relevant information about our family history and an opportunity to cook with them and share details about our respective families.  I am actually pretty emotional about the idea that there are people out there–of all colors that I share blood with.  I know what its like to have a half-sister live maybe 30 minutes away but have her live and die without ever knowing her—and that hurts–but I want to be better family to my blood as they are but also I want to know as much as I can while I’m here on earth–I want my human family back–white, Black and Native American.

I hope we are successful in creating something that is bigger than the original seed.

The Cabin at Pamplin Historical Park–One of our proposed destinations…

8.  Where will the “Southern Discomfort Tour” be going?

From Maryland to Louisiana and back–taking two separate routes.  We will be visiting Baltimore, AnnapolisMD, Washington, D.C., Alexandria VA, Southern Maryland, Richmond VA,  Petersburg VA, Farmville VA, Appomattox VA, Lynchburg, VA, Winston-Salem NC, Charlotte NC, Lancaster SC, Columbia SC, Redcliffe State Park SC, Augusta GA, Athens GA, Atlanta GA, Anniston AL, Birmingham AL, Tuscaloosa AL, Huntsville AL, Nashville TN, Memphis TN, Oxford MS, Jackson MS, Vicksburg MS, Natchez MS, Donaldsonville LA, New Orleans LA, Baton Rouge LA, Lafayette LA, Biloxi MS, Mobile AL, Montgomery AL, Russell County AL, Columbus GA, Jacksonville FL, Savannah GA, Daufuskie Island SC, Charleston SC, Georgetown SC, Wilmington NC, Raleigh-Durham NC, Halifax NC, Creswell, NC, Hampton Roads (Surry County, Williamsburg, Jamestown and Norfolk VA, Dorchester County MD, Easton MD.

9.  What if you find your roots in Africa and Europe and can document them, what are you going to do then?

That’s going to end up being a different project! I’ll be on a plane to Nigeria or England or wherever…But not on your dime LOL….That is another project–when I was in the British Isles-I often wondered if I was walking around cousins from Africa and Europe–and I was…I just couldn’t identify them!

I already know some of my “white” roots.  Its something to see family trees that go back to the 1500’s and 1400’s.  It would be flooring to find one of the 16 slavery trees that goes back to Africa….We shall see…

10.  What kind of help do you want/need?  Are you reaching out to famous people about this project?

Absolutely we need a lot of help….so many of you out there can give your time and we need  a lot of help to launch this….genealogists, local historians in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia; we need folks who will open their farms to us–especially produce and cotton, tobacco, rice and sugarcane farms (I will work!), We need churches and synagogues and mosques and Yoruba temples to open their doors to us–we will document your “dinner on the grounds!”  We need to get a hold of all major Southern papers and their food sections, the various chapters of Slow Food, the Edible magazine series, etc.  We need help from the state Departments of Agriculture, Tourism, etc. We need help form local historical societies and genealogical societies and we need places that will allow us to do a presentation for  a discounted rate (250$) so that we can pay our rent back home.  We are able to do as many as fifteen of these presentations along our route so that we can make the bills….Restaurants we should go to? People we should meet? Familiy reunions that link slaveholding families with families that come from slavery? Museums that want us to cook in period clothing?   The list is incredibly long–so please contact me at to see if there’s a connection you can offer or facilitate.

We are reaching out to famous people but not quite yet–if you have connections please contact me privately at  We need ample media coverage and really we need all the help we can get.  It won’t be enough to fund it and get on the road if the people on the road don’t know we’re coming.  We want to be of benefit to every community we visit.

11.  I’m interested, how can I get involved—I don’t have a lot of money or time, but I’d like to be a part of this?  Or I have money and time–how best can I help you guys out?  

See the above 🙂

Get the word out–Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, please pleas please tell your personal and professional networks where you feel comfortable, about this project.  The more people the more resources–financial and human we can draw on–and the more people we can reach. We may extend the trip or do a second part is we get enough support or we find that more communities need us to do volunteer projects than we initially planned on.

see me:

Cooking Persimmons at Stratford Hall Plantation , C. Weierke 2009

12.  I’m curious, what are you getting out of this?  What are you going to give back?

We want to make sure that the community service part is set in stone.  We want to reach kids and families with our message and we want to do workshops that facilitate racial reconciliation and healing.  Furthermore we want to make sure that organic, local and sustainable food in Southern communities, particularly that produced by farmer’s of color is highlighted and supported. We want to be role models.

I’ve been in “the game,” for about a decade.  I’m a baby in all of this.  However I’ve had my share of professional cheers and jeers and I’m ready to move on and move up.  I need opportunities to do better and more consistent food writing.  It’s a blessing to do a trip like this–not just for my ancestors but for the sake of getting to truly know the Southern food world.  I don’t come from great opportunities. I’m proud to say I’ve done so much of my research on my own–since I was a little kid–but I need your help to be of help to others by being a stable representative of our history and to tell the story of the contribution of our people to one of the world’s great cuisines and one of the world’s most successful Nations.

Praying for the Ancestors, Sullivan's Island, the "Ellis Island" of Black America

Welcome to The Cooking Gene.   We love you for all that you’ve done so far to support this idea.  I cannot wait to see what my board of Directors–G-d Almighty and the Ancestors–have in store for me next….



2 comments on “The Cooking Gene Project: The Southern Discomfort Tour—Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Pingback: The Cooking Gene Blog Starts Monday | Afroculinaria

  2. Hi there, There’s no doubt that your site could possibly be having browser compatibility issues. Whenever I take a look at your web site in Safari, it looks fine however, when opening in IE, it’s got some overlapping issues. I just wanted to provide you with a quick heads up! Other than that, great blog!


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